Tapping into farm living: Chassidic man gives up law career, now makes maple syrup

It’s easy to spot Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz at a Jewish food conference, an environmentalist gathering or any of the other progressive-minded confabs he frequents.

Just look for the Chassid in the room.

Simenowitz is an anomaly: a haredi Orthodox Jew, black hat and all, who is equally at home — and equally uneasy — in a roomful of dreadlocked

20-something eco-hipsters as at a Chassidic celebration. He also takes flak from the Orthodox for “wasting time” with the foodies, and is chided by progressive activists for his commitment to ritual observance.

“I see myself as a post-denominational Torah Jew with Chassidic sensibilities,” he says, with more than a trace of self-mockery. “I’m an equal-opportunity offender.”

Simenowitz, 53, is part of a small but growing group of strictly Orthodox Jews who are getting back to the land — farming organically, raising animals, living lightly on the earth and doing it in the name of Torah.


Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, with children Tova and Shlomo, on his Vermont farm in 2002. photo/jta/lloyd wolf

About 15 years ago he walked away from a successful career as an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer and moved from Long Island, N.Y., to an organic farm in Vermont with his wife, Rivki, and two young children.


The couple planted vegetables, set up a chicken coop and began making maple syrup from the hundreds of maple trees on their 14-acre sugar bush, calling their project Sweet Whisper Farm.

Simenowitz used draft horses to plow the fields and carry the maple sap from the trees to his sugar shack, which is modeled on an 18th-century Polish wooden synagogue.

Two years ago Simenowitz and his family moved to Baltimore, and they now live in a neighborhood of Orthodox families who are getting back to the land. One neighbor keeps bees. Another spins her own wool. A third has an organic farm.

Simenowitz still travels to Vermont each spring to work his sugar bush.

He produces about 100 gallons of maple syrup in a good year, boiled down from 4,000 gallons of raw sap, which is collected from buckets he hangs from his tapped trees. The sap is pumped into an evaporator inside the sugar shack, where the water is boiled off to leave behind the syrup, which is about 60 percent sugar.

The operation is kosher certified. There are two major kosher concerns with “pure maple syrup”: First, an observant Jew is required to turn on the evaporator because only an observant Jew is allowed to “light the fire” that cooks a kosher food item. Second, while the sap is boiling, farmers drip animal fat into the mixture to keep it from foaming over the top of its container.

“Traditionally they’d take a piece of pork fat, suspend it from a string and the foam would rise, touch it and go down,” says Simenowitz, who instead uses olive oil, pouring in a drop or two at a time.

Simenowitz, who sells all his maple syrup himself either in person or by mail order, says he sells out every year.

He mainly makes his living as a traveling scholar-in-residence, lecturing about farming in Orthodox venues and teaching Torah to Jewish environmentalists and foodies through Ya’aleh v’Yavo, the Jewish  environmentalist project he directs.

Simenowitz says he doesn’t attend Jewish food conferences anymore — such as the upcoming Hazon Food Conference, set for Aug. 18 to 21 at U.C. Davis.

He says he is “tired of being the poster child for the Orthodox” and that Jewish environmentalists and eco-foodies need to ground their work in Torah if they want the Orthodox world to take them seriously.

“The Orthodox are late to the parade,” he acknowledges.

But that’s understandable, he adds, because “the environmental agenda is often grafted onto a liberal social justice agenda that the Orthodox community can’t accept. Part of my program is to fill that breach.”

Simenowitz works closely with Kayam Farm, an organic farm and Jewish educational initiative at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center just outside Baltimore.

Jewish student groups, both observant and non-observant, from urban areas visit the farm, where he introduces them to farm work while imparting a little Torah wisdom.

“When I get the yeshiva guys up here, they know their Torah but they need to get their hands in the dirt,” he says. “And when I get the tree-hugging crowd, they say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful sunset,’ and I say, ‘That’s great, but we need to do some learning.’ We’re like spiritual dietitians, giving everybody what they’re missing, trying to bridge that gap.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].