This Land is Your Land

Community garden offers unique bond among refugees, Boise synagogue


It's called tikkun olam--a 6th century Hebrew word that means "improve the world." And while no one is saying that a garden on the Boise Bench will yield everlasting peace on Earth, this nondescript parcel of land unites people from multiple nations and religions, all kneeling together--not in a house of worship, but on a plot of soil. And what is merely tilled dirt now should be a bountiful oasis come July.

Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel--home to what is believed to be the oldest synagogue in the Western United States--has, for the past 10 years, opened its garden to its newest neighbors, a growing community of refugee families, so that they may work the land and grow their own crops, free of charge.

Boiseans remember well when, in 2003, Ahavath Beth Israel pulled its historic synagogue from its foundation and slowly rolled the architectural wonder from its former State Street address to its current home on Latah Street. But the congregation soon recognized that it had more land than it knew what to do with.

"We had plenty of room to build a new education center, more than we actually needed," said Sherrill Livingston, former president of the congregation.

It didn't take too long for the Idaho Office for Refugees, which has helped resettle dozens of families from war-torn nations into the Boise Bench neighborhood, to take notice of the potential for some of the land. The office approached the synagogue with a proposition: build a refugee community garden. Livingston and Rabbi Dan Fink were both receptive to the idea.

"We happen to be located across the street from an apartment complex that's mostly populated by refugees," Fink told Boise Weekly. "We love having our neighbors on our property helping create something beautiful for them and for us."

Livingston quickly put together a committee for the garden--she became its chair--and they got to work.

"We got a lot of volunteers to help," she said. Indeed, through donations and grants, the garden became a reality and, a decade later, it is still growing, along with other refugee gardens that have blossomed throughout the Treasure Valley.

Global Gardens, a program of the Office for Refugees, has grown as well, sponsoring agricultural projects at various locations in and around Boise, serving as many as 280 refugee families.

"We're kind of here as a resource," said Katie Painter, agricultural coordinator at Global Gardens. "We give them any help they need, connect them with any resource."

When Ahavath Beth Israel first tilled its refugee garden in 2004, there were maybe four other refugee gardens in the community--now Painter estimates there are 11.

"Many of those gardens, initially when they thought about making a garden, had heard about a successful garden project of ours," Painter said.

That has inspired many neighborhoods and organizations to sponsor their own refugee garden, then contact Global Gardens to lay, quite literally, the groundwork.

"We go out and do an initial site visit, look at their water situation, their soil situation, and make some recommendations on how they could set it up," said Painter, who added that Global Gardens helps put refugees and Boise gardens together. "A lot of the time we target people that live right in that same neighborhood. It gives it more of a neighborhood feel than if everybody was driving there."

And that certainly was the case for the garden at Ahavath Beth Israel, where many of the refugee gardeners, a number of them from Somalia, live in nearby apartment complexes. Many of the gardeners who began working in the garden in 2004 are still there today.

"They come from an agrarian culture. Having gardens to not only raise food but to have that social connection was important for them," said Livingston.

The current garden coordinators, Renee Kline and Tom Rogers, said they're anxious to take the garden to the next level, making it completely organic and sustainable year-round.

"Our No. 1 goal for us is community--getting everyone to work together," Kline told BW. "And then sustainability, using this land to feed as many families as possible."

What were 29 plots just last year have already expanded to 65. And some new features to the garden's ever-evolving design involve the addition of more worm compost, raised beds, flower berms and a 3-foot-tall raised bed shaped like the Star of David, which would include worm composts and a drip irrigation system.

"Plus we're starting to try to open up the gardens to our own members of our congregation," said Fink.

Plots are free but must be applied for. In return for a plot, the congregation asks that all gardeners put in several hours of work a week and help maintain the garden. The gardeners are free to plant whatever they choose and take home all of their yield.

"They want to use stuff that comes from their own culture," said Abdi Kadir, one of the Somalian refugees who grows in the garden along with his family.

A popular crop of Somali refugees is corn, Kadir explained; but in the past, he said they grew so much corn that the other vegetables didn't have room to grow and couldn't thrive.

"We've been trying to persuade people to move away from corn into other things that are good for them, too," added Rogers.

But Idaho sometimes has a very different climate from the native lands of the refugees, so the synagogue provides free classes to the gardeners, showing them which crops to grow and when.

"This season we are going to make some changes," said Kadir. "We'll use half the space for corn and half for other vegetables, now that we have a little bit of training."

And even though many of the refugees live in apartments where they have no room to garden, they live close enough to the synagogue that they can walk there.

"Being here is a very good thing for us," Kadir said.

The synagogue's garden planners have been busy securing grants. One, from Sunrise Rotary, helped fund an automatic watering system in half of the garden. Another, a city of Boise Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant, will help pay for the second half.

"Yes, it's a community project so it should be sustained by the neighborhood and by the community, so it doesn't all fall back on the synagogue," said Kline.

Kadir said the garden is a uniting force for the refugees, whereas in Somalia, many of the people are segregated into many different ethnic groups and tribes.

"We have to be equal," he said.

The gardeners will spend much of the summer working on replenishing the soil with nutrients so that they will be able to grow crops all year long.

"So, next year we want to capture that; we want to do fall crops," Kline said. "Think of that. People could be eating their own salads right now."

Global Gardens also plays a part in agricultural education.

"One of the main things we deal with in the classes is what to plant and when," Painter said. "There are a lot of things that they may have grown at home that they would like to grow here; one example would be bananas."

Despite the garden being located at the synagogue, it is available to anyone.

"As a congregation, we continue to do the project management of it, manage it and provide the resources, but anybody in the community, no matter what their faith, what nationality they are, they can apply for a plot," said Kline.

The garden brings together the tenets of different religions; many of the gardeners follow the faith of Islam.

"It's an important part of Judaism to be good stewards of the land," Rogers said. "To work together is another important part of this and that's an important part of Judaism and Islam."

Last summer, while Rogers was reading a newsletter of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, he discovered something called Green Faith, a movement that urges a push towards sustainability.

"So now, we're applying for what's called Green Faith certification," Rogers said.

A representative from Green Faith is expected to visit the garden soon, inspect all the buildings and property, and help the congregation work toward becoming more energy efficient and sustainable.

"Part of this is educational, too. We want to not just do it as an institution here, but to encourage people to do it in their own lives, so that we have a world for our children and grandchildren," Rogers said.

Many of refugees, when they came to Boise, had a hard time finding work.

"It may be that somebody who was a nurse or a doctor in their own country, but they can't do it here," Livingston said.

But the community garden can offer a way for them to supplement their income: Some families even sell their crops at different Treasure Valley farmers markets.

"It gives them an opportunity to get out and do something. It's good for people's mental health, it's good for people's physical health," said Painter.

Not only does it connect different people from the refugee community, but it also connects the local population with refugees.

"The market growers have a big impact on the face of our farmers market; it's become much more multicultural and given people in the broader community a reason to talk to a refugee person," said Painter. "I think it does help educate the community about the broader refugee settlement process."