Kehilla Permaculture

Permaculture is a way of looking at the environment holistically, and working with, rather than against, the natural systems that already exist on a site. There are two things about permaculture that attracted my attention because they’re so common sense that they apply to our kehillot – sacred communities – as well.

by Kathy Elias

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This article is cross-posted from Finding Kehilla.

In a few weeks, I’ll be moving out of my house to a new home with more land. As a passionate gardener, this is a dream come true. To prepare for my real-life enactment of the game, Gardenscapes, I decided to learn about permaculture.


Permaculture is a way of looking at the environment holistically, and working with, rather than against, the natural systems that already exist on a site. Instead of viewing the soil as a resource to extract, and weeds or insects as things to be eradicated, permaculture honors the patterns and relationships in nature that build and balance growth. Nutrient-rich soil is developed organically; animals and birds are encouraged into the garden so that they, not herbicides and insecticides, will control weeds and bugs.

There are two things about permaculture that attracted my attention because they’re so common sense that they apply to our kehillot – sacred communities – as well.

The Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University

The Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University

1. Understanding the site

Before building up expectations about the size, location and shape of a garden, permaculture practitioners take into account forces like sunlight, wind patterns, slope and flooding. Some places just make the gardener work harder. They don’t get enough light or they’re at the top of a hill when all the rain water washes to the bottom. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to maintain a garden there. It means, though, that the gardener has to be intentional about the selection and placement of plants so that they match the strengths of the environment. Otherwise, the gardener spends more energy fighting the site than cultivating the growth of plants that have the natural inclination to thrive in the area.

Can you recognize the pattern in kehillot? Many of our synagogue buildings are located now in areas where demographic trends make growing the size or diversity of the community, (aka “bringing in young families”), a challenge. I have worked with many, and there’s usually a person or two who are sure that one more big marketing push will bring people in the door. Often, there is no marketing committee, and no institutional strength or money to launch a campaign. Even so, this intrepid gardener is sure that one more season of just working harder will overcome the environment.

How do we approach this as kehilla permaculturists? One of the most important things leaders can do is build in ways to step back and realistically assess the lay of the land. This is almost impossible to do in urgent moments. Like gardeners, synagogue board members are most worried in the spring, when they’re trying to balance the budget for the upcoming year. Strategic planning is one way to create a process that gathers data and information before digging into decisions. If launching strategic planning is too much for now, there are other ways for professional and volunteer leaders to build time for reflection and analysis together, as part of a leadership learning agenda.

2. Understanding the gardener.

Permaculture practitioners divide the garden into somewhat circular zones, beginning closest to the house and working outward. Why? One simple principle begins with understanding the nature of human beings: We tend to take care of things best when they’re in close proximity. For example, if I’m making a dinner for my friends and family, but I have to walk 200 feet in the rain to get some herbs and salad greens, how often will I bother to use them? And if I have to carry my watering can out there twice a day just to keep them alive, forget it…I’d rather go to the supermarket for my parsley.

The practicality of permaculture, then, tells me to place the things I want to use every day right at my back door. I’ll notice when they need water, or some propping up, and I’ll take care of it each time I pass by. Continuous, but effortless, maintenance will free up my time and energy so that I can be more intentional about how I tend to the plants that are farther away, in Zones 2 or 3.

What does this have to do with kehillot? We can’t map out geographic boundaries and tend to the people who live within them in different ways. But in a sacred community, our “zones” have to do with time. The rhythm and cycle of Jewish life bring people together in different ways at different moments of their lives. What we’re growing in the garden of community is relationships; what we’re attending to are moments with relational potential.

We have fixed times – daily minyan, religious school pickup and dropoff, Shabbat, holidays – when we know who and when people will be in close proximity. It’s during those times that we can predict encounters and look for ways to maximize relationship-building.

  • Do you have a cafe corner on Sunday mornings that invites people to slow down and schmooze, and then go into adult or family learning opportunities?
  • You’ll see coffee corners in some shuls on Saturdays, now, too, for the same reason. Yes, it means people can leave the service and congregate outside the sanctuary. But the alternative has been that they were congregating in their own kitchens, not the shul.
  • Is your kehilla one of the growing numbers that sponsor a CSA, (community supported agriculture)? Do you just set it up in the parking lot and control traffic as people drive in and out to pick up their veggies? Or do you give people reasons to slow down, park the car and meet one another? I have seen some CSA committees pass out hors d’oeuvres during pickup time that were made from the ingredients in that week’s produce. In the best kehilla permaculture strategy I have seen, the religious school was involved, as the curriculum integrated the Jewish values reflected in the CSA movement.
  • Programs continue to be an important Zone 1 opportunity in our kehillot. There are ways to maximize their relational potential as well. United Synagogue has created a Relational Checklist for programs, and we have been distributing it at our district Relational Judaism conferences. (Contact your kehilla relationship manager if you’d like a copy.)

Building Up the Soil

Permaculturists do one more thing that is critical to the success of their gardens: They don’t disturb the natural balance of the soil by digging around, plowing and overturning the earth. Although that tactic will produce one good year of harvest, it depletes energy and nutrients, and takes twice as much effort to build it up again for the next season. It isn’t only about planting; it’s about nourishment and replenishment of the ecosystem.

For that reason, permaculture gardeners create rich, fertile soil by layering materials on top of the beds that will generate energy, a diversity of organisms, and nutrients. Nothing is overlooked in a permaculture garden, because the gardener knows every tree branch that fell on the property, has collected leaves and grass clippings, and processed every scrap of food waste. What separates a permaculture garden from an ordinary one is the background work of gathering and preparing the raw materials that will continually inject energy into the system.

As for our communities, kehilla permaculture can’t only be about making friends. Conservative Judaism’s garden only comes alive if we help all people engage with our rich tradition as they walk the path together. How do you continually gather and prepare the raw materials of diversity, meaning and purpose to nourish your community?