November 17, 2018

Rooted in the land, creating contemporary community

Traditionally, the sukkah is a symbol of shelter, a shade from the elements, that simultaneously conveys both safety and impermanence. By building and sitting in a sukkah every year during the harvest holiday of Sukkot, Jews everywhere acknowledge this duality — creating the space for community, even if (or maybe especially because) it, and all things, are temporary.

In 2013, when I arrived on the Encinitas campus of the Leichtag Foundation for its first Sukkot festival — now an annual event that this year will be held Oct. 4 — it immediately felt like a true community pilgrimage. As people arrived, they made their way onto an open field on the foundation’s property that was punctuated by a series of shaded huts and booths — temporary structures defining the space of this limited-time-only community. 

As the sun beat down in an increasingly assertive manner, guests filled their Leichtag water bottles with water infused with fruit and mint, reapplied sunblock, and sampled gourmet and organic foods prepared by locals and by visiting chefs from L.A., Israel and beyond. On the perimeter, the guests that day stepped inside three unique sukkot, the products of a design competition, each space focused on a different theme: earth, light and water. Children played, their voices mixing with those of the shmoozing adults from the greater San Diego area, along with an unexpectedly substantial contingent from Los Angeles, Encinitas’ neighbor to the north by about two hours.

This ranch atop a hill with views of both ocean and mountains — and with a local history of poinsettia farming — may seem an unconventional space for a foundation. But it is more than just a farm, a ranch and some offices; the Leichtag Foundation also serves as a laboratory for nurturing Jewish innovation and teaching sustainability — in both the organizational and the agricultural sense. 

Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Max “Lee” Leichtag and his wife, Andre “Toni” Leichtag, the San Diego-based longtime philanthropists who made all of this possible, would have appreciated this out-of-the-box thinking about solving large-scale problems, according to Charlene Seidle, executive vice president of the foundation.

“Toni and Lee Leichtag never saw the resources they accumulated as really theirs,” Seidle said, “rather [that] these resources belonged to the community and for the benefit of the most vulnerable and those in need. Toni and Lee loved living in North County San Diego. They loved being involved with important community institutions and giving of their time and money. They especially appreciated being Jewish in a multifaith, multicultural society. Lee loved to mentor young entrepreneurs and leaders.” 

Seidle added that the foundation today describes itself as a “talent agency” that is “providing capacity and resources to the best and brightest social entrepreneurs and leaders,” an approach that reflects the founders’ commitment to igniting and inspiring vibrant Jewish life, advancing self-sufficiency, and stimulating social entrepreneurship in coastal North San Diego County and in Jerusalem. 

This year, the Leichtag Foundation Sukkot program has been renamed the Sukkot Harvest Festival and represents a translation of the autumnal holiday’s themes into a creative day of community celebration. The interactive day — a result of collaborative efforts between Leichtag and four other organizations — is programmed with activities for all ages, food, arts, a creative original performance from the Los Angeles-based theater company Theatre Dybbuk and a sukkah of grand scale. 

Why Sukkot? From the time they purchased the property at the end of 2012, the Leichtag leadership “knew Sukkot would be ‘our’ holiday,” Seidle said. “Besides being an agricultural festival completely aligned with our zoning and permitted uses, the themes of Sukkot resonate with the work of the foundation past and present: values of hospitality, inclusivity, justice, environmental appreciation and stewardship. All these are brought beautifully to light by Sukkot.” 

The festival also attracts a diverse mix of people, including Jews of all stripes and non-Jews, ranging in age from the young to the elderly, Seidle added.

Previous festivals featured a sukkah-design competition; this year, said Leichtag Communications and creative manager Joshua Sherman, the vision was to create one sukkah that is “a space for gathering and communing.” 

“Last year, we loved getting to see the artists and designers look at shmita” the biblical injunction to let the land rest on the seventh year — “and have a conversation with the ideas, express them in architectural ways,” Sherman said. “We learned about the interactivity between the sukkot and the people, and really learned about space; but if you put three sukkot out on a field, it’s big, people are scattered, not sharing a space together.”  

This year’s sukkah was designed by a student team from At the 2014 Sukkot festival, many activities involve children at play. Photo courtesy of the Leichtag Foundation

Leichtag has built opportunities for all its funded projects to interrelate, and it has created collaborations with community organizations all working toward the goal of strengthening the Jewish community in San Diego’s North County — a mostly suburban sprawl south of Camp Pendleton and north of La Jolla. The Sukkot Harvest Festival is the product of a series of collaborations, with project leaders really talking to each other, and working out how to make sure everyone’s visions are fulfilled. 

“Everyone thinks an architect is a stand-alone person,” Crawford said. However, making architecture requires “a huge team effort.”

“That’s what makes this year special,” he said. “There were more opportunities for collaboration between the other design fields and the artists and to meet with members of the foundation and work with them as part of the team. We met with Aaron [Henne] and the [sukkah’s] design changed; he’s going to incorporate aspects of the space into his performance. It’s much richer than when we did it alone; it’s a true team effort.”

“Beyond the signature Sukkot event, [our events are] increasingly more collaborative every year, and [it] is becoming a space for organizations to bring their offerings,” Sherman said.

Perhaps unintentionally, Sherman is invoking Sukkot’s traditional place as one of Judaism’s Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrimage Festivals for which Jews — wherever they lived — would make their way on foot — regel to Jerusalem  to bring first fruits offerings in the Temple. While most SoCal Jews won’t be in Jerusalem for the holiday — and certainly won’t be traveling on foot — there is nevertheless a pilgrimage element to the Harvest Festival. The the event always draws people from Los Angeles and this year many more are expected to join, even with Shemini Atzeret due to begin at sundown that evening. 

The North County Hub: growing innovative organizations

Back in 2011, the Leichtag Foundation had given grants to a number of local anchor institutions for Jewish life, including Jewish Family Service of San Diego County and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center of San Diego, which received grants for the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture for arts programming, and to Shalom Baby/PJ Library, a program welcoming new babies and their families to the Jewish community. Also represented was Hillel, which served several North County campuses.

The foundation brought those organizations and others doing outreach to the unengaged together in their offices, forming the North County Jewish Hub, said Jenny Camhi, who was then a social worker and Hub member and is now its director. “There were no specific directions or agenda,” she said. “We would just sit in a room together and see what happens.” 

By spring 2013, following Leichtag’s purchase of the farm in Encinitas, this collection of different, mostly social entrepreneurial organizations — which originally gathered in Leichtag’s corporate offices — found a vibrant and more permanent space on the ranch’s campus, sharing space and energy and developing what Sherman calls “ninja collaboration skills.” In the co-working space, Hub members collaborate on social, cultural and agricultural programs in North County and throughout San Diego. Members also are offered professional development opportunities to foster innovation and leadership and to encourage collaboration. 

The Hub’s core organizations each center on one of four areas: Jewish life, breaking the cycle of poverty, agriculture and environment, or arts and culture. Several core Hub members are also grantees of the foundation or members of the Encinitas Environmental Education (E3) Cluster —– a group of local nonprofit organizations that work together, including the San Diego Botanic Garden, the Encinitas Unified School District Farm Lab, the San Dieguito Heritage Museum, the YMCA and the Seacrest Village Retirement Communities. Camhi said that, together, the organizations think “about how we leverage each other, how we can make a stronger impact by working together.” 

The Hub currently includes about 45 people working for 12 core organizations that are given dedicated office space, plus six “hot desk” organizations that are granted more limited access to the space. All Hub members “pay forward” the value of their membership by physically improving the workspace, volunteering on the farm or contributing their strengths, skills and experience to other members. “It’s about what skills you bring to the space and what you need in return,” Camhi said.

To promote collaborations, the Hub offers informal and formal structured gatherings — from smaller Friday breakfasts to larger events like the Collaboratory (a gathering for Jewish innovators and creatives) and skill-based workshops on subjects such as public speaking, time management, collaboration skills or social media. (I was an instructor in their social media boot camp program in 2014.) 

Coastal Roots Farm: nurturing farming’s Jewish values at their roots

The Leichtag Foundation’s Coastal Roots Farm grows organic produce that gets donated to a local food pantry. Photo courtesy of the Leichtag Foundation

Coastal Roots Farm (CRF) is newly renamed, but the property has a storied place in North County. Previously, it was owned by the Ecke family, who was famous for its poinsettias for the Christmas holiday season, explained Daron Joffe, CRF’s Director of Agricultural Innovation and Development, who goes by the name “Farmer D.” 

“The agricultural and community connections to this place have been cultivated for generations,” Joffe said. “One of the most potent things we can do is preserve this gem of a property that has such a symbolic nature of preserving agriculture in a place that is steeped in that from a historical perspective, and root this place into the community.” 

Joffe — who has experience in both Jewish and community farming, as well as a successful business at Farmer D Organics — and his staff aim to develop the space as a community education farm, rooted in Jewish identity “and the ancient Jewish agricultural rhythms that are relevant today and can inform how we look at the future,” he said. “It’s a way to bring the community together around the holidays and calendar cycle, using ancient traditions as a platform for community-building, education and enriching their lives, localizing the food system and strengthening the community.”

When Joffe talks about community, he’s talking about several layers, which include the Leichtag Foundation, and the interaction between the farm and the North County Hub. He’s also talking about the E3 Cluster — organizations that are stakeholders in the farm and community influencers. He’s talking about the growing worldwide movement to integrate Jewish values and tradition with contemporary agriculture. And he’s talking about using CRF as a space for training, modeling best practices and inspiring other communities to see how farms can bring people together. 

From July to September 2014, the farm grew produce for the first harvest — with community help in planting and harvesting. The yield was 3,500 pounds of organic vegetables, which they donated to a local food pantry. But then, along came shmita. 

In order to continue to provide food pantries with freshly harvested, high-quality organic food, the farm staff got inventive. Because shmita is generally understood as a command to not grow crops in the ground, they used GardenSoxx — sock-like tubes that are filled with soil and sit above ground. They also piloted an above-ground hydroponic greenhouse. The innovations produced a full harvest — since June 8, Joffe reported, CRF has donated more than 10,000 pounds of organically grown vegetables to North County food pantries. It is now coordinating its planting plans, allowing the pantries to choose their most-needed foods from a menu of options. 

During shmita, the farm team also invested internally in design, branding, logo creation, developing a theory of change and engaging the stakeholders. They also hosted a gathering on Jewish community farming, which “provided input on what the field needs, what can we do to propel the entire field forward,” Joffe said. “A lot of the key pieces will inform what we do for the next five to 10-plus years.”

The farm now offers regular programs, including vineyard days and monthly farm hangouts, which Rabkin described as “social and community-building,” and which drew a multigenerational group of 200 people.

Joffe and his team have big plans. Beyond growing and donating food, they envision that, over time, they’ll be able to sell some of their produce through a farm stand or CSA — community-supported agriculture — or even to restaurants that will bring in revenue to help sustain the farm. In the realm of education, they’ll be modeling best practices, teaching organic gardening, sustainability and homesteading to a wide variety of audiences, from children to seniors, and including those with special needs. The goal, Joffe said, was to “integrate it into the educational pipeline from early childhood through college, to learn about science, math and nutrition [that goes into farming] and tie it back to the school curriculum.” 

The 67-acre farm, Joffe said, will become “a tool for the foundation’s strategic goals.” Twenty acres are being developed as the nonprofit educational community farm. They will be partnering with Farm Forward, a nonprofit advocacy and consulting group that implements innovative strategies to promote conscientious food choices, reduce farm animal suffering and advance sustainable agriculture, to discuss tza’ar ba’alei chayim, Judaism’s injunction to avoid cruelty to animals. They are planning to pursue a large food forest project built on the idea of pe’ah, a Jewish custom of leaving a field’s corners unharvested so as to provide for the poor. In addition, they have a 2.2-acre vineyard where they are practicing orlah, the Jewish custom of refraining from partaking of the produce of a fruit-bearing tree for its first three years. Although they will not harvest until 2017, they have formed a vineyard volunteer corps. The farm is also active in promoting and teaching best practices around composting, in accordance with ba’al tashchit, the Jewish prohibition against waste.

“We have discovered that there’s a huge desire for a place like this,” Joffe said, “for events and activities that are inclusive and rooted in agriculture in a community-friendly way. There are going to be tremendous opportunities for people to enjoy and benefit from what the farm has to offer.” 

Ultimately, the foundation is focused on building sustainable, adaptable and responsive community in the present and into the future, Seidle said. “For now, we’ve identified the farm as a central pathway to that sustainable community, a platform that resonates with so many different kinds of people. But the bottom line of everything we do is about the human capital, the talent development. We are creating and nurturing our own successors, those who will lead our region to new, creative and different heights.”