Carly Sugar

by Vivian Henoch

Who goes hungry in Jewish Detroit?

You may be surprised to learn:

Every month, 1,300 families (representing 3,000 individuals) in the Jewish community come to Yad Ezra – Michigan’s only kosher food pantry – for groceries, household essentials and other assistance.

Since opening its doors nearly 26 years ago on 11 Mile Road in Berkley, Yad Ezra has filled an essential role as a community safety net – a helping hand in putting  food on the tables of those in need.

Today that role continues to grow and develop in a spectacular expansion of Yad Ezra’s warehouse facility. The new garden and on-site greenhouse  signal a dramatic transformation of the agency: merging the best of social services and hunger relief with common ground where all who are hungry to learn are welcome to meet, connect and participate.

Giving Gardens, a groundbreaking vision, now coming to fruition

If you have yet to see the new face of Yad Ezra, with the addition of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Giving Gardens featuring the Geri Lester Greenhouse, by all means go!

In a recent visit with Giving Gardens Director, Carly Sugar, we find her preparing a block of beeswax for a late-afternoon workshop on gardening to support honey bees with Rabbi Yisrael Pinson and Chabad of Detroit. “Tonight we’re making a medicinal salve good for hands and lips,” she tells us. “And we’re using lavender and calendula grown right here in the garden.”

Carly Sugar
“Our planting follows the Jewish calendar.”

Stepping into the greenhouse with Carly, we learn that Giving Gardens’ monthly workshops are open to the public and cover a variety of topics ranging from home gardening to food preservation, from cooking and health to environment protection and food justice.

“All our classes are taught through a Jewish lens,” Carly explains. “Our planting follows the Jewish calendar, and often we refer to Jewish texts, rituals and holidays as guides to the way we think about these topics and the Jewish connection to agriculture.”

It’s early November: In the greenhouse, the built-in garden beds, constructed by Great Lakes Landscape and Design , and beautifully crafted garden bins on wheels from independent carpenter, Andrew Slackta, now look pristine. The beds have been filled with a soil mix from Detroit Farm and Garden and seedlings grown by Detroit farmer, Willie Spivey. The towering tomato and pepper plants of late summer have all been pulled, leaving a few hardy marigolds for a last splash of color in winter beds, now seeded with lettuce, kale, swiss chard, onions, beets and greens

“Initially we considered growing hydroponically in here,” Carly noted. “Then we decided on growing in soil, because one of the visions we have for this space is to demonstrate growing food that people can replicate easily at home.”

A community learning garden from start to finish

According to Carly, one of the most important aspects of Giving Gardens work is its collaborative spirit. “On any given day in the greenhouse, we can find clients, volunteers and funders all working together toward a common purpose.”

Trend setting is never easy. It’s rare to find a food pantry with the resources Jewish Detroit has invested in building Giving Gardens’ infrastructure and educational programming. In fact, Yad Ezra may be the first and only kosher food pantry in the country with an onsite greenhouse.

A community of visionary leaders and strong partnerships 

“We owe a lot to those individuals in Detroit who have laid the groundwork for our program,” says Carly, “Detroit’s urban farmers and agricultural organizations have been doing this work for decades, modeling good practices and creating an environment that allows projects like ours to flourish.”

Carly gives credit first to the visionary leadership of Yad Ezra Executive Director, Lea Luger, along with ardent supporters Nancy Kleinfeldt and Matt and Nicole Lester in memory of Geri Lester (z”l). Shari Stein and Ralph Nunez, both on the faculty of Lawrence Technological University, were originally involved in the  early efforts to green the facility. They teamed with Harold Remlinger and formed the architectural firm, Design Team+  and a nonprofit called Team 4 Community, who designed the Giving Gardens concept and  greenhouse.

As Lea observes,“The Giving Gardens project enables all of us, regardless of whether we are clients, volunteers, donors or staff members, to look together at the issue of hunger and food production through a holistic lens. Food does not just appear on a supermarket or warehouse shelf; there is a huge, complex and wonderful system that takes place beforehand. Our Giving Gardens provides a learning lab for those interested in learning all about the food cycle.”

Sharing  goals, developing programs

Hazon Detroit – a non-profit catalyst in the food movement gaining momentum in Jewish Detroit – is now partnering with Giving Gardens on several initiatives.  They include an eight-week PeerCorps Teen Leadership program called Feed the Need and a four-part FedEd series, sponsored by the Jewish Federation for adult learners and Jewish educators exploring the origin and meaning of earth-based Jewish holidays and traditions. Commenting on the collaboration, Hazon Detroit Director Sue Salinger, shared, “We love programming at Giving Gardens as it gives participants the opportunity to tour the greenhouse and gain an understanding of the entire food system – and the places we Jews occupy inside the natural cycle of growing, harvesting and eating. We especially love bringing educators into the space so that they in turn can bring their religious school classes into what is truly a revolutionary and unique Jewish experience.”

Enumerating the contribution of other collaborators on the Giving Gardens project, Carly added that Everyone’s Garden –  The Neighborhood Garden Coalition of Berkley hosts the garden’s bees, processes its compost, donates produce to the food pantry and collaborates on programming; Trevor Johnson,Henry Ford Hospital Greenhouse Manager consults on greenhouse growing on a regular basis; and Repair the World Fellow, Aryeh Perlman, works with Giving Gardens on a weekly basis to expand the project’s capacity to offer Jewish environmental and justice education.

Upcoming workshops and volunteer opportuntities at Giving Gardens

Knife Skills and Latke Tasting with Chef Phil Jones, Monday December 19, 2016, 6 to 8 pm at Yad Ezra. Just in time for Hanukkah, brush up on your knife skills and taste a few variations of the classic potato latke.

Intro to Permaculture and Creating Holy Spaces with Gregory Crawford, Monday  January 9, 2017, 6 to 8 pm. Answering questions of how we create holy spaces in modern times, Greg will help us focus on our surrounding landscape in this interactive class on permaculture.

Volunteers Welcome Sundays 10 am to 12 pm. Inviting  volunteers of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities. (Children under 16 should be accompanied by an adult.  Our spaces are wheelchair-accessible.) Please RSVP by emailing Carly Sugar,