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Freshly grown Judaism: Made in Geneva, Ill.

The link between modern Jews and the ancient Jewish tradition today is called “Jewish Environmentalism.”

Pushing the envelope image
Rabbi Fred and Trisha, founders of Pushing the Envelope farm, share a moment with their goats, Miso and Bagel and one of their free-range chickens, Buttercup. 

Pushing the Envelope Farm, an organic community farm in Geneva, Ill., contains all the features of a typical farm: chickens, crops, goats, and dedicated farm staff. But, at this particular farm, there's one other unique component: it's rooted in Jewish values. 

Rabbi Fred and Trisha Margulies began their journey towards founding Pushing the Envelope Farm in 2007, by attending the Hazon Food Conference. The conference inspired them to take the land next to their family business, Continental Envelope, and transform it into an organic farm.

Today, the farm makes a palpable impact, teaching people about the intersection between farming and Jewish ideals.  People from around the world flock to the farm: residents of the U.S., international visitors, as well as refugees who are sometimes victims of terror. All can purchase plots and share their farming techniques.

The decision to emphasize Jewish tradition was a family affair. The Margulies' participation in Jewish life and their kids' influence swayed them to highlight Judaism in their mission. Through their interactive methods, they hope to inspire Jewish people of all ages to connect to Judaism through agriculture. 

The farm was one of the recipients of this year's JUF Breakthrough Fund Grants, which it plans to use to extend its reach to new audiences. The grant will be used to create two Jewish Food Justice Cohorts and a volunteer steering committee to be involved in programs that emphasize Jewish agricultural tradition. The programs will connect Jews from the western suburbs to the larger Jewish community. 

The link between modern Jews and the ancient Jewish tradition today is called "Jewish Environmentalism." The term implies that because Judaism is largely an agriculturally based religion, there are many mitzvot (commandments) and customs in the Torah that can be adopted on a modern farm.

"If you look at the three pilgrimage festivals, (Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot) they were all agriculturally related…part of what we are trying to do is say Judaism has something to say…there is a lot to be learned by using land as a vehicle for teaching," Rabbi Fred clarified.

Rabbi Fred makes these principles relevant by demonstrating proper treatment of animals with his own animals and about letting his land rest on the shmita year-the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the land of Israel. 

The holiest days on the Jewish calendar are also celebrated in a distinctive way. Before Rosh Hashanah, the farm hosts beekeepers to gather honey and they have a fresh harvest at their Sukkot table. Many Jewish people are drawn to the farm for a holiday season filled with fresh holiday foods. 

Through these non-traditional methods of expressing Judaism, the farm hopes to attract Jews who may not identify with more traditional means of Jewish engagement. They may visit the farm to discover a stronger tie to their Jewish identity.  

"There is this whole sphere of Jewish life and I see the farm as one aspect, and one point of entry that might lead you to a lot of other points of connection." Rabbi Fred said. 

One "point of entry" may be through tikkun olam , or repairing the world, especially for young people. Day schools and camps visit the farm regularly, and participate in this effort by growing food for the Tzedakah Donation Garden. The fruits and vegetables from the garden are donated to underserved populations and to food banks such as the Northern Illinois Food Bank and the ARK of Chicago. 

Through these programs, the community learns the Jewish value of tzedakah , or charity, in a concrete way. All are encouraged to partake in these programs, and there are accommodations so that those with physical restrictions can also learn a "hands-on" way to make a difference.

"We want to be part of participating and setting an example. We certainly want to make sure that within our Jewish institutions that those needs are met and that other needs are met as well," explained Trisha, a past JUF board member.. 

The Margulies pair hopes to continue their philanthropic and agricultural work to inspire the community, one harvest season at a time.  

For more information,  about Pushing the Envelope Farm, visit www.pushingtheenvelopefarm.org .



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