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I came to the devouring chaos of the pandemic after being sent back home from school, a life of relative COVID-ignorant bliss. My mother, the head of infection management and epidemiology at Chicago’s biggest public hospital, worked all hours a day. Her phone has been inundated with calls, whether she was one of her HIV patients or a hospital administrator. It seemed that she juggled the patients, the infection control and the ever moving pandemic plan of the hospital seamlessly.

Wildfires have been sweeping through the west coast, meanwhile. Countless other climate disaster warning bells rang. I felt climate grief sinking deeper than ever, in addition to my physical disconnection from my climatic activist community on campus. I could not but feel lost in the seas of hopelessness as I recognized my position of privilege and felt immensely thankful for my relative safety. On several fronts it was desperate.

Somehow, my mother never lost hope among all the turmoil. She would say, “It is possible to choose fear or hope.” Her words and her relentless confidence were well known. They came out of the eternal light of hope that both of us had been inflamed by their parents — my grandparents. My grandparents in 12 and 14 years of age did not consider hope as an option. It was death or hope.

As the pandemic raged, my twin sister and I faced the same intimidating decision as so many other students in college: return to virtual learning or put our formal training on hold and pursue other activities.

Unable Return School
Image Source: My Jewish Learning

We chose the latter

On my mother’s side, I am a second-generation American descended from Holocaust survivors, while on my father’s, I am a sixth-generation Midwestern farmer. Car drives and supermarket runs as a kid in Chicago were packed with tales of his family’s farm and the transition from small-scale diversified farming to commercial monoculture agriculture. He’d tell me how he wished to return the land to its original purpose as a perennial farm. Despite his enthusiasm, he put his lofty ambitions on hold in order to raise my sisters and me.

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My twin researched two carbon sequestration strategies quickly in the summer of 2020. Biochar is an indigenous land management system that keeps the carbon for thousands of years and regenerates the soil and is largely overlooked by western science. Basalt, a rock type, actively captures atmospheric carbon and also benefits the soil. Once we both went around our neighborhood, eager to decide and grateful for the choices we had, we knew what to do: we’d move to the farm where our father grew up in Sheldon, Illinois, and make his 40-year-old view of building a perennial farm a reality.

Unable Return School
Image Source: Jewish Telegraphic Agency

In addition, we were ready to unite the two half-s of our identity, with the endless hope of our mother and her parents that we could change the world as well as the knowledge and link to our father’s land.

We were to build an intentional living community that was driven by Jewish values and guided by a common passion for Social Justice and Fair Food Systems. We contributed to the research on climate change while we were actively securing carbon ourselves. We would show how renewable farming in the Midwest can look, teach young farmers and local students and try to revitalize the local population.
Although we were two 20 years old and had little experience in agriculture, we were ready. We were ready to deal with failures and reversals. We were prepared to ask anybody who could answer any questions. And we were ready to bring to fruition that collective dream.

We made it happen, as crazy as our dreams sounded and amid the skepticism we encountered.Every summer we commuted to clean the farmhouse, where our dad grew up, from Chicago to renovate. In September, we reached the estate with seven other enthusiastic college students ready to turn maize and soya into an ecosystem which catches carbohydrates and produces delicious food.

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We were incredibly lucky to have access to a building in which we were able to live and farm, most of which at that time was the property of our grandmother. We have spent a great deal of time searching for and applying for grants in fall, because we had to obtain funding to all things from tools and building materials to seeds and bare root trees.
The receipt of several grants for which we have requested allowed the launch of Zumwalt Acres continues to be an important factor for our organization. But we plan that the farm itself will be supported by the profits derived from the crops and the added value that we sell while funding will be used for the training, community outreach and research work we do. We continue to see how long-term the financial sustainability looks to the organization.

I could feel a renewed sense of hope surging through me as I dug deeper into the earth, rapidly growing dreams into existence. I felt a connection to the land and nature that I had never felt before because of Judaism’s agrarian origins. As I planted apple trees, burned biochar, and built an organization dedicated to revitalizing agriculture in the Midwest, the profoundly ingrained Jewish value of tikkun olam, or world repair, felt visceral. We felt like we could sow hope, uproot broken structures, and cultivate positive change through our tireless efforts.

Unable Return School
Image Source: Jewish Telegraphic Agency

One year after the pandemic began, with a new cohort of exceptional trainees I plantation trees and grow vegetables. It feels like returning to the farm. It feels like a place where all of my roots converge.

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I have been overcome by hope, thanks and joy here. I have here a place where my relationship with nature and the land can be developed. I’ve got a community here where I can’t be a Jew. Here I am able to contribute to research on climate change and to fight the climate crisis actively. I have here an emerging organization which represents the Jewish values which I hold so dear. Here I finally saw my disparate family roots intertwine and grow together, instilled in a common belief that hope is our primary asset in the effort to rehabilitate the world.

As my sister and I plan to return to school in the autumn, our management of the farm and of the organization will remain an integral part of us. With our first apprenticeship cohorts, it seems to us that we lay the foundation for a community that is self-sustaining and thriving with continuous support and guidance.
Source: Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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