By Kaylin Bugos
When student groups pick a name, there are many factors to consider. For most groups, a strong negative connotation associated with the name would automatically rule it out, but Am Ha’aretz chose its name despite the connotation.
Am Ha’aretz, which is Hebrew for “people of the earth,” has come to mean “ignoramus” or “idiot.” Instead of avoiding the name, however, the group took the opportunity to reclaim it.
“We can be smart and do environmentalism,” said senior environmental studies major Jesse Rabinowitz, the president and founder of the group. “We think it’s a cool name because it has such a cool history.”
In the four years since Rabinowitz founded the group, its members have worked to change the connotations of the term on this campus.
“We’re trying to take back ownership over it, although I’m not sure you can really do that with a biblical term,” said junior art history major Alexis Wojtowicz, the vice president of Am Ha’aretz.
Am Ha’aretz originally planned only on planting herbs that could be used for Havdalah, the ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat. Quickly, however, they realized they could plant produce as well as herbs.
Much of what they plant is in the garden in front of the Rosenbloom Hillel Center, but they have also started to plant seeds in the university’s research green house; they have plans to move them outside when it gets warm enough.
Depending on the season, Am Ha’aretz grows everything from blueberry bushes to pumpkins.
“I think it’s really important that Jewish college students and really everyone on campus has the ability to get their hands dirty,” Rabinowitz said. “We forget that it’s really important to engage with nature.”
The group is one of many environmental groups on campus, but members are confident it’s the only one that approaches it from a Jewish perspective.
“I think environmentalism is a huge part of Judaism, and it’s often something that gets overlooked when thinking about Jewish values,” Wojtowicz said. “It plays a bridging role. It connects students that might not otherwise be connected with Judaism.”
The gardening work of Am Ha’aretz can also be refreshing. “Getting outside, getting in the fresh air, I find it very relaxing to slow down and connect with the earth,” Rabinowitz said. “We spend so much time inside here, I think it’s important to get out in the fresh air.”
Those who volunteer in the garden eat about 20 percent of what Am Ha’aretz grows, but they donate the rest to the Family Crisis Center. About 80 percent of the food donations they receive are canned or frozen, so Am Ha’aretz fills a unique role by providing fresh food.
“To me, Judaism is about social justice,” Rabinowitz said. “We’re fortunate enough that we can get our food, but there are people who can’t. That’s a very Jewish value. It’s Jewish to leave food in your field for people that are hungry. We’re not exactly leaving our food in the field, but it’s the same idea.”
Much of what Am Ha’aretz does is create an environment where relationships can develop and people can learn from each other.
“There’s a great community aspect to gardening as well as a personal health aspect,” said senior community health major Aaron Litz, the director of outreach for Am Ha’aretz. “We can ask so many more questions about food distribution. There are enough resources in the world to end world hunger, it’s just a distribution problem.”
As Am Ha’aretz has developed, it has taken on a significant educational role. It has hosted speakers and encouraged discussion about environmental topics among its members.
This year, it began an initiative at High Point High School in Beltsville to help high school students to plant in the school’s greenhouse.
“Educated, motivated youth are the backbone of student organizations,” Litz said.
Much of that education comes in the form of experience.
“I think it’s really important that people are connected to the food that they eat and they understand where it comes from,” Wojtowicz said. “Gardening is one of the most direct ways to understand where we get food.”
In some ways, the education can take a more philosophical turn.
“It’s interesting when you think about what kind of care it takes to make a certain thing flourish,” Wojtowicz said. “Blueberry bushes, for example, need acidic soil. They can’t grow in alkaline soil. You have the literal question of ‘how can I make this thing grow?’ but you also have the larger question you can apply to anything of ‘what do I have to do to make the best outcome possible?’”
Skills learned through gardening can also be applicable to other aspects of life.
“There’s something very satisfactory of watering and weeding and taking care of a plant and watching it grow up,” Rabinowitz said. “It teaches you delayed gratification, which is a really important skill, that ability to do something now knowing that you’re not going to enjoy it for a while.”