This summer, I rode my bicycle from Seattle, Wash., to Washington, D.C. The nine-week, 3,402-mile journey was coordinated by Hazon, a Jewish environmental advocacy organization and the largest faith-based environmental organization in North America. During the school year, I am deeply involved with Maryland Hillel’s social justice community as a leader and fellow and wanted to continue to develop over the summer in the context of Hazon. As we pedaled across the country, our group was exposed, in both the most subtle and jarring ways, to the nuanced nature of organic and local farming and the direct impact it has on our modern American lives.
Throughout the summer, we learned about soil erosion, climate change, genetically modified foods and many other issues that are increasingly relevant to our generation. Each day of exposure to farmland seemed to elicit a new revelation and a new set of questions. Where does our food truly come from? Are the field workers being protected from harmful chemicals? Are they being paid fair wages? Is the soil benefiting from the farming, and if so, can it sustain future harvests?
Our lessons were learned through the inspiring people we encountered along the way. In Montevideo, Montana (mile mark 1,729), we met with a farmer named Mike who spoke to us about his transition from life on the East Coast into organic farming and running a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. In Roscoe, South Dakota (mile mark 1,451) we stopped in a bakery owned by Dennis, who spoke to us about the impact of government subsidies on farmers and the inequality that is often inherent in the system.
As the summer progressed, the program seemed like less of a bike ride and more of a personal journey through the complex structure of America’s food system, which was presented through a uniquely relevant Jewish lens. Participants took turns preparing Divrei Torah that often included environmental themes. We prepared and ate our meals as a community, taking advantage of local and organic food sources. On Shabbat, we rested and rejuvenated ourselves from our six days of intense physical work.
While my experiences this summer raised countless questions along the way, I left the trip with an understanding of the profound effect that my individual actions have on the planet. While a decision as seemingly mundane as choosing between org-anic and non-organic produce at the supermarket would usually be quick and relatively thoughtless, this experience has made such decisions inc-reasingly thought-provoking, as I consider more greatly the implications of my food choices and whether or not my lifestyle is actively supporting the massive changes occurring on planet Earth.
As I continue to work alongside the Kolker Saxon Hallock Tzedek Fellowship cohort at Maryland Hillel, I now feel ready to begin this semester with a deepened appreciation of tying together modern social values with the timeless principles of Jewish life. Later this term, I will be channeling this newfound passion from the summer to a volunteer experience in which I will be helping to transform a greenhouse at High Point, a local high school, into a working vegetable garden. I am also excited to be leading classes on food education, healthy living and gardening. This project was started last year, and I am confident that through a heightened awareness of sustainability, we can bring the exuberance and spirit of Maryland Hillel to High Point High School.
Dena Lehmann is a senior at the University of Maryland, studying biochemistry. In her time at Maryland she has been an alternative break fellow, leading a trip to Ghana. She is now a Tzedek Fellow, working to engage her peers in social justice programming.