A “toil” of a Brooklyn farmer Rabbi  

By Joshua Mikutis

As I dug into the compact soil, I realised that my many years of schooling did not properly train me for farming. But here I was in South Africa doing my best to help toil the land.

What brings a 30-something-year-old Brooklyn-based Rabbi, whose closest interaction with the soil is a tendency to doom a houseplant, to Cape Town to volunteer in the township of Langa? I have the privilege of working for JDC, the world’s oldest and largest Jewish humanitarian organisation, which in addition to saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life, engages in non-sectarian projects around the world, and since around 2021 in South Africa.  

Leveraging and deploying Israeli Ag-tech to parts of the developing world, JDC has sought innovative ways to support and empower those on the margins of society to a better future In South Africa, JDC has partnered with Jewish organisations, Mensch, Ripples for Changes, and the Jewish Board of Deputies to support vulnerable populations.

As part of my work with JDC Entwine, the young adult platform for JDC, I staffed a trip that brought 20 American Jews to learn about the history of South Africa, its Jewish community, and to engage in the work of JDC and its partners. 

This took us to Langa to volunteer with the South African Urban Food and Farming Trust (SAUFFT), one of JDC’s partners in its Imagine More Initiative which works to improve food security among women. SAUFFT is developing a series of ArgriHubs, to support small scale urban farmers to best farm their plots of land in Cape Town and other centres.   

This was how I ended up as a temporary farmer. We joined a group of local farmers who are developing their own small plots in hopes of increasing their food access. We listened as these farmers told their stories about what inspired them to engage with the AgriHub—they shared their triumphs and struggles to grow produce in incredibly challenging soil.  

We then split into small groups and joined a farmer who instructed us on their needs: A dentist grabbed a wheelbarrow, an architect filled it with soil, and I, the farmer Rabbi, stood waiting to dump the soil onto the patch of land. None of our volunteers had farming expertise—we were guided by our hosts and did our bit to help. And so it was that a bunch of American Jews, toiled and spread the soil, and then planted beans and other vegetables.  

Whenever one volunteers in an unfamiliar context, one may walk away uncertain about impact. So, we were heartened when informed that our collective work had saved the farmers a total of three weeks of labour: we had made a change. Most importantly, our small work gave us the privilege to peek into the lives of the stalwart farmers of Langa and the remarkable Jews and others who are working to make South Africa a better place.  

Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, notes that, “The day is short and the work is plentiful.” But he followed that gloomy sentiment with the instruction: “it is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”   

We should take inspiration from the partners of Mensch and JDC, who do the quiet, hard work of transforming lives for the better. I did not leave South Africa a farmer. But I have a renewed appreciation for the Jewish spirit which refuses to desist from improving the world, one plot of farmland at a time.

Joshua Mikutis is the Director of Design and Jewish Learning, Rabbinic Director of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship at JDC Entwine. He was ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in May of 2018; he also graduated with a Master in Jewish Nonprofit Management from the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.

Menschwww.mensch.org.za | Mensch on Facebook | Mensch on Instagram

• Published in the October 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

• To advertise in the Cape Jewish Chronicle and on this website – kindly contact Lynette Roodt on 021 464 6736 or email advertising@ctjc.co.za. For more information and advertising rate card click here.

• Sign up for our newsletter and never miss another issue.

• Please support the Cape Jewish Chronicle with a voluntary Subscription for 2023. For payment info click here.

• Visit our Portal to the Jewish Community to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites.

Follow the Cape Jewish Chronicle: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here