When prospective congregants take a tour of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich, they are greeted by both expected and unexpected beauty.
Inside the new synagogue, guests encounter a feeling of openness that seems to reach outside to the property’s impressive grounds. And it is outside where unexpected beauty is found.
Rabbi Aaron Philmus has a passion for nature and the outdoors that manifests in places like the Mitzvah Garden, where he grows tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, spinach, green beans, squash and spices that are donated to local food shelters.
“My mother taught me how to think creatively and get others to interact and connect with nature in new ways,” says Philmus.
The rabbi’s garden yields a beautiful bounty for the needy.
“When you go to the food pantry, it’s all dried and canned goods,” he said. “It really is an incredible thing to be able to add just a little bit of local fresh produce into their food.”
Philmus also keeps honey bees on the grounds, which provide honey for Rosh Hashanah, and he gathers fresh eggs from his hens, and milk from his two goats, which will be used to make cheese and yogurt for Shavuot and other holidays.
Philmus’ goats are due to give birth the week of Passover and he is excited by this coincidence, given that in the story of Passover, goats and lambs were selected for the Passover meal.
The rabbi’s focus on nature, food and giving is a family affair. His wife, Valerie Philmus, is the baker at Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence in Warwick. Together, they teach congregants about environmental and social ethics related to food, all in a Jewish context.
Philmus says his focus on nature helps give congregants some perspective on what has – and hasn’t – changed over time.
“Though our lifestyle has changed over the years, human beings have not changed that much. Nature is part of who we are,” he says.
Philmus sees many connections between Passover and the approaching spring season.
“Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. As a Jewish people, with Passover, it’s a time where we’re renewing our sense of ‘Jewishness’ and connection to this fundamental story that defines who we are.
“The story of leaving Egypt is tied into this idea of renewal and rebirth and liberation from slavery. In many ways, leaving the death of winter behind feels like an exodus from slavery.”
Looking toward the future, the rabbi says his goal “is to integrate nature even more, through Torat Yisrael’s school and day camps, and hopefully involving our community with the Mitzvah Garden project, which would give us the opportunity to feed more people while including more people in the process.”
SAM SERBY is a native of East Greenwich and attended Temple Sinai, in Cranston, for many years. He is a recent graduate of Johnson & Wales University.