SJSU Jewish series offers a full menu on sustainability

While statewide budget cuts mean public schools around the Bay Area are pruning back, big things are in bloom at San Jose State University’s Jewish Studies department.

“Jews, Food and Sustainability,” a yearlong series that kicks off this month, will focus on sustenance and sustainability through a Jewish lens.

The expansive series will include five lectures/discussions open to the community, seders at Hillel of Silicon Valley and Chai House, and two community service days that highlight the connection between sustainability and Jewish values.

Victoria Harrison

The first session, slated for Sept. 27, “Celebration and Preservation: Our Role in Our Planet’s Health,” is timed to coincide with the High Holy Days. Local beekeeper Harold Goldberg will discuss the role of bees in the ecosystem, while Marina Grossman, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Silicon Valley, will speak about sustainable water. Local honey, apples and fresh-pressed cider will be served.

The series is presented by the Jewish Studies department in collaboration with faculty from San Jose State’s Nutrition, Food Science and Packaging department.

“Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday, when we basically celebrate the Earth,” said Marjorie Freedman, an assistant professor and expert on nutrition education and sustainability.

“If we’re looking at how to have a sustainable planet, we have to look at the cycle of it. We need healthy food, fruits and vegetables … and we need bees to pollinate those flowers.”

Victoria Harrison, the Jewish Studies department head who is leading the program with Freedman, said it’s exciting to get it off the ground after many months of conceptualizing and planning. She turned to the SJSU community for support after being denied a grant by the Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project, a program of the New York–based Association for Jewish Studies.

“When they didn’t end up granting it — and they really liked it, they had just done something similar not too long ago — we realized we had just put so much into it already, why not do it ourselves?” said Harrison. “We started raising gifts in the community, and the community really came through.”

Marjorie Freedman

In addition to generous individual gifts, the program was funded in part by the Koret Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley and Temple Emanu-El of San Jose.

Following the opening session, the coming months will see lectures on topics at the intersection of sustainability, food justice and Jewish themes, including “Celebrating the Harvest: California Native Edibles” (in October, timed with Sukkot); “Teaching Kids to Love the Earth and Eat Healthy” (in February, timed with Tu B’Shevat and followed by a Tu B’Shevat seder at Chai House); “It Takes a Village to Feed a Family” (in March, timed with Purim) and many more. In keeping with the theme, local, organic foods will be offered at each session.

Though working with a modest budget, Harrison said not getting the national grant actually helped to localize the program. “We wanted to see if we could go it alone,” she said. “We thought, what resources do we have here?”

Many of the program’s themes are inspired by Hazon, the New York–based environmental nonprofit, Harrison said. “We’re trying to be as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible — we’ve made maybe 60 posters, and everything else is online.” The farthest any of the speakers will be traveling to attend is from San Francisco.

Harrison added that she’s pleased at how the program has brought the local Jewish community together, both on campus and off. The Silicon Valley JCRC and the Addison-Penzak JCC’s Center for Life and Learning have been consulted on programming, and students from Hillel and Chai House are helping to spread the word ahead of the first session.

If nothing else, organizers hope attendees will start to think critically about where their food comes from, and what part each individual can play in the sustainable food system.

“I think the idea is not only to increase people’s awareness about the issues, but to inspire them to actually take action, to change their behaviors with respect to eating, with respect to sustainability,” said Freedman. “Whether it’s learning about native bees, planting native in your own yard … Jews are social justice–minded people, and this can be part of the story. All of us can be making strides to better the planet.”


“Jews, Food and Sustainability” kicks off at 5 p.m. Sept. 27 at San Jose State University’s MLK Library, 150 E. San Fernando St., San Jose. Free. RSVP to (408) 924-5547 or [email protected]