Building a Garden Instead of a Wall
Last fall while in New York, my wife Michelle (WHP alum, Dallas 13) and I had lunch with Angie Atkins (Director, Wexner Heritage Alumni). She asked me what I was up to and I told her I had an idea for a multi-faith garden project and would let her know if anything came of it…
First, my own synagogue in Plano, Texas, Congregation Anshai Torah, agreed to participate. Lesson 1: start with those you know. Next, I applied for several local and national grants, and was fortunate to receive a brand new grant from the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation, at which point my project became an official “go.”
I found two wonderful partners: the Islamic Association of Collin County, a nearby mosque/community center and Preston Meadow Lutheran Church. Lesson 2: bolster your chances by triple covering, then do more.
Did I mention interfaith partnerships are not an everyday occurrence in today’s political climate? Lesson 3: get buy in and build a real team.
Our project team included the Director of Youth Ministry from the church, the Director of Outreach and Interfaith from the mosque and several religious school teachers and congregant volunteers from all three communities. As an unexpected gift, a member of another local church with extensive school garden experience joined us as our technical expert. Together, our team spent months designing, sourcing and preparing garden beds and soil, creating garden-based curricula and branding and marketing the event. Lesson 4: strive for excellence and you will attract high achieving, busy people.
Our Gardens of Friendship event blossomed on Sunday, April 3, when volunteers from each congregation went to the three sites, where, working as interfaith teams, they constructed identical and permanent raised-bed, educational school gardens for the students. During the event, guest volunteers toured the institutions where they were working, engaged in informal Q/A sessions and broke bread together. When religious school classes and church services let out, the kids, teachers, parents and even more congregants at all three locations joined in to help complete the gardens.
Each religious school’s students planted their garden in the next few days, with a specific portion of each garden dedicated to a common crop (green beans this semester) and at harvest time this fall, the 3 schools will collect the beans, combine the harvests and donate them to a local food bank.
The impact and success of the school garden construction was easy to predict — we built the gardens and the students and congregations now have them to use, learn from and enjoy for years to come.
The impact and success of the interfaith component was harder to predict, but the seeds are rooting and growing quickly. Volunteer participation and enthusiasm exceeded my wildest expectations and everyone raved about their experiences that day. And something I didn’t anticipate…even before the event took place, the relationships forged in our interfaith team started bearing fruit. Our team members made a shidduch which resulted in a teacher from the Muslim school coming to our Hebrew High School’s Comparative Religions class to teach our kids about Islam. We connected the mosque’s Director of Outreach and Interfaith with a JCRC community interfaith team. And the three congregations are still buzzing about future interfaith opportunities. In fact, my wife (immediate past president of our Conservative shul), several church members and I are invited to attend an annual Ramadan dinner at the mosque where we will break the fast with our Muslim friends.
Have I mentioned this doesn’t happen much in today’s world? Lesson 5 (learned from the “Wexner” culture, even as a spouse): YOU can DO it.
We started a Gardens of Friendship Facebook page, not only for our interfaith students to share event-day photos and updated images as their gardens grow, but to inspire people outside our project and community to pursue their own interfaith initiatives. Lesson 6: (in honor of Lag B’Omer): Shimon bar Yochai taught that “if you are holding a sapling in your hand, and someone says that the Messiah has drawn near, first plant the sapling, and then go and greet the Messiah.” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b).