As a child, farmer Mike Protas remembers Mitzvah Day at Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC). “Everyone volunteered on the same day, and it made a huge impact on me,” recalled Protas. Fast-forward 22 years to a hot, early-September morning. Farmer Mike greets eight teens from WHC’s Motzi Fellowship at One Acre Farm in Boyds, Maryland. They jump in the back of his beat-up truck and drive out to the fields to harvest the fist-sized red tomatoes they planted earlier this summer as participants in the fellowship.
The Motzi Fellowship is a new, local summer camp with a social mission. Recalling his early volunteer experiences, this past summer, for the first time, Protas partnered with WHC to offer 15 ninth to twelfth graders a week-long, hands-on experience on his farm, planting, mulching, weeding and harvesting. The first session took place in June and the second in July, with mostly different groups of teens, though a few attended both sessions.
Eve Lustig, age 14, summed up her experience, “It was a great week of bonding—it felt like family. We learned a lot from Farmer Mike and got better at hoeing and handling plants as the week went on. I didn’t even mind sitting in the mud or squishing bugs!”
From Monday through Thursday of the week, the teens work on the farm from 8 am until 3 pm, with a lunch break, doing any farm work necessary. After farm chores, the fellows and staff regroup every day at 6 pm for dinner and two hours of evening programming covering food-related issues, such as food economics, policy and poverty. “One evening we learned about poverty and hunger by role playing,” explained Madison Holt, a ninth grader, who shared a highlight of her camp experience, “Each group of kids was a family. We had to decide how best to spend our limited income after paying rent, on food and everything else. We really felt the struggle that poor families go through.”
Describing the goal of the Motzi Fellowship, Ira Miller, WHC’s Director of Informal Education, explained, “We wanted to create a meaningful tikkun olam [repairing the world] experience for the kids, combining farming with social justice.”
For Miller, one of the most exciting parts of the program is the 24-hour period from Thursday morning to Friday morning. After spending the day on the farm, on Thursday evening the fellows gather with a chef to turn part of their harvest into big, healthy salads that they then deliver to Martha’s Table, a local nonprofit that provides meals for homeless and low-income DC residents every day, on Friday morning. “The kids get a whole experience, from seeds in the ground to food on the table,” said Miller. Having harvested cabbage, the June group prepared a delicious coleslaw, while the July group turned its tomato harvest into tomato mozzarella salad.
The September harvest weighed in at 183 pounds for a total program yield of 300 pounds of tomatoes and 80 heads of cabbage. September’s tomatoes were donated to Nourish Now, a nonprofit organization that distributes food to families in need. The June and July harvests were donated to Rockville Housing Project, which serves 72 families, and the Montgomery House Apartments, serving 90 families.
When asked to reflect on their Motzi Fellowship experience, Lily Schoonover, a ninth grader, said, “It was amazing to work on the farm. Now I think about where food comes from and all the steps involved in getting food to the store.” Holt added, “I better appreciate what we have and can think of ways we can help one another.” From Farmer Mike to the Motzi Fellows, the Washington Hebrew Congregation inspires social action, from generation to generation.