The cucumbers, according to one resident, were as long as an arm. The eggplants, added another, made a salad that fed more than 100 people. And don’t even get them started on the mountains of cherry tomatoes from the last harvest or the wild strawberries that they’ll plant next week.

A new community in the Negev? Guess again. It’s an organic garden planted and harvested by residents of Neveh Amit, a private assisted living center in Ramot Eshkol. The gardeners range in age from 75 to almost 100, and they’ve been harvesting since last June.

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Avi Amenou, a local agronomist, leads the gardening activity every Tuesday afternoon in a greenhouse that was designed specially for the residents of Neveh Amit. The fourth-floor balcony greenhouse is completely wheelchair accessible, and the vegetable beds are higher than normal so the residents can work without bending over.

Gardening is in the blood of many of the residents from this generation, says Adina Katzoff, a three-year resident of Neveh Amit and one of the core members of the gardening activity. They are the ones who built this country and turned abandoned wastelands into blossoming neighborhoods. “This country was neglected for so many generations, and my parents were from the generation that came back,” she says. “It’s like I have to grow green because in my parents’ house I was accustomed to it.” 

Gardens connect their caretakers to the land in an intimate way that could even extend life expectancy, some scientists believe. Researchers at the Okinawa Centenarian Study, a 30-year study examining the high incidence of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan, count gardening as one of the central lifestyle choices that give Okinawans the longest life expectancy in the world. Aside from eating healthier local produce, the connection between the land and the people that comes from gardening creates better environmental stewards who can live longer in a cleaner environment.

The weekly gardening activity at Neveh Amit doesn’t just stop at plant care. Amenou also delves into agricultural theories and highly scientific biological explanations about the growing process. “We don’t just do the planting; we also talk about the theory, the biology of the plants. We talk about the status of water in the country and the way that the roots of flowers take up water,” Amenou explains. “We talk about things like what is the connection between planting and life, the ecology of the world and how everything is connected.”

It sounds like a lot to squeeze into a Tuesday afternoon lecture, but the gardeners aren’t the only ones thinking ecologically. The organic garden is just one part of the ongoing environmental initiatives at Neveh Amit, one of the greenest retirement residences in Jerusalem.   

“There was a lot of pressure from the residents to save water,” says Eddie Nahum, the director of Neveh Amit for the past eight years. In response to the residents’ concern, the center installed special water pressurizers on all the taps and shower heads, which use half as much water but have almost the same water pressure as normal faucets. Nahum oversaw the beginning of Neveh Amit’s “green revolution” starting a year and a half ago. Nahum calls himself “a man of nature” and says that over the past 20 years he has hiked every mountain and every desert in Israel. He takes pride in the work he’s done to revolutionize the building but acknowledges that the changes haven’t come cheap. The nonprofit old-age home is on the more luxurious end of retirement residences – entry fees range from NIS 200,000 to NIS 350,000, and monthly fees hover around NIS 6,500 depending on the type of apartment.

The money has allowed the center to do some amazing things for the environment: The building is heated entirely by biodiesel, a fuel made from soy and corn. Last year, they installed an automated electricity system to turn off appliances and lights when not in use. Nahum claims that the electricity system has saved them so much money, they will recoup the cost of the installation at some point next year. The center has totally done away with disposable plates and utensils, which were used frequently for ill residents who couldn’t make it to the dining room. Now all room deliveries are done with regular cutlery. The center also pays for a company from Hadera to make biweekly visits to collect all their cardboard and paper waste to turn it into post-consumer recycled material. And starting next week, all the organic matter from the dining halls, and the garden, will be composted onsite and used for the garden and for landscaping. 

“Everyone can do a little bit in their own house or apartment, but when you have a big building like here, with about 150 residents, when you have the ability to conserve electricity and water, it’s a big thing,” says Sara Ophir, a gardener and five-year resident. “Otherwise, would you go to everyone on your street and say, ‘Hey, everybody, save electricity, save water’? It would take a lot of doing. I think it’s wonderful that they’re making the building green. They’re economizing carbon dioxide emissions by using less electricity and good fuel and economizing on water.”

Hearing the seniors wax eloquent about environmental issues is one of the most gratifying things for Nachum and Amenou. “Listen, these are people who have already seen everything in life; you can’t make them excited,” says Amenou. “But the things that we’re doing get them really excited. This idea is really growing on them,” he adds, laughing at his own pun.

For the green thumbs at Neveh Amit, the holiday of Tu Bishvat takes on special significance, as they can share their new-found botany knowledge with their friends. Tu Bishvat is the date used for calculating the age of trees, as observant Jews do not eat fruit until a tree’s fourth year. The holiday has become a time to examine larger environmental issues as well.

Neveh Amit will celebrate Tu Bishvat with a Seder and environmental lectures, although their own  home-grown strawberries won’t be ripe for another few weeks.
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