Isaac Hametz was just 22 years old and a recent graduate of the University of Maryland when he packed up and made aliyah, accompanied by his wife, Talia. Now 35, living in Pikesville and a father to two daughters with Talia, a pediatrician, Hametz says that the four and a half years he spent running a nonprofit in Beer Sheva feel “like a lifetime ago.” Nevertheless, he caught up with the JT to talk about environmental justice in Israel and how it connects to the work he does today.
What was the project you started when you moved to Israel?
I studied agriculture as an undergrad and very much moved to Israel with the intent of kind of realizing the Labor Zionist dream of A.D. Gordon, working the land and working one’s self, so that was my goal, to kind of grow an organic farm and grow vegetables, like the early pioneers. But when I got there, the complexities of Israel both culturally and geographically were more nuanced than my U.S.-centered worldview afforded me.
So I saw that there were a lot of social and ecological and environmental justice issues in cities as much as there were opportunities to do agriculture in more rural areas. So I decided, instead of starting a farm on a kibbutz or a moshav, I decided I could start a farm in a city and work with a disadvantaged group that was kind of struggling to find their place in Israel, like the Ethiopian immigrants, and so I founded a nonprofit to use urban agriculture as a vehicle for community development, beginning with the Ethiopian community. I brought on a bunch of partners, raised some funds, built an initial program with the Ethiopian absorption center called the Kalisher Absorption Center in Beer Sheva, and the rest is, as they say, history.
What were some of the challenges?
It’s going to sound funny now, but the truth is at the time, urban agriculture was a really kind of radical idea. There were no urban farms, very few community gardens in Beer Sheva at the time, so we were one of the first to really put a point on what it means to grow food in an urban environment in Israel and doing that in a way that was grounded in principles of social justice and environmental equity.
Just generally speaking the idea of urban agriculture was radical, not to mention any of the challenges of making aliyah, being a new immigrant and learning the culture and a place, while simultaneously also starting a nonprofit, building a board, establishing relationships and trust with other partners. So there were tiers to the challenges that one could discuss.
What brought you back to the United States?
I was working very closely with a lot of landscape architects and urban planners, and thought that if I had those skills myself I would be a more effective change agent in the world. I actually decided to go back to school at the University of Virginia, where my wife did her pediatric residency. I got a master’s in landscape architecture, and I wanted to find a way to blend my nonprofit design activism background with a practice, so I came to Mahan Rykiel as the director of research, and what we’ve been doing is exploring the intersection of ecology, equity and economic development.
Do you see your work now fitting into the same Jewish framework as your work in Israel?
On one hand, the work that I’m doing with the Turner Station community in Baltimore County on ecological justice issues really ties into the same tikkun olam kind of lens that I was engaged with and looking through when I was working with the Ethiopian immigrants and trying to make urban farms in Beer Sheva. So that dimension is still very present in my work. And using landscape and ecology to express Jewish values.
But I also work to try and build partnerships and as often as I can collaborate with Jewish institutions. So in grad school I actually started the nonprofit called spatial practice and got research funding, traveled across the country doing research on eruvim as a very unique Jewish expression of spatial ideals. So I look also forward to the more, I don’t know, idiosyncratic, less universalist elements of Judaism and space.