By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – Benjamin Weiner serves as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), a vibrant Reconstructionist congregation of 330 households. But when he is not holding down the fort at the bustling congregation, he is also busy “homesteading” on his property in Deerfield.
Homesteading is the practice of growing one’s own food for the purpose of sustainability and self-sufficiency.
Meeting for an interview at JCA one mid-morning, Rabbi Weiner had already been on the go since early morning, tending to his crops before he arrived for his full-time job at the synagogue.
“This is a big time right now. Before I came here I was planting and when I go back I’ll probably be planting. This is the height of the season,” he said.
Rabbi Weiner began vegetable gardening when he was in rabbinical school in Philadelphia. A friend let him use part of her lawn to grow some crops.
“The initial impulse came out of my environmental concerns in general about resources and how our society burns them up like there is no tomorrow, and therefore creates potential for situations in which there is no tomorrow…and what can I do personally out of a sense of being overwhelmed by that to really address this,” Rabbi Weiner explained. “I thought getting my hands in the dirt would be a good way to begin.”
He gardened for a few years in Philadelphia and then when he moved back to his hometown of Boston, he gardened on part of his mother’s lawn.
“When this job opened up, part of the fantasy was, “Oh, the Pioneer Valley, especially the upper Pioneer Valley, that is the ‘Farm Belt’ to some extent,” he said. “There are a lot of traditional farms here, but also a lot of experimental farms, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), people that are interested in sustainability, pursuing old practices of agriculture that are prospects for the future.”
When Weiner and his wife, Cantor Elise Barber, first arrived in the area, they sublet a house from congregants who were on sabbatical. The North Amherst property featured eight acres of land that the owners had already been homesteading on.
“We thought by taking this on we could see if this was really what we wanted to do,” he said.
After a year on that property, they found a house in Deerfield, which is 14 miles north of Amherst. Their 3.2-acre property has an old farmhouse where they live with their 10-month-old son, Efraim.
Weiner now raises livestock — chickens, ducks, goats, and bees. He grows “regular vegetables” like tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and onions and is experimenting with larger crops like potatoes, corn, barley, oats and squash on approximately one-third of an acre. The rest of the land is used for pasture for the goats.
Now in his second year of homesteading on his property, he says he is getting the hang of it.
“I have managed to find a way this year to work smarter and compartmentalize my chores and also to let things go if I realize I am not going to get to them,” he said. “Last year – my first year growing on that land – during planting season I was tired all the time and my main objective was to not let the community know how tired I was. This year I have managed to do it. I have done more this year.”
A strong Jewish upbringing
Rabbi Weiner grew up in Newton, Mass. where his Jewish upbringing was “very strong.” His family belonged to the Conservative Temple Emanuel in Newton Center and he attended Solomon Schechter Day School from first through eighth grade.
For a few years he attended Camp Ramah in Palmer where his mother was on staff, and went on Ramah’s Israel Seminar program.
With the goal of being a writer or entering the world of academia, Weiner majored in English Literature at Columbia University and then went to Trinity College in Dublin for a one-year Masters program in Irish Literature.
While an undergrad at Columbia, he had also studied Yiddish. “When I was there, another wave of Yiddish revival was beginning,” he recalled.
He took Yiddish classes as a junior and senior, then continued to study Yiddish in summer programs in New York, Vilna, Lithuania and Paris. He worked as a translator of Holocaust testimonies and also wrote for the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine, Pakn Treger.
“Going to Schechter my upbringing was largely Hebraic and I love Hebrew and speak it also, fluently, and am very glad for that. Being in Israel and speaking Hebrew is a great gift that was given to me by my education. But I was raised in an Askenazi household and largely Ashkenazi culture without Yiddish, so when I discovered Yiddish it was kind of like a missing piece that felt very familiar,” he said. “I also discovered Yiddish at a time in my life when I was kind of avowedly secular. I wasn’t as interested in religious Judaism after I went to college for a while, and seemed like a really good environment to cultivate a Jewish identity that wasn’t necessarily religious. It was cultural. Yiddish literature really captured my imagination and I developed a great fondness for it and I still continue to bring Yiddish literature to my work here.”
After college, Weiner spent four years in the Boston area “that were either aimless or loosely focused,” he joked. He decided that he really didn’t want to become an academic and developed a tutoring practice, working mostly with day school students on math, science, English and Hebrew tanach. He started working with some Hebrew schools and began doing some bar and bat mitzvah tutoring.
“My specialty which I think very much does inform my work here, was with what they used to call ‘incorrigible’ boys – boys that just didn’t fit into the Hebrew school system. I felt very disaffected [when I was that age] and needed a positive Jewish male role model and I would also bring up the fact that I was not the best behaved student myself, so I knew both sides of the law, which helps I think in building trust. I didn’t just work with them – but I often did have a subset of boys that didn’t fit in or kids with emotional needs or special needs, and it was through doing that kind of work that I developed an interest in the rabbinate.”
The precipitating moment when he actually decided to become a rabbi was Sept. 11, “which apart from everything else it meant, sort of woke me up – like, oh wow, life is short. I need to get started doing something meaningful.” So after 9/11, at the age of 29, he decided to go to rabbinical school.
He had worked with a Reconstructionist community in the Boston area, which piqued his interest in that movement.
“Having discovered the Reconstructionist movement and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, that was another important piece of the puzzle. Because before I might have thought of becoming a rabbi, but I couldn’t really see an institution where I wanted to train to be a rabbi. JTS was a natural option but it wasn’t right for a variety of reasons. Discovering RRC, it was like, ‘Okay, now I know where I can go to do this and what kind of a rabbi I can train to become.”
Ordained five years ago, he worked part-time at a congregation in Hastings-On-Hudson, N.Y. and then heard about the rabbi position that was open at the Jewish Community of Amherst in 2008.
He was familiar with the Amherst area, through his work with the Yiddish Book Center, but he was also friends with his JCA predecessors, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, whose son is one of Weiner’s best friends. And with his interest in homesteading, he loved that the area was agricultural.
But actually getting to know the JCA congregation sealed the deal.
“As soon as I began to interact with the community, I had this sense that it was pretty special and pretty suited to who I am.”
As someone who wanted to become an academic himself, he appreciates the number of academics who belong to JCA.
“Amherst is obviously an academic town with the university here and the colleges all around, so it is an intellectual congregation. And not just broadly intellectual, but also very Jewishly-knowledgable in general and that is exciting to me. I don’t believe the rabbi has to be the best educated Jew in the room necessarily, though that often tends to be the case. I think that the rabbi should strive to be the best educated Jew in the room – I don’t think the rabbi should take that lightly. But if there is somebody that knows more than me, I don’t have any issue deferring to them and I think the variety of people I can draw from here to lead services, to read Torah, to reach a variety of topics Jewishly is great.”
He says he doesn’t only appreciate the “intellectuality” of JCA.
“People are coming here for a whole variety of reasons, bringing with them a whole variety of understandings of what it means to be Jewish and they all come to the same place, whether they are religious or secular, whether they were born Jewish or converted, whether they are straight or gay, whether they are here for the intellectual experience or the social justice experience or for the spiritual experience. So we throw all of these pieces into the mix and sort of stir it around so it becomes a really experimental place – a vibrant place. But unique, I think, to many Reconstructionist communities, in having a traditional core.”
And when not leading his congregation, he can be found working on the homestead.
While sustainability and the environment are still important factors, he said he does it now because he really loves it.
“I have a great passion for it,” he said. “The full experience of growing something and eating it at your own table is a really remarkable one. It is remarkable for us, but every generation prior to ours didn’t find it so remarkable because they were used to it. But to come at it from this angle, as a middle-class kid from the Jewish suburbs of Boston, it’s got a certain remarkable trajectory that I approach it from. It opens my eyes to a variety of things, it changes my temperament and personality – you have to learn a different temperament to be a farmer – patience, and dealing with things that don’t work without freaking out.”
Rabbi Weiner clarifies that when he says that he and his wife are homesteaders, it is really he that is more involved in the agricultural end of things.
“My wife has been wonderfully indulgent…Is my wife a homesteader? Well, she is homesteader-compatible. She puts up with a lot. I think she appreciates me. But it is my thing. But I like to say, ‘We’ because it is a family effort.”