Can you dig it?

Jerusalemites will be getting their hands dirty at the opening of a new permaculture center.

dig 88 (photo credit: )
dig 88
(photo credit: )
The afternoon sun may be shining, but it's still cold in Jerusalem. In one corner of the city, a group of young activists has found that a good way to keep warm is to spend the day outdoors, albeit armed with shovels and pickaxes. As the girls' long skirts dip into the mud, the volunteers swing their tools over their heads, taking out chunks of the earth beneath them to lay the foundations for Siach Hasadeh, a new green center being launched in the heart of Jerusalem this Tu Bishvat. The initiative, based on the principle of permaculture, is turning an abandoned plot into a space for working the land in the city center and spreading techniques for green urban living. "There are other gardens in the neighborhood, but what is different about this one is that it is creating a dialogue about how Jewish values affect and interact with man and nature. This is something not offered in other gardens - the spiritual dimension of what it means to connect with the earth," says one of the center's founders, Ahuva Goldshmidt. She had previously worked in Toronto's Jewish community setting up a community-supported agriculture plan, Torat Hateva, and a community garden. The triangular parcel of land, located at the corner of Rehov Ussishkin and the parking lot of the Gerard Behar Center in Nahlaot, previously functioned as a kindergarten. Following extensive renovations, the former kindergarten building which, from the outside at least, bears more resemblance to a chicken shed, was reopened last summer as the Reshimu Performance Center, which hosts workshops, music and theater performances. The vision incorporates transforming the neglected patch of land into a green space, including raised beds to grow vegetables and herbs, planting native trees, a demonstration porch and hanging gardens and, in the future, composting toilets and a gray water system to recycle wastewater from the kitchen to irrigate plants. Goldshmidt believes that the link between art and the environment is a natural connection. "There is a lot of art and creative forces that go into permaculture. You have to be very creative with your raw materials and make sure that they are going to grow." Permaculture, an amalgamation of the words "permanent," "agriculture" and "culture," is sometimes misconstrued as a system of farming or organic gardening. The association is hardly surprising, since it is - by the center's own admission - an amorphous concept. "It's a way of looking at the world with an element of permanence, that we are not just here in a temporary manner," explains Jerusalem-based green activist Shaul David Judelman, who previously lived in an apartment opposite the site. "People think of permaculture as a type of gardening, but it's really about what is important to one as a person. I want to live in a place where I have a real relationship with it. In permaculture there are no problems, just opportunities. For example, there is a lot of sand in the garden, so we ask how we can use it instead of trying to extract it and throw it away," he says. What that means in practice is making efficient use of local resources, be it the sandy soil that the project inherited, a holdover from its former life as a children's playground, which is less than ideal for growing crops. Instead of trucking in earth from afar, the organizers of Siach Hasadeh have set up a compost facility to turn waste food into fertile soil. They also plan to use swaling, a technique that gradually develops soil fertility by building ridges along the ground. Instead of being washed away by rain, organic matter is deposited along the ridges, or swales, where it will eventually be possible to plant crops. "Permaculture is really into efficiency," says Judelman, sitting on one of the tree stumps that double as chairs for the tired volunteers. "The idea is permanence. You don't want to use lots of energy and time." Judelman hopes that the center will help strengthen the connection between more local people and their community. "At City Hall, one of the things they are always talking about is how the Jewish population [of Jerusalem] is decreasing," he says. "One of the things that make the city livable is green space." Sarah Talyah Webb, a professional gardener from Vancouver Island, Canada, is already relishing the opportunity to get her hands dirty. "I lived in this neighborhood before moving to the country, but now I want to move back to the city. Having a space to come to and work the land close to where you live, it's very empowering," she says during a break from the digging. "I'm a country spirit. I need some green space to make me feel whole. Having my hands in the soil and a place where I can garden is nurturing, it's a very spiritual practice, especially in Eretz Yisrael." Tu Bishvat, the new year of trees, is a Jewish festival connected with the cycles of nature. It is increasingly being celebrated with an environmental focus, or even as "Jewish Earth Day" in some communities. Siach Hasadeh also represents an attempt to bring together the Jewish faith and modern environmental concerns. Judelman explains that the name of the center is taken from a teaching by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and that the word siah has two meanings, one of which is "bush," symbolizing permaculture's focus on perennial plants. "In economic language, we want to maximize efficiency, so we use something that is going to be there for a long time as opposed to replenishing all the time." Siah is also translated as "speech" or "discussion." "It's the social aspect of the place," says Judelman. "Nahlaot is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Israel, and I've envisioned it as a way of bringing different types of people together." At the official opening event on Monday afternoon, local people will have an opportunity to plant trees for Tu Bishvat, as well as take part in workshops on different ways to utilize space at home, including growing food in porch gardens and producing soil with small-scale composting. But a lot of work still lies ahead in preparing the space, which is being done almost without any budget. As the sun begins to set behind the Reshimu building, chilly winds replace the modest warmth of daylight, and Judelman reaches for a shovel and steps into the ditch that is slowly being transforming into an herb garden. "We want to give people the tools to live in a more sustainable way in the city, whether it's producing a small amount of food or a place to make contact with nature without driving and burning fossil fuels," he says.