The lay of the land earns educator a Fulbright

“In Judaism, maybe ‘shmita’ has been an ideal, but it’s aspirational, too,” religious-studies professor Adrienne Krone.

Adrienne Krone, an associate professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Photo by Lenny Zimmermann.
Adrienne Krone, an associate professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Photo by Lenny Zimmermann.

Mention shmita to Jews over 65, and they might think that you’re mispronouncing the Yiddish word for an old rag. Say it to those under 40, and they’ll most likely blink in reply. But use it with Adrienne Krone, and she’ll know exactly what you mean, owing to the fact that she teaches a class on “Judaism, Justice and Food.”

Not only that, the associate professor of religious studies, as well as environmental science and sustainability, at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., has just been tapped as the Fulbright Canada research chair in religion and pluralism at the University of Calgary for a sabbatical during the 2024-25 academic year. She is knee-deep in researching the history of Jewish agriculture and its future. The 41-year-old will also serve as a scholar in residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

These developments come after a solid decade of studying what anyone versed in Jewish law, Jewish farming or the Bible would know about shmita—the practice of letting the land lay fallow, or “rest,” every seven years. That means no agricultural activity at all, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting in the shmita year. Like the seventh day of the week, even the earth needs a Sabbath.

“Cycles of rest can be instilled upon us,” says Krone, clearly noting that can be a good thing.

As with many laws, there is a litany of requirements associated with shmita, including giving away produce of that year, feeding the hungry, and caring for workers and animals while the soil rejuvenates. The next shmita year is 2028-29.

While in Israel the practice remains (shmita was never fully observed in antiquity or the developing years of the modern-day Jewish state, according to Krone), in the United States, it’s not a requirement, even though Jews do farm in areas such as New Jersey and California. “Shmita fell off the radar as Jews moved off the land and out of agriculture. It’s less of an issue in their lives.”

And so, as Krone states, the idea behind it becomes broader, as in “how can we use the laws as inspiration?”

That relates to food itself, and thinking about how and what people eat, not unlike the laws of kashrut. “Food is not something we can take for granted,” says Krone. “We go to the store and don’t necessarily know or think about where it comes from. There is a contemporary movement not to teach something new but to get Jews back in touch with the past.”

As she states, “it’s about a shmita mindset.”

After all, she explains, God first instructed Adam to start growing food, promising, as it says in the book of Genesis, that there will be seedtime and harvests as long as the Earth remains.

‘Give the land its due’

To that end, she is involved in Jewish farming movements and teaches a course on small-scale sustainable agriculture.

During the COVID pandemic in the most recent shmita year (2021-22), food was at a premium, notes Krone. For a while, many goods were hard to get, so people began to grow fruit and vegetables at home. It helped them learn about production and put them in touch with the land.

Thousands of people in Bnei Brak, Israel, participate in a parade in honor of farmers and farm workers who observed the laws of the sabbatical shmita year (2014-15) on Sept. 9, 2015. Photo by Yaakov Naumi/Flash90.

“Food isn’t magical,” she says; it’s something nurtured, worked and produced. “In Judaism, maybe shmita has been an ideal, but it’s aspirational, too.”

Krone, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Buffalo, N.Y., earned her bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook University in New York, and a master’s degree and doctorate from Duke University in North Carolina. In her eighth year teaching at Allegheny in northwestern Pennsylvania, where she is also working on a book, she’s not too far from Amish country—an agricultural area and “a good space, physically,” she notes.

“Give the land its due” floats through centuries and centuries of Jewish history, Krone says. “We haven’t figured it out yet,” but in her case, she’s certainly working on it.

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