IWM: Risa Alyson Cooper

We spoke with Risa Alyson Cooper, Executive Director of Shoresh. Through educational programs and grassroots initiatives, rooted in Jewish social and environmental values, Shoresh’s mission is to build a more connected and ecologically sustainable Jewish community.We found out how this small team is making a big impact in our community, how to get children excited about our natural world, and which text she refers to as the Jewish farmer’s almanac.  

What does Judaism have to do with organic farming?

Everything!  The Torah (Hebrew bible) details what, when, where, and how to plant, as well as who we need to share our harvest with…it is basically a Jewish farmer’s almanac! According to the creation story of the Torah, humans are supposed to work and protect the land (l’ovdah u’l’shomrah). Organic gardening is one way of actualizing the balance of working with the land to provide for our primary needs while ensuring the health and sustainability of the earth and its natural resources for generations to come.

Do you spend most of your days behind a desk or in a garden? 

Alas…most of my day is spent in front of a computer doing all the behind the scenes stuff involved in managing a small not-for-profit.  I try to get out to the garden or farm at least once a week…and to take a moment every day to express awe and wonder for the natural world, whether it is hanging out with an interesting tree, saying a blessing on a delicious fresh vegetable, or introducing someone to the magic of millipedes.

What’s the difference between joining a CSA and shopping at the farmer’s market? 

A CSA (community supported agriculture) program is a mutually beneficial partnership in which individuals or families receive fresh, local, organically grown produce weekly, while supporting local farmers and sustainable growing practices for an entire growing season. Unlike a farmer’s market, where farmers are still vulnerable to the financial consequences of a challenging growing year, with a CSA, farmers and members share in both the risk and the abundance!  It is for this reason that we believe a CSA is an ideal way to support our local growers, and Shoresh is thrilled to be partnering with our friends from Everdale Organic Farm to host the Kavanah CSA at Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden in Vaughan. Each week, Kavanah CSA members drop by the garden to pick up their weekly share of fresh, local, organic produce, grown by our farmer friends at Everdale….supporting two awesome organizations at once!

How do you get children excited about gardening? 

For Shoresh, working with children is all about showing them the wonders of the natural world and giving them the space and opportunity to make discoveries on their own! Whether it is going on a bug hunt during our weekly free family drop-in programs, having visiting school groups help plant and harvest vegetables for the most vulnerable in our community, or taking a trip down to the river at the Kavanah Garden with our youth volunteers, all of our programs are hands-on, educational, and demonstrate how Jewish values ARE environmental values and vice versa.

Why do we need to care about the declining bee population, and what can we do about it?

If our job is to be responsible stewards of creation, and we need to be concerned about all of the earth’s creatures! According to the Talmud, every creature in this world has a purpose and bees are central players in vibrant, healthy ecosystems. As pollinators, they are responsible for ensuring plants are able to produce viable seeds. As well, in terms of how humans are affected by bees, not only do they provide us with delicious honey, they also are responsible for one out of every three bites we eat!  To support our struggling bee populations, we can plant pollinator attractant varieties in our yards, demand that food producers stop using neonictinoids (a pesticide that has been linked to declining bee populations), and support local organic growers who are supporting our local bee populations!  Shoresh is working hard to support our pollinator friends – we are planting a 20 acre perennial zone at Bela Farm while growing our apiary so we can supply the community with local organic honey.  (To support Shoresh’s bee keeping initiative, visit www.shoresh.ca/donate).

What can people expect from the next Shoresh Food Conference? How do people get involved?

The next Shoresh Food Conference is in the works!  We are rethinking what it means to eat Jewishly in a contemporary Canadian context and are looking forward to bringing together farmers, rabbis, foodies, teachers, nutritionists, and friends to explore the intersections between modern food issues and Jewish tradition. (For more information on getting involved, visit www.shoresh.ca/volunteer).

What’s your favourite thing to grow?

Romanesco!  It is a spiky, lime-green cauliflower…how is that not the most awesome thing ever!!??!?!

For more information about Shoresh visit shoresh.ca. Tweet with them @ShoreshTO, follow them on Instagram at @ShoreshTO, and Like them on Facebook too!