Rabbi Robin Damsky

Seven years ago, I embarked on a project that would transform my work in the rabbinate. I turned my property into an organic, edible, permaculture landscape with several goals: to address hunger issues; to decrease carbon footprint; to educate about healthy food; and to give those who are food-insecure greater ownership of their own fresh food source through design and implementation of local gardens. Two years ago we incorporated In the Gardens as a nonprofit. One of the unexpected results was my discovery that my mission as a rabbi was “off the beaten path” (pun noted).

I do part-time pulpit work with Temple Israel in Gary, Indiana, and both my congregational and nonprofit ventures overlap all four of the propositions that Sid Schwarz puts forth in Jewish Megatrends. The driving force that initiated my rabbinic study years back was a sense of kedusha. Raised in a secular home, in my late 20s I learned one brachah: Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz. Who knew there were others for food? Not me. But in my macrobiotic lifestyle, prepared with organic foods from my own garden, I felt the holiness of the land and the urgency of our need to make that sacred connection, and I recited this brachah at every meal.

About ten years later, in the Isla Vista Minyan, I would learn the communal model that would inspire my rabbinic vision. This group, in which everyone was involved in leading davvening, offering the Shabbat d’var Torah, heading up the morning children’s program, coordinating the pot luck kiddush, and of course, setting up and breaking down the space each week, laid the groundwork for a community that was more intimate and tightly woven than any I had seen before. In fact, I have seen rare expressions of it since. It was a true kehillah. Once I was ordained and in the congregational world, I became disheartened by the lack of care and authentic connection I experienced. I did not know then that stepping away from the congregational setting to found a nonprofit would actually open the door to bring me back into fulfilling pulpit work.

In those early pulpit years I cultivated a growing need to speak out and take action for tzedek – justice. I began to see this as one of the most significant contributions I not only could make, but absolutely, with every fiber of my being, had to make. My participation in the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality enabled me to add heart and grace to this mandate, so much so that I completed their Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training.

Now my work is a meld. The communities I serve as a part-time rabbi receive with open arms the melodies, chants and mindfulness practices I insert into the services. These are connected with the holy teachings – mostly in Neo-Hasidism – of chochma. The demand and the hunger are so intense as to warrant whole weekends devoted to the combination of these four “propositions,” that Schwarz posits: opening the heart through permitting voices to sing and share (kehillah); opening the mind to the deep wisdom of our tradition to inspire us in the way we think and behave in our lives (chochma); opening the solar plexus to act for tikkun/tzedek; all in a space of sacred safety (kedusha) that invites intimacy and melts walls. The work is beautiful and continues to unfold.

Yet there is one piece that goes beyond these four themes and weaves into them as well. All of this wonderful work would not fulfill me as a rabbi. This is where In the Gardens comes in. Borne out of a temple that didn’t want to build an onsite food pantry garden, my property became the blueprint that now teaches the growing of food, working with God’s earth, the spiritual lessons of our texts on caring for creation, the benefits of mindfulness practice in building compassion for self as well as for compassionate relationships, and not least, a place to go outside the boundaries of the Jewish community.

Because one of the primary missions of In the Gardens is to feed and empower the hungry, we build bridges with African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants and other food insecure communities in Chicago. We do this through fresh produce donations (80% of our home site harvest) as well as through direct work with schools and communities to create their own edible gardens. We also train interns, largely from the inner city, to bring them income and open them to a potential career in urban farming.

We often work with children and adults who are disenfranchised. We look beyond faith and ethnicity to touch the humanity in one another. This is what I call the work of Echad – of Oneness. It certainly is built on Jewish values, yet it transcends the Jewish community to teach the highest lesson – that we are all one. With a loving, open heart, with the healing of mindfulness practice and the lessons of our hands in the earth, we begin to repair the brokenness, not only in our precious relationship with God’s earth but in our ability to reach out and touch one another as part of God’s global community. More and more of the work I am doing in the congregational setting and with In the Gardens is about this lesson of Echad.

It is taught in the Shema that we must listen. If we listen closely, we will hear the sound of Oneness.


Rabbi Robin Damsky is the founder of In the Gardens and is the rabbi of Temple Israel Miller in Gary, Indiana. Robin has a BFA in dance, is a licensed medical massage therapist, holds a Masters in Jewish education from JTS, was ordained by American Jewish University and is the mother of Sarah.