Rabbi Mendel Rice tends to the rabbits. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Rabbi Mendel Rice tends to the rabbits. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Chabad rabbi makes a deal with the Devil and learns to raise pigs

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Did you hear about the Chabad guy working for the pig farmer? No joke.

Mendel Rice approached the farmer at the Marin Farmers Market last fall and asked if he’d like to shake the lulav and say the blessing (it was during Sukkot). Then Rice asked if there might be a job opening on the farm. There was.

Mark Pasternak owns Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio and raises animals for meat, many of them pigs and rabbits. He is Jewish; the animals are not. But Rice wasn’t too bothered. His primary interest was in learning about animal husbandry.

“A pig is just an animal,” he said. “The prohibition is against eating it specifically, so there was no problem.” Still, he did check with his father, Chabad of Marin Rabbi Yisrael Rice, to make sure that caring for pigs would be kosher (in a manner of speaking).

“Even though I wouldn’t raise pigs or rabbits for meat, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about raising other animals for meat, so it’s good to know that aspect of things,” he said.

For Pasternak’s part, “It was definitely interesting having an observant Jew working for me. He was interested and wanted to learn, as he definitely has some aspirations, and this was a good step along that route to learn about caring for the animals and what someone else is doing, even if it’s ultimately different from what he wants to do.”

Mendel Rice sorts greens at Eden Village West camp in Healdsburg, where he ensures that the food is kosher. (Photo/Batsheva Rice)

Rice, 28, is currently the mashgiach (kosher certifier) at Eden Village West, the new farm-to-table Jewish summer camp in Healdsburg. The camp is vegetarian, so his job consists mainly of ensuring that all products entering the kitchen are kosher, and checking produce to make sure there are no bugs.

Rice has long had ambitions and interests that make him a bit untraditional in the traditional world in which he was raised.

For example, while finishing his rabbinical studies in Boca Raton, Florida, he also learned to kitesurf. And rather than make a beeline for Crown Heights in Brooklyn to be matched with an eligible religious woman after his studies, he returned home and took classes at the College of Marin.

While there, he developed an interest in metalwork, but it was the agricultural classes that really took hold of him.

“Growing up in Marin, I’ve always loved hiking and biking in the hills,” he said. “The outdoors are my thing.” But with these classes, “I really started to enjoy the connection with the land and the permaculture aspects that they taught.”

Soon he built an aquaponics system in his parents’ backyard, with a pond holding fish and ducks fertilizing tomatoes, squash and salad greens. “That was the beginning of my farming interests,” he said. His parents would serve the vegetables he grew to their Shabbat guests.

Now married and the father of a 1-year-old daughter, Rice and his wife Batsheva, an Australian native, have started a community called West Marin Jews in San Geronimo. In the past year, the couple has hosted a Hanukkah party, a Purim party and Shabbat dinners.

Rice has all kinds of ideas about the future, but farming is definitely part of the picture. At Devil’s Gulch, he learned an immense amount about raising chickens and different heritage breeds, as well as how to run a profitable meat business.

While Pasternak learned from Rice, too, he said he was reminded of the fact that “there are Jews interested in having meat that is kosher and raised in a way that is mindful both of the animal and the environment. I’m not going to say I didn’t know that, but it reminded me of it once again, as well as the challenges with the kosher laws in running a business.”

“With permaculture, everything has a use,” Rice said, noting that his knowledge about pig farming will always be useful. “Living here, we will no doubt always be near to people with pig farms. We can use their waste to put in worm bins, and that could be food for chickens for something you could eat,” he said.

“There are always more purposes to an animal than just eating. You never know when something’s going to come in handy.”

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."