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Rabbi keeps life sustainable on Deerfield farm

Sees Jewish farming movement in Pioneer Valley as addressing ‘ecological and societal issues’

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield.

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • When he's not the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Rabbi Benjamin Weiner lives with his wife, Elise Barber and son, Efraim, on a sustainable farm in Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO



For the Gazette
Thursday, May 19, 2016

DEERFIELD — Every day at 5 a.m., Rabbi Benjamin Weiner feeds his 14 chickens, lets his seven goats out to pasture, and walks the fence line around his gardens before heading in to the synagogue.

When he is not working as the spiritual leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Weiner lives on a three-acre sustainable farm in Deerfield with his wife, Elise Barber, and son, Efraim. They have lived there since 2011.

“It began as a sense of concern for ecological and societal issues, and feeling that my life wasn’t sustainable” Weiner says. “I’m a good farmer, who knew?” 

He is sitting outside in shifting sunlight, holding Prax, a squirming young goat. Cara Silverberg, Youth & Teens Programs Coordinator at JCA, is sitting next to him, holding another kid.

The farm, just off Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield, is a tangle of fences interspersed by red barns and wandering goats. Throughout the year, beets, garlic, parsley, carrots, lettuce, red onion, dill and celery are grown on the farm. He tries to keep the farm sustainable by using hand tools and no-till, a farming technique that does not disturb the soil.

He also makes honey and elderberry syrup from two beehives. None of the produce or honey is sold for profit.

Weiner grew up in Newton, before going to college at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He received a master’s degree in philosophy in Anglo-Irish literature from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

He is part of a growing Jewish farming movement in the Pioneer Valley, such as Abundance Farm, a Jewish justice farm and agricultural learning center in Northampton.

“There’s the dual connection of earth connection in general, and agricultural connection specifically,” Silverberg said. “There’s a Jewish environmental movement that has been around for a couple of decades.”

She refers to movements such as Hazon, which means “vision” when translated from Hebrew. According to its website, Hazon is an organization that strengthens American Jewish life “by engagement with food, the outdoors, and the environment.”

The farming movement in the Valley is relatively new, Weiner said.

Silverberg has been involved with Teva, a Jewish program which educates children by immersion in nature, for about 11 years. Her partner, Devin Hickman, is also a farmer who works at Atlas Farm.

“(Farming) informs my work,” said Weiner. His son has climbed up on his chair to say hi to Prax. “This is my life,” he said, adding that farming in itself is not a signature Jewish lifestyle. 

He said that many Jewish farmers, while not involved in community farming organizations, share common values. “I think you could go anywhere and find Jews who are farming, but aren’t connected to anything,” he said.

To Weiner, and many people like him, faith and farming are intertwined: “I don’t know if everyone sees it that way, but it’s available for those who want to practice in that way,” Weiner said.

Many Jewish holidays and traditions are tied to agriculture, such as Pesach, which is associated with harvesting barley during the spring, and Sukkot, which celebrates the fall harvest.

Weiner went on to say that despite a deep connection to agriculture, Jewish communities are primarily still in cities. However, because of issues such as climate change, food access shortages and food justice, younger generations are becoming more interested in farming.

“Young Jews are interested in agriculture,” he said. “These are generational experiences. It’s not uniquely Jewish.”