Garden blooms in Lakewood, New Jersey – the Forward

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Wearing a wide-brimmed straw garden hat, Tova Herskovitz looked over the raised beds and smiled. The first carrot tops were breaking through the chocolate-colored ground, the purple kale already looked plentiful, just like the mint.

“Everyone should take mint home,” she said.

As a longtime organizer, Herskovitz loves when a plan comes to fruition. And Common Grounds, a new community garden in Lakewood, New Jersey, is perhaps his most fulfilling plan to date.

In the past, Herskovitz had used her non-profit organization One Ocean County to bring together residents of towns in the area at in-person events, such as a challah baking event that she hosted at a nearby Ramada Inn. . But these were one-off events and any community building that took place was temporary. And so Herskovitz decided that she needed to create something lasting.

“A community garden seemed good to me because it would be safe, outdoors and easily socially distanced,” said Herskovitz, who is Orthodox. “A garden is camaraderie and coming together around nature. The more interaction and engagement we have with others, helps to humanize everyone. “

As the fifth most populous municipality in New Jersey, behind Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Elizabeth, Lakewood has a population of approximately 106,000. It is a diverse community of Orthodox, Black, and Latino Jewish neighborhoods.

Herskovitz said the idea of ​​community engagement has become increasingly important not only because of the pandemic, but also because of the escalation of tensions following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests, the 2020 presidential campaign and the January 6 insurgency.

While Herskovitz now lives in Toms River, she chose Lakewood for the project partly because she once lived there and partly because she wanted to help change people’s perceptions of the community.

“When I first put the idea on a Community Gardens Facebook page, some of the first comments were, ‘Lakewood? It’s a terrible idea, ”and“ I would come to a garden, but no question if it’s in Lakewood, ”Herskovitz said. “Every time Lakewood is in the news it’s for a scandal. It’s for something that always taints the city and puts it in a negative light.

In December 2020, a dead pig was left on a rabbi’s doorstep, and during the first months of the pandemic, Orthodox Jews were accused of spreading the virus. Thirty-eight of the 47 incidents of bias reported in Lakewood in 2020 were classified as anti-Semitic, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

In addition to anti-Semitism, there have also been cases of racism. In March 2021, a local branch of the NAACP met with local Jewish leaders to discuss reports that some Orthodox Jewish children wore racist costumes on Purim, including black and Afro wigs.

This initial decline on Facebook did not deter Herskovitz.

“It set my stomach on fire. I want to show that people can come together and learn from each other, ”she said.

Mayor Raymond Coles, who pulled the first carrot from the garden in June, was one of the early supporters of Herskovitz’s plan. With little fanfare and less red tape, the city told Herskovitz the garden could have a 70-foot-by-50-foot portion of township-owned land at the John Patrick Sports Complex as well as free access to water from the city.

“I support whatever we can do to bring communities together,” said Coles, who moved to Lakewood from Staten Island 34 years ago. “Lakewood has a lot of different races and religions and when you’re kneeling in the weeds you’re all on the same level. “

Herskovitz also started a fundraising campaign to help pay for an irrigation system, raised beds and a fence. It grossed over $ 10,000 in one week, much of it from local businesses.

Shortly thereafter, the Lakewood Police Department responded. They donated $ 250 to the garden, helped build the flower beds and recently repaired the irrigation system. Other organizations, like Rays of Hope in nearby Jackson, which works with black youth, showed up in the early months to plow the beds and plant the various vegetables and herbs.

Local residents, with or without gardening experience, also got involved.

Chantell Mendez, who lives in The Brick, said she can’t wait to pick some ripe cherry tomatoes and be able to make chamomile tea from the freshly picked leaves.

Mendez began to dream of creating a community garden after reading “Cultivate: A Grace-Filled Guide to Growing an Intentional Life”. So, when she heard about the project from a friend, she contacted Herskovitz. Now she goes every Tuesday with her daughter, also named Chantell. 15 year old hand painted rocks identifying plants.

Mendez said invisible lines have always crossed Lakewood communities, and people overall have not crossed those lines. Today, five miles from where John D. Rockefeller’s Golf House once stood, a 30-room, 20-bathroom summer residence, families eat herbs and vegetables, share ice creams and chat.

“I tell my daughter the garden is a trip, it’s not a quick thing,” Mendez said. “It grows, plucks, waters and cultivates – the middle part is the part people usually skip. They want to plant the seed and have the fruit right away. I find the garden to be a representation of life. The soil can be full of nutrients, but it can also be very depleted. It takes a community for it to flourish and grow.

Herskovitz said that working in the garden also allowed him to see Jewish texts in a new light.

“I have reflected on the Book of Ruth and how it speaks of the idea that the harvest should not be ‘plucked to the end’. There is the idea of ​​sharing to be sustainable, ”said Herskovitz.

To that end, Herskovitz said she hopes to donate fruits and vegetables to area residents in need. In New Jersey, 774,869 people face food insecurity; of these, 52,900 live in Ocean Country food insecurity, according to Feeding America.

Under a stifling sky, a group of elderly people gathered in a tent for one of the free events held in the “Gardening at any age” garden. Sipping cold lemonade and water, munching on kosher vegetarian wraps and cookies, the women listened to representatives from Link Home Care explain how outdoor physical activity can benefit the mind and soul. body.

“When we reach a certain age, we assume that we are not looking to learn new things or make new friends. Having this garden gives people the ability to do just that, ”said Avi Friedman, physiotherapist and COO of Link.

Indeed, the ability to hang out with people outside of her social circles is what drew Alyssa Pillco to Common Ground. That and Herskovitz’s vision for what “could be,” she said.

“I grew up in Point Pleasant but never really interacted with the Orthodox community. It’s only now that I have the chance, ”said Alyssa Pillco, who described herself as a white Christian woman. “I learn things like Shabbos, customs and traditions. Things are inevitable, things can get uncomfortable when we ask ourselves questions, but we agree with the awkward ones. We can step out of our comfort zones here.

In Lakewood, New Jersey, a garden blooms – so does a community

Cathryn J. Prince is a freelance journalist and author. Her most recent book is “Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman” (Chicago Review Press, 2019).


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