Food was the star of Board of Rabbis event

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The buzz was all about food Nov. 18 as the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island served up Saturday Night Flavor.

Close to 200 people indulged in this evening of learning, with a liberal sprinkle of schmoozing, and topped off by a marketplace of vendors and information related to food, food justice and the general food economy. The biennial event took place at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center in Providence.

If the open marketplace filled with tasty noshes – both for sample and sale – or the discussions about the role food plays in daily life didn’t start the crowd thinking about food, the two keynote speeches did.

Rabbi Jonathan Blumberg-Kraus, professor of religion at Wheaton College, speaking about the role of Jewish food, used the term “gastronomic Judaism” to emphasize its importance. He would later participate in a panel on the rituals of dinner, where the topic of food as hospitality, community builder and shaper of culture was discussed. This panel followed his keynote.

Lisa Raiola, founder and president of Hope & Main and vice president of institutional advancement at Roger Williams University, talked about what led her to start Rhode Island’s first food incubator, a place where food businesses could get a start, with help. She also discussed Rhode Island’s food economy and its tremendous opportunity. Only one percent of what is caught or grown in Rhode Island stays in Rhode Island, she said. With local food businesses buying from Rhode Island growers, employing Rhode Islanders and selling to Rhode Islanders, that number will rise and more funds will stay in the state which is good for the economy.

Six separate panel discussions gave everyone in attendance an opportunity to meet Rhode Islanders who are involved in all aspects of the state’s food economy and culture, from manufacturing to growing food to feeding residents and tackling the challenges of food inequality. Members of the Board of Rabbis led the discussions.

Rabbi Wayne Franklin led a group discussing “Rituals of Dinner” that included Blumberg-Kraus. Food access was facilitated by Rabbi Alan Flam, who put together the evening’s program. Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman led the discussion on growing Rhode Island’s food economy. Food justice including environmental concerns and worker treatment was the subject of Rabbi Barry Dolinger’s panel. Rabbi Aaron Philmus led a discussion of local food movements and resources, and Rabbi Sarah Mack discussed the vegetarian diet with panelists.

Many of the panelists had a connection to the marketplace, and in some of the groups, there were spirited discussions about a wide range of topics – from the differences in Kashrut hekshers to how the food economy is grown in the expanding incubator program.

As Rabbi Alan Flam said after the event:  “Saturday Night Flavor accomplished the goals of the Board of Rabbis to showcase both a celebration of local food and the wealth of community knowledge related to food and food justice.”

He told of one friend who wrote to tell him, “the amount of community, friendship, information and warmth was unique.” 

Flam mentioned a headline in the Nov. 20 Providence Journal: “One in eight (RI) households cannot afford to buy enough food for their families, US data shows.”  He said, “As we count our many blessings on Thanksgiving, we must also resolve, as a Jewish community, to be active participants in the efforts to alleviate the poverty and hunger that exist all around us.”  

The Board of Rabbis partnered with the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, Hope & Main, Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Food Bank on the event. The evening of learning is supported by the Rabbi William G. Braude Fund at the Jewish Federation Foundation.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org)  is the editor of The Jewish Voice.