April showers bring May vegetables at Chabad House

After the closing of a community garden on 61st Street, students and volunteers are hoping to fill the niche.


By Linda Qiu

Things are coming up roses for a Chabad House green project.

Chabad Community Garden, which began construction last month, has already developed into a full-fledged patch of 12 individual plots, 10 of which are already reserved and in the first stages of sprouting and the other two available for year-long leases.

Though basil, tomatoes, carrots, and squash are the plants in vogue, vegetation is as diverse as its growers. Gardeners range from undergraduate and graduate students to alumni and community members, first-time horticulturalists to seasoned black-thumb offenders.

The idea for a community garden sprang from Rabbi Yossi Brackman, the director of Chabad House, who wanted to transform the yard into something seen as useful and meaningful while drawing a lot of traffic.

“And putting down grass or concrete didn’t seem like the way to go,” he said. However, Brackman saw that, with the demolition of the 61st Street Community Garden last March, Chabad’s vacant yard could fill a niche in Hyde Park life.

“There’s no campus opportunity for students to plant anything. All the dorms have lovely lawns but there are no vegetable gardens. And I just thought there has to be a need and a desire for students to grow and garden.”

Brackman’s vision began to blossom under the direction of Chabad’s student intern, first-year Lily Gordon, who began the planning process in January. Gordon had no previous experience in horticulture, so she gathered notes from community gardeners around Chicago and the South Side, specifically veteran organizer Ken Dunn (A.M. ’70) of the Resource Center, the city’s oldest and largest nonprofit recycling center.

After learning the ropes of gardening, Gordon contacted organizers of the Hyde Park Flower Show, procured soil tests, and gathered a coalition of volunteers.

For the month of April, Gordon and volunteers cleared out Chabad’s backyard every Sunday, rain or shine. With basic gardening tools provided by the house, the pioneers divided the space into 10-by-10 plots, separated by wooden planks recycled from a tree that used to occupy the majority of the yard.

A compost system sits in a corner of the lot and Brackman discourages gardeners to use chemical pesticides, reflecting the goal of sustainable environmentalism.

“I believe very strongly that we should be good stewards of the earth and the environment. This is an opportunity for us to actualize that,” he said.

To Brackman, gardening reflects many Jewish themes. “The idea is that before we consume something, we should take a moment to reflect where it came from. It’s a meditation about where our food is from, where is the divinity within nature.”

Even so, Brackman said that gardening in the house’s backyard comes with no religious strings attached.

“One of the things I like so much about my experience here so far is I don’t feel any pressure at all in terms of spiritual beliefs. I think nature is nice, whether you want to put the attitude of spiritual in there or not,” said fourth-year and first-time gardener Vanessa Bernick.

With the fast success of the community garden, Brackman would like to expand the program in the future, perhaps to include local high school students.

“Hyde Parkers love community gardens,” Brackman said.

Editor’s Note: Lily Gordon is a MAROON staffer.