Is localism a Jewish value?

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I love our town. No longer spending more than half of my waking hours at work, I’ve had time to rediscover one of the reasons I fell in love with her to begin with – almost anything we need or care to do is an easy walk or bike ride from our house. 

Here’s where our family’s feet have taken us since the beginning of summer vacation:
the supermarket and the co-op, as well as the fabulous Tuesday Market, to buy our essentials (groceries) and inessentials (shaved ice treats flavored with maple syrup and fresh organic strawberries). 
the library lawn, for a free outdoor concert put on by the Sweetback Sisters.
our synagogue and Jewish day school campus.
the YMCA, for swim lessons for the kids, and workouts for mom and dad.
the spray park, a pot luck dinner and paddleboat rides at the wonderful town park.
An outdoor cafe, for late night desserts to celebrate summer solstice.
Perhaps both the best and most mediocre ice cream parlors anywhere in the world.
An under-ten-minute ride in the car has taken us here to go hiking
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and here to go swimming.
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And here to buy two bags full of local produce for ten dollars.
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I’m not aware of any ancient Jewish texts that address the merits of going local, but there are laws and structures in traditional Judaism that make it an implicit value. The prohibition of travel on the Sabbath by any means other than foot means that families who want to celebrate together need to live in walking distance of the synagogue and one another. The dietary restrictions of kashrut, and the reliance on a kosher butcher, make living in close proximity to one purveyor a convenience, if not a necessity. The construction of an eruv, a string that literally ties together an entire neighborhood or section of town to allow carrying on the Sabbath, ratchets up the incentive for observant Jewish families to stay local. An argument can be made (and thanks to my first commenter for reminding me of this) that localism as a means towards sustainability is a Jewish value dating all the way back to Creation.
In a perfect world, our family’s community would have all the wonderful things I listed above, and an eruv, a kosher market, and loads of sabbath-observant families to sing, dine and celebrate with. By choosing the former, rather than the latter, we’ve made some aspects of Jewish practice more challenging, and some, nearly impossible. But I wouldn’t trade our town for anywhere in the world.
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posted July 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Localism is totally a Jewish value. It cuts directly to the commandment to care for the earth. ‘Nough said.

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Jennifer in MamaLand

posted July 2, 2010 at 3:11 am

Nice: I totally agree, and I’m totally jealous of where you live! I suspect that will be one of the challenges of aliyah – finding a like-minded Jewish and ecologically-living community. (ie where we won’t be the only family with a compost pile! ;-))
However, in reply to Barb’s comment, there really is NOT a specific, direct commandment to care for the earth. As Rabbi Eugene Korn lucidly points out here (, it’s more of a meta-halachic or meta-ethical imperative; something we may *derive* from studying and practicing all the other specific commandments.
In which case, the whole – tikkun olam – is way more than the sum of its parts – the hundreds of little mitzvot that bring it about. Going local may be part of that, but it’s definitely not the whole thing.
Hence the dream of a community where local values coexist with Jewish practice.

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sarah Buttenwieser

posted July 2, 2010 at 6:58 am

I’m entirely with you on local love. I’d argue that on a warm summer day, the shaved ice *is* a necessity. I mean, what’s summer for?
The farmers with the shaved ice machine had their wedding reception in our backyard & one part of the delight was friends of theirs making ice cream during the reception to go with the giant table of pies people brought. So, to me the shaved ice is part of that same loving/community-anchored tradition that really characterizes their relationship. And that is what vaults it far beyond maple syrup.

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posted July 2, 2010 at 7:32 am

Opening your eyes to the treasures that Hashem puts right in front of you is a very important Jewish value. By stopping to appreciate it – and participating in it – you are increasing the community’s value and increasing your understanding of it. From what I understand, that is precisely what Hashem wants for us.
When Jews return to Eretz Yisrael and build amazing communities of sustainability like that for themselves then we will have the beauty you have described combined with the amenities of kosher food, eruv, etc. Sadly, we are far from Israel, and most of our Israeli communities are still far from that ideal. There are lots working on it.

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posted July 2, 2010 at 7:35 am

An eruv is very possible – David would like someone to help him work on it. It is half-done halachically by the border of the bike-path. More Sabbath-observant/Sabbath-into-it families: right here let’s make that happen. Kosher market – well that may have to wait. I was just in brookline wednesday and decided it’s a little over-rated (after the novelty of two hours). I do miss the Israeli Glatt Mart and Elat Market on Pico Blvd in LA where I used to live. But like you wouldn’t trade Noho for it… Jerusalem, that’s another story.

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posted July 2, 2010 at 8:50 am

Riqi, we are on the other side of the bike path from you….!

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posted July 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm

As a very literate educated southerner, I suggest that you read about the southerner’s sense of place – which figures very prominent in the works and success of noted southern authors – Williams, Faulkner, Percy, and others. I think you would enjoy it. my immediate response to your blog was “sense of place”!

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