Golden! Honey hobby attracts Jewish beekeepers

Steve Dombro walks up to the beehive in his San Jose backyard wearing jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt — no protective gear at all. He stands there calmly, careful not to interfere with the buzzing insects’ flight paths.

But the bees don’t seem to notice him — they’re too busy working, turning pollen into golden honey.

“The honeybees raised in California are not the aggressive Africanized bees that people are so scared of,” explains Dombro, who, with his wife, Janet, has kept beehives for the past 12 years.

“I get stung when I make a mistake and do something stupid,” he says. “But that doesn’t happen very often. The truth is that honeybees are generally not interested in people.”

Steve Dombro in bee garb photos/joyce goldshmid

But people — including what would seem to be a growing number of Jews, like the Dombros — certainly are interested in bees.

In the past year or so, Jewish-oriented lectures about bees and honey have been popping up in a variety of venues: at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley; at San Jose State University as part of the Jewish Studies Department’s “Jews, Food and Sustainability” series; and in the schoolyard of the Addison-Penzak JCC preschool in Los Gatos.

In addition, Urban Adamah, the community and educational farm in Berkeley, is holding a beekeeping workshop for its 12 fellows this week. And the Hazon Food Conference in Pacific Grove two years ago had a session on bees.

The coalescence of Jews and beekeeping is not much of a surprise. Israel, after all, is called the land of milk and honey, and while there is some debate over whether that refers to date honey or bee honey, there is no debate as to the importance of honey in Judaism — especially at this time of year.

Steve Dombro and wife, Janet

“Honey plays a big role in Rosh Hashanah and appears several times in the Torah,” says Rabbi Moshe Trager of Los Gatos. “Because it’s packed with nutrients and sweetness, honey is used in the Torah as a metaphor. Like honey, the Torah is sweet and feeds the soul.”

With about 355,000 bee colonies statewide, California is second only to North Dakota (450,000) in that category, and is third behind North and South Dakota in terms of honey production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2009, the latest figures available, California produced 11.7 million pounds of honey, compared to 34.7 million pounds for North Dakota and 17.8 million pounds for South Dakota.

The Dombros’ single hive this year produced 100 pounds of honey — more jars than Steve Dombro could count.

“We use it to bake, instead of sugar, and we give a lot of it away,” he says. For his daughter’s wedding, small jars of honey were given to all of the guests.

The notion of feeding the soul and sharing the sweetness appeals to Jewish beekeepers, say Alisa and Harold Goldberg of San Jose. Every September, for the annual honey harvest around Labor Day, the Goldbergs host an extraction party at their home for several South Bay families.

The community of beekeepers removes the honeycombed frames from their hives (brushing off the bees) and brings them to the Goldbergs’ house, where they are placed in a honey centrifuge.

It’s a sticky affair that yields several hundreds of pounds of “liquid gold” — and while having access to the machine is important, the social aspect of the day is just as important, Alisa Goldberg says.

Renee and Howard Fine of Saratoga were inspired to take up the hobby. photo/courtesy of renee and howard fine

She learned beekeeping from her father, a former Hillel director in Connecticut. He was intrigued by the nature of the social insects and brought his Judaism to beekeeping by extracting honey before Rosh Hashanah each year.

“We suffered from chronic curiosity and it was fascinating to see Dad care for the bees,” she says. “He used to pose the riddle: What are two non-kosher animals that make a kosher product? One is bee honey and the other is mother’s milk.”

Forty-five years later, the Goldbergs are known as the pied pipers of beekeeping in the South Bay. Last month, in an outdoor program at the Levy Family Campus in Los Gatos, Alisa gave a talk about the art of beekeeping and collecting honey, the importance of bees, and why apples and honey are such good symbols for the holiday season. The event, of course, included a snack of apples and honey.

The Goldbergs have inspired others to take up the hobby, including Renee and Howard Fine of Saratoga. Renee says they were “bitten by the beekeeping bug” after the Goldbergs convinced them that their backyard was an ideal home for bees. They have been keeping bees for nine years.

What began as a hesitant hobby has become a passion for the Fines. They see it as a great way to practice tikkun olam, doing their part to heal the world.

“It’s great for the environment,” says Renee Fine, a teacher at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos who often shares her bee and honey knowledge with her students. “It’s a learning experience for kids, and we donate most of our honey to charity.”

The Fines usually harvest 90 to 120 pounds of honey a year, and they donate the majority of their yield to Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. The temple then sells the honey as part of a Rosh Hashanah kit, a fundraiser for the congregation’s after-school program for high-schoolers. The remaining jars are used at Yavneh Day School and shared with friends and family.

The Fines are thrilled to spread sweetness around town. Howard Fine created a custom label for his jars that reads “Too precious to sell, so just give it away!”

Giving away the honey is just one way that beekeepers make an impact. Another vital impact, Renee Fine says, is that keeping bees helps the environment.

“I’m a teacher and I see how important bees are to the environment, and I think it’s terribly overlooked,” she says. “People don’t realize the responsibility that bees have and how it impacts our produce, flowers and fruit. It’s amazing. Without bees pollinating, none of it happens.”

That’s why scientists and farmers alike are so disturbed by the recent, still mysterious disappearance of bee colonies in North America. Called Colony Collapse Disorder, it was first noted in 2006 and has since decimated bee colonies nationwide, which in turn affects pollination and the agriculture that depends on it.

According to a July episode of “Newshour” on PBS, 130 California crops depend on bees, including the state’s profitable almond crop.

Beekeepers say they serve as a kind of diplomatic link between bees and humans, working to alleviate people’s fears of bees, and enlightening adults as well as children on the role of bees in the ecosystem.

“In the Torah we focus on taking care of the world, and this is a huge part of that,” says Renee Fine, who now has two hives in her backyard. “By helping to restore the bee population, we’re doing an important mitzvah. By giving it away and allowing people to enjoy the honey, we’re doing a mitzvah. I think there are millions of tie-ins to Judaism.”

She says people come to the Goldbergs’ annual extraction party and become curious about the hobby and their beekeeper community.

“It gets passed on from generation to generation and from friend to friend,” she says. “We want to encourage other people to become beekeepers. The more people that do it, the better it is for our environment.”