Finding Eden in Detroit
“Rabbi, have you seen the watermelon?!”
I was bending over the string beans, but her tone was urgent. Her face was radiant and her big brown eyes made it clear that there wasn’t a moment to lose. She wrapped her little fingers around mine and gave me a tug. A few yards away she pointed excitedly at the green sphere. It was not quite large enough to be harvested, but large enough to be clearly identifiable as a watermelon. Her urgency was understandable—there was nothing to do with the watermelon right now, but stand in awe.
A watermelon is amazing. But what she knew was even more miraculous. That watermelon was growing on a vine that grew out of the ground from a tiny seed that she and the other kids in her neighborhood had enthusiastically, but somewhat skeptically, dropped into the dirt in an empty lot by an abandoned house.
A time to plant, a time to reap
Sometimes I feel closest to God on the Northeast side of Detroit. Most Thursday evenings I leave my house in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood, head east on I-94, get off at Gratiot, drive Northeast, and turn right at the Payless Shoe Source. A few blocks down, I step out of the car and plant my feet in the garden.
For those of you who haven’t been there, it is my privilege to introduce you to Eden Gardens. The garden is a joint project between Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) and Eden Gardens Block Club. The project was germinated by Blair Nosan, a past IADS Board member and food activist, and Chava Knox, a member of IADS, resident of the Eden Gardens neighborhood, and president and founder of its block club. The garden’s core purpose is to strengthen relationships within and between the communities, and be source of community empowerment.
Deep relationships, illuminated by shared skills, and sustained by shared sweat, produce abundant rewards. Started in part as a grassroots response to frustration about a lack of affordable, easily accessible healthy food, this summer the garden has provided hundreds of pounds of fresh produce to its volunteers and neighborhood residents, including tomatoes, broccoli, string beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, squash, jalapeños, kale, lettuces, herbs and yes, watermelon.
A source of food, a source of life
But the garden is not just a nutritional miracle, it is a spiritual one. Working in the garden is deeply rooted in who I am as a Jew, and in my search for God.
We often forget that our role as stewards of Creation is both a responsibility and a source of awe. The kids in the gardens think that it is amazing that if you pull on beet greens, a dark red, edible vegetable comes out of the ground. They think it is amazing that if you plant a very, very tiny seed, it can become a deep orange carrot. And they are right. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about radical amazement as the foundation for religious life. And he was not just referring to elaborate sanctuaries or the Grand Canyon. For Heschel, the search for God can begin with tiny hands unearthing beets for the first time.
Martin Buber wrote about the divinity that dwells between people in moments of deep connection. While certainly not every conversation in the garden constitutes an I-Thou moment, there are times when, digging deep in the dirt, I have spoken with young adults from the synagogue about their Jewish identity. Reaping the bountiful harvest of string beans, I have spoken with Chava about her pride in her family, and hopes for the future. Standing in the sun, Empress Knox (Chava’s granddaughter) and I talked about her Bat Mitzvah in August, and her younger brother, Antwoine, looked at me intently when he asked, “Can strawberries grow out of the ground, too?”
Back to the garden, a blessing
And Eden Gardens reminds me that I want these kids to eat healthy foods, not just because I know it’s good for them, but because it is fundamentally unjust for them to be cut off from that which sustains life. For Jews, the need to ensure that people are well fed is evident in our kishkes, in many of our kitchens and in our texts. We are a people who, freed from slavery, began and continue to express our gratitude with the communal and individual commitment to let all who are hungry come and eat. Numerous studies about hunger in Detroit have reported that ample, accessible, nutritious food would dramatically improve the health and academic achievement of Detroit’s children and citizens. We don’t need those studies. Jews have known that for thousands of years.
My teacher, Professor Larry Hoffman, who is both a formidable scholar of liturgy and a wonderful rabbi, has commented that in a culture of fear, signs which read “See Something? Say Something” are understood to mean that one should be aware of potential danger. However, he argues, it is also true of how Jews express gratitude. One of my favorite Jewish traditions is to reap every opportunity to say something upon seeing something: to strive to say 100 blessings each day. I have never completed it, but it nourishes me.
In addition to the blessings we may recite in our liturgy, there are blessings for food, for seeing beauty and for the wonders of the natural world. Some of the kids who work in Eden Gardens are familiar with the blessing over bread. But the human-divine partnership that goes into making bread is something most of them have never seen. Bread comes from the supermarket shelf or suddenly emerges from beneath the challah cover. So planting and harvesting vegetables creates an unprecedented connection to the source of our food. Before tasting a carrot, I can see where it came from…borei pri ha’adamah…Blessed are you, Eternal One…Creator of the fruit of the earth.
We connect to God through words, and we connect to God through our actions. We pray in many ways, in many places. I pray in the synagogue, in my home, under a chuppah and with grieving families. But sometimes I pray with my hands in the dirt, showing a child where to place the seed, and hoping that it will grow.