Enlightening the world through a garden

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David Fox wants to change the world, one garden at a time.

The gregarious 25-year-old is the executive director of the S.F.-based Amir Project, in which he is trying to do just that.

The project, which Fox founded in 2010, was included in last year’s Slingshot Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation. Fox will be one of the many presenters at the Hazon Jewish Food Festival on March 17.

David Fox, founder of the Amir Project, helps tear out some turf at a Camp Ramah in Ontario, Canada, in 2010 so a garden can be planted.

A longtime camper and camp counselor, Fox started the Amir Project (www.amirproject.org) due to his frustration with attempts to teach social justice in the camp setting. He witnessed how campers could spend several hours learning and talking about an issue such as the genocide  in Darfur, but would forget it by the time of the next activity.

“I wanted to create an everyday program that spoke about inequality and all of these problems in the world; I wanted to capitalize on making kids think critically about these issues.”

Unequal access to resources is just one issue that can be taught in the garden, Fox said. Others include world hunger, poverty, stewardship of the Earth and nutrition.

While Fox — whose office is not in the great outdoors, but in the concrete jungle at 144 Second St. in San Francisco — hopes to have anywhere from 15 to 20 Jewish camps participating in the project this summer, his larger goal is for every Jewish camp to eventually have a garden, and then for non-Jewish camps to have them as well.

Fox was still in college while these ideas were taking root, and other than his parents growing a few veggies here or there, he had no gardening experience at all. In fact, he said, “I hated gardening when I was young.”

Fox received a grant to go to Israel but was unclear in his direction. A discussion with a Hillel staffer at Washington University in St. Louis, which he attended, changed everything.

The staffer’s brother, Jakir Manela, was the executive director of Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Center in Maryland, where he was running a farm in accordance with Jewish tradition. “Go visit my brother,” she told him.

What Fox saw at the farm set his mind in motion. Manela showed him the “Gan Adam,” or “Garden of the Humans,” where, instead of traditional rows, vegetables were planted in the shape of a human being.

Using garden design as a teaching tool, Fox went to Israel and designed a community garden with local youth in Yerucham, in the south. When he came back to the United States, he used his new gardening knowledge to teach natural science in a low-income school in north St. Louis.

“There I could use it to talk about projecting growth and how much the seed costs, versus how much we can sell it for,” he said.

At the Hazon festival, Fox will focus on using garden design as a vehicle for Jewish education. Gardens can be shaped like menorahs, or the State of Israel, or in seven concentric beds, for example. Seven not only is dinnertime, he half-jokingly suggested, but it’s also the number of the shmita  year, the biblical mandate that farmers let their land lie fallow for one year every seven years (the next such period begins Sept. 24, 2014).

“We can teach whatever we want to through the medium of the Earth,” Fox said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."