East Side Eden



Relationship between Downtown Synagogue and Detroit neighborhood buds under urban farming project.

Sam Plotkin and Karen Knox are ready to dig in and start growing crops at Cornerstone Farm on Detroit’s east side. (Photos by Brett Mountain)

While the Downtown and Midtown areas of Detroit are growing and flourishing, countless areas of the city still require extra attention and TLC. A new collaboration between the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) and a neighborhood block club called Eden Gardens is working to breathe greener and healthier life into an east side neighborhood through what will be known as Cornerstone Farm.

The idea behind Cornerstone Farm was born in fall 2011 at an IADS women’s circle meeting. Synagogue member Blair Nosan of Detroit spoke of the link between agriculture and Judaism, an idea that struck a chord with Karen Knox, president of Eden Gardens and an IADS member.

“Karen had mentioned many times she was interested in having a garden in her neighborhood,” Nosan said, “and others at the meeting said they were interested in their food and where it came from.”

After that meeting, Nosan and Knox developed an unusual idea — creating a farm based on Jewish values on an empty lot in Knox’s predominately African-American neighborhood.

As their idea took on a more concrete identity, Nosan brought her friend Sam Plotkin, who lives in the Detroit Moishe House, into the picture. The two met at Adamah in Connecticut, an agricultural program of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

“During my time at Adamah,” Plotkin said, “Blair and I discussed the possibility of bringing our Adamah experience to Detroit. This meant finding a way to observe Judaism through a lens with particular concern for our agricultural cycles, our relation to the natural world and social justice in Detroit.”

In addition to Nosan and Plotkin’s agricultural experience at Adamah, Nosan is a commercial pickler, and Plotkin works at Detroit Farm and Garden and urban farm Food Field.

Blair Nosan

One of the trio’s first steps was to look at the empty lots and decide if they could grow on the land and to get a sense of how the residents of the neighborhood felt about their idea. “Blair and Sam came out to the neighborhood to take a look,” Knox said, “and they spoke to the block club.

“We also did a door-to-door survey in the neighborhood asking people how they felt about the idea and how they would be involved,” Knox said. “Most were very open and welcome to the idea.”

Nosan explained, “It’s very important to the goals of the farm that we’re not planting just anywhere. This is coming from the dual interest of the synagogue and the neighborhood, and that dual interest has already created a special relationship between the groups. Bringing them together is our main goal.”

When Plotkin and Nosan first went to the neighborhood, Plotkin said he was nervous.

“I was shaking in my boots,” he said, “because even though Karen had invited us, it still felt strange to have two white kids going into this neighborhood saying we have a great idea for their space [the size of three lots]. But once we expressed our interest in the farm and explained our motivations, people began to show enthusiasm.

“The community members challenged our ideas in myriad ways. The difference in faith and background between the two groups hasn’t been a problem; everyone has been tremendously welcoming on both sides.”

In addition to creating a friendly and collaborative relationship between the groups, the farm will teach people how to garden and be self-sufficient while creating change in a space that needs it.

To meet those goals, the people involved need to have the right mindset, and Plotkin says the synagogue members do.

Sam Plotklin, Blair Nosan (not pictured) and Karen Knox are spearheading the urban farming collaboration.

“The group of people at the synagogue is incredibly engaging and very diverse,” he said. “There’s a wonderful energy there, and that energy comes from the people — there’s so much enthusiasm.”

Nosan explained the connection the IADS has with its surrounding community: “The mission of the Downtown Synagogue is to provide a space where we can create diverse opinions and expressions, but we’re also invested in creating connections to the broader Detroit community.

“We see ourselves as a conduit for relationships to be built beyond the walls of our building, and we see Cornerstone Farm as a perfect way for us to work to achieve that,” she said.

Grant Awarded
Once the group laid out its goals and formulated a general plan, it applied for a grant through the Jewish Women’s Foundation (JWF), which gives Jewish women an opportunity to use leadership and financial resources to make a difference in the lives of other Jewish women.

In June, they were awarded an $8,000 grant, which they will use to fund educational programs. A major component of Cornerstone Farm will be these programs, through which its members will teach community members about different aspects of farming, healthy eating and religious holidays, and host various farming workshops once the crops are planted in spring 2013.

Helen Katz, JWF director, said “We really like the idea of the partnership between the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and the neighborhood and that they can build bridges to the broader community through the Jewish community.

“It’s going to be a great educational project for everyone, and it’s wonderful that people will be reconnecting with the source of our food and nutrition.”

Nosan said, “With the money we received from the JWF, we’ll start with service learning programs. The idea behind service learning is to place an emphasis on the learning —about self, community and society — which can happen in the context of doing service work. Service learning views volunteering primarily as an educational opportunity.

“We hope that by getting people to try new things, like planting and gardening, we can get them to talk about it, which will open up a space for dialogue.”

The funding for the infrastructure of the farm supplies and equipment will come from personal funds.

“In terms of manpower, that’ll all be volunteer,” Nosan said, “and donations and tool sharing will help cover our basic supplies. We picked a low-cost route to get the soil ready, so we can get started at a very low price.”

As the team gets going, Knox says its biggest challenge right now is maintaining the lawn on the empty lots.

“The block club is trying to raise money to buy a community lawnmower. If we can keep the grass cut, then we can put compost on it and build the soil up and get it ready for planting in the spring,” she said.

They also plan on holding some classes in the fall; possible topics range from canning and pickling to relationships between Jews and African-Americans.

The public relations representative for Eden Gardens, Andre Walk, has been involved with the block club for a year and believes Cornerstone Farm will be a valuable addition to his neighborhood.

Andre Walk

“I think it will add significance and culture to our neighborhood,” he said, “and I think it will inspire growth both educationally and personally among our residents and those involved.”

For Walk, the collaboration between the block club and the IADS is important.

“I think it’s a unique experience for us to work together, and I hope this will show other inner-city communities like Eden Gardens that working with other cultures can inspire our youth to do bigger and better things along with other cultures and ethnic backgrounds,” he said.

Along the same lines as Walk’s thinking, Plotkin said, “I think what this program represents is an opportunity for two different communities to come together around a common project that’s as fundamental as food. Food is the basis for life; it’s what people gather around, and to have people investing their time and energy into this, I think it’s a wonderful way to engage these two communities.”   

 For more information about Cornerstone Farm, including volunteer opportunities, contact the Cornerstone Farm planning team at cornerstonefarmdetroitgroup@googlegroups.com. 

By Marielle Temkin, JN Intern 


Deborah Lewis
Deborah Lewis 08.10.2012

This is why we love you, Karen. Such an adventuresome spirit!