When Eric Robbins was hired as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta last spring, he spoke of his desire to shake things up, do things differently, maybe even have an urban farm.
Federation isn’t in the farming business yet, but it does have its first farmer on staff.
Emily Blustein, who grew up in Madison, Wis., joined Federation in early March as a Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming & Environmental Education fellow.
“She’s going to be creating all kinds of new spaces where people can connect with nature, can connect with our heritage,” Robbins told the audience at a “Why Be Jewish?” program March 9 at the Selig Center.
JOFEE is a program of Jewish environmental group Hazon, best known in Atlanta as one of the beneficiaries of the Israel Ride bicycling fundraiser in which Jewish National Fund participates. Hazon is in the second year of a three-year JOFEE fellowship pilot program in which young adults get training to spread education about food, the outdoors and sustainability. Each fellowship lasts a year with an interested organization, which joins Hazon and community donors in financing the program.
Federation has two of the 18 fellows in the 2017-18 class. In addition to Blustein, Federation’s Birthright Israel engagement associate, Ryan Kaplan, is a JOFEE fellow, although his focus is on teaching sustainability and healthy living to young adults.
Blustein is teaching about food and getting hands-on with urban farming programs for all age groups.
“Urban farming is really intriguing to me. I really like that,” the 30-year-old said, explaining that the chance to bring farming to people where they live was part of the appeal of coming to Atlanta instead of being based at a retreat center. (As a side benefit, the vegan has discovered Cinnaholic’s “life-changing” cinnamon rolls.)
The point of Blustein’s fellowship, which runs until January, is to make connections linking Atlantans’ everyday lives, the environment they live in, the food they eat and a Jewish community that too many of them are ignoring.
“It’s out of the box. It’s Jewish engagement in a different way,” said Stephanie Wyatt, Federation’s vice president of engagement and leadership development. The hope is that Jews who express an interest in environmentalism and sustainability through such efforts as growing their own food and donating fresh produce to food banks will begin to see those initiatives through a Jewish lens.
It’s all there in the Torah, Wyatt said, from leaving the corners of fields for the poor to giving the land a rest every seven years.
It’s also all there in Blustein’s background. Although she didn’t grow up on a farm in Madison, she went to school with children from farm families and went to day care on a farm. She said she always had an interest in where food came from and learned as early as age 5 about protecting the soil: Her family couldn’t have a vegetable garden because the soil had high levels of lead.
She attended a two-year outdoor environmental education program at Prescott College in Arizona, but she realized she wanted to do more than be an outdoor tour guide.
She went to Israel and lived and worked on an educational farm in Modi’in that specialized in teaching permaculture, which is an effort to achieve sustainable agriculture by making connections among all the elements on a farm, including the people.
“It’s a really beautiful way” to farm, she said.
When she returned to the United States, she enlisted in an AmeriCorps farm-to-education program in Madison under the Agriculture Department. Then she heard about Hazon’s JOFEE fellowship.
“ ‘Wow, that really sounds like they’re kind of describing everything that I like, and it’s all in one place.’ So I was really excited to apply,” Blustein said.
Applying the lessons of permaculture, she hopes to build JOFEE connections across the community during her limited time here and make Jewish Atlantans hungry for more.
She’ll spend two months this summer based at Camp Ramah Darom, but Federation intends for her to be a resource for other Jewish camps and, if the logistics work, to rotate among them.
Back in Atlanta, she’ll be available to work with schools, synagogues and other organizations. She’ll help Jewish Family & Career Services with its giving garden on its renovated Dunwoody campus and participate in programs with the Marcus Jewish Community Center. She’ll spark collaborations with the likes of Souper Jenny Levison and Levison’s new anti-hunger nonprofit.
Maybe she’ll even help Federation start its own garden, if not its own urban farm.