“I have a great appreciation for what I consider an immutable fact: people who can feed themselves have a greater sense of independence,” stated Ben Kaufman.
Ben is the master gardener of the community garden of the Jewish Family Service Barbash Family Vital Support Center, located on the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion campus. The garden helps provide hundreds of people in our community access to fresh vegetables through the Jewish Family Service Heldman Family Food Pantry.
A version of the garden has been in existence since 2011 when HUC-JIR’s former dean, Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, helped support a student-run garden. Kaufman said Cohen contacted him about the project, and the two of them walked around campus, looking for empty space with lots of sun. “The soil was so bad where the garden is now that a pointed shovel couldn’t penetrate it,” remembered Kaufman, but that didn’t deter them from the project.
Kaufman brought in many of his own supplies that first year to help get the garden—quite literally—off the ground, helping construct raised beds. “We had some produce from that initial garden; it wasn’t a failure, but we certainly still had a lot to learn.”
After the modest success of the student-led model, the garden was expanded rapidly with the support of Jewish Family Service and a new committee made up of JFS and HUC-JIR staff and students.
As the program began to grow, and as the partnership with JFS began to evolve, Kaufman worked closely with staff at HUC-JIR and JFS to ensure everyone’s needs were being met. “I would call myself the coordinator. I worked with Jonathan Magrisso at JFS to decide what we needed to plant. It’s based totally on what the people will eat.”
During the first year of the partnership, Kaufman said they planted everything, just to see what people would like. “I can tell you they won’t eat mustard greens. And neither do the deer,” he laughed.
“This year we're growing tomatoes, greens, kale, collards, chard, and eggplant,” said Magrisso, who is the food pantry manager. “Those really give us more bang for our buck. Cucumbers or squash don't produce that fast or in enough quantity. We're serving over 120 familes through the pantry; we have to grow something with volume.”
In addition to working with Magrisso to decide what vegetables to plant, Kaufman also works closely with the HUC-JIR staff, who he said are the real heroes of the garden. “I raise many of the plants from seedlings, then help prepare the ground in the fall and spring, but then I turn it over to the folks at HUC. Someone once called me a guru, and as I like to say, ‘gurus don’t water or weed.’”
“It’s really a labor of love,” said Phyllis Volan, HUC-JIR’s Director of Development, Central Region. “Ben’s the boss, and I’m just the farmer. I’m in there, along with our other volunteers, watering and weeding and making sure everything is growing as it should be.” Volan went on to say it is hard work, but the benefits the community receives are well worth her time and effort. “It’s a win-win for everyone. Our students and volunteers get to see the community impact, and JFS gets to provide its clients with fresh vegetables. It is a great partnership, and every year we get better at it.”
“Everything is fresh,” said Kaufman. “If it’s picked on Tuesday, it’s at the pantry on Wednesday. And there are no herbicides, pesticides, or anything else on these plants. Anything can be picked and eaten right there on the spot.”
The benefit goes beyond the Jewish community, as well. Crops are picked every two weeks for the pantry, and on the off weeks, to make sure nothing goes to waste, excess crops are given to the CAIN Food Pantry in Northside.
“When you consider the operating cost of the garden is as little as $500 to $1,000 a year, it’s an incredible amount of produce we’re able to provide to the community,” Magrisso said.
Kaufman said there was a brief moment when the future of the garden was in question. “Everybody involved, including yours truly, said we would not have replanted the garden because of the damage the deer were doing. They would come in, have a midnight nosh, then lie down and go to sleep! Not only were they eating the produce, but they were also destroying the plants.” Kaufman said HUC-JIR was quick to make the arrangements for a fence.
“I do it because it helps feed people who other-wise cannot feed themselves in the same way.”
—Ben Kaufman, Master Gardener
“The fence installed in 2018 keeps the deer away. Without the fence, there would be no more garden,” said Sally Korkin, Public Relations and Community Engagement Manager at HUC-JIR. “Our current dean, Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, really supports the garden. He knows how important it is to the community being served.”
When asked what keeps bringing them back to this project year after year, the answers were similar. “It’s a mitzvah,” said Korkin. “JFS is doing it as a mitzvah for their clients, but we at HUC-JIR are doing it as a mitzvah for the community.”
“I do it because it helps feed people who otherwise cannot feed themselves in the same way,” said Kaufman, who has been gardening his entire life. His first garden was a Victory Garden while his father was away in World War II. “The only thing I remember about it is that I didn't kill the radishes, which have,” he said with a smirk, “a somewhat limited appeal.”
From the seeds planted in that Victory Garden grew what would become a lifetime passion for Kaufman, who became a Master Gardener in 2002. “My garden at home is about twice as large as the HUC-JIR garden, at about 900 square feet. It's been a lifesaver during COVID-19. I’ve found that I get so bored, I look forward to thinning carrots and beets. I have to say my garden has never been neater, more weed-free, or better spaced. I hope it won’t happen again,” he said with a laugh.
As the season draws to an end, Kaufman, along with the staff and volunteers, are preparing for winter and spring. “At the end of the season, I come back and help clean the place up. This year I’ll probably add more manure to the beds because it’s needed every couple of years.”
Kaufman said as long as he’s physically able to continue to do the work, he will, because he considers it important to the community. “Look, I don’t like talking about myself,” he said, turning very serious. “I like to talk about the results my actions have on others. So what do I get out of all of this? The satisfaction of knowing that people who need better food are getting it.”