Two Women Build Jewish Community Through Agriculture in Durham

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Celebrating Jewish community around food and farming is a central focus at One Soil Farm

One Soil Farm
Molly and Meredith were recognized as two of Durham Magazine’s Women of Achievement in 2022.

By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Meredith Cohen and Molly Zimmerman labored over trash cans stuffed with vegetable scraps in the pre-dawn hours of a summer morning. They egged each other on, hum-singing the “Rocky” theme song as they hauled the loads of compost from the dining hall up a hill to where chickens huddled in their coop. 

Meredith and Molly were two peas in a pod by the time they completed the Adamah Fellowship – a three-month residential program at a Connecticut farm for adults in their 20s and 30s that meshes organic agriculture practices, a farm-to-table lifestyle and Jewish learning and community with social justice – in 2013. Their meeting altered the paths of both fledgling farmers. 

“We had a really transformative experience learning to farm in a place infused with Jewish ritual,” Meredith says. “It was totally life-changing.” Both women returned to the farm to live and work as staff members for the next two years. 

They both loved that “there was no separation between farming work and spiritual life,” Meredith says. Blessings said in a field over a harvest rooted them in a religious experience that was also intensely physical. 

“I had two separate interests of farming and agriculture, and growing up Jewish and being culturally Jewish – not realizing the connection,” Molly says. Understanding how interconnected the two are was a “spark moment” for her. 

Fast forward nearly seven years, and the pair are still laughing and working together as they pore over a spreadsheet, plotting the crops they’ll plant this season, inside a newly constructed greenhouse. It’s positioned at the center of One Soil Farm on 10 acres of land in Cedar Grove that Meredith bought last year. Most of the property is wooded, but 4 cleared acres lay waiting to bear cucumbers, radishes, heirloom tomatoes and nearly 100 other vegetable varieties. The fields will eventually be home to more than veggie seedlings, too. Meredith plans to build a house on the property with her friend Rikki SaNogueira, and add a chicken coop or even an orchard. 

One Soil Farm
“[JCSA connects] people to where their food comes from. It’s a way to connect people to a sense of place and home, which, as Southern Jews, is particularly powerful. And, it’s a way of connecting people to a spiritual experience that’s not just intellectual or from a book – it’s much more embodied,” said Meredith Cohen (left).

From April to November, the farm’s bounty will be boxed up each week for pickup at Beth El Synagogue and the Levin Jewish Community Center by those who take part in One Soil’s Jewish Community Supported Agriculture subscription. Meredith and Molly hope to have 100 people sign up this year, double the number in 2021. The increase allows them to work full time at the farm alongside a part-time employee and a handful of volunteers. 

It’s what Meredith, a Hillsborough native, has worked toward since she moved back to North Carolina in 2016 and began forming roots in the local Jewish community while taking on seasonal farming gigs. She was working part-time at the Durham Co-op Market when she founded One Soil in 2018. Molly settled in Northgate Park in 2020, leaving California to join the farm. But moving across the country wasn’t a blind leap of faith; rather, it was years of talking about the idea on phone calls and FaceTime coming to fruition. 

“Durham’s ready for this,” Meredith insisted on one such call back in 2018. Molly encouraged her to forge ahead. When Molly’s wife, Ashley Lauber, finished a degree program in Los Angeles, they were ready to pack up their life and move east. 

“I really believed in Meredith’s vision, and her conviction and her passion for this project,” Molly says. “This is something that I want to help start up and get off the ground.” 

The pair fell right back in step as they took on their respective responsibilities as co-managers. “The Venn diagram is good,” Meredith jokes. She takes the lead on raising seedlings in the greenhouse; harvesting; and managing the CSA subscriptions, the website and the biweekly e-newsletter that includes recipes tailored to the produce in each take-home box. Molly’s strengths lie in field work, irrigation, construction projects and pest control, along with masterminding the complex crop rotation schedule. 

Meredith says their symbiotic relationship is a vital part of One Soil; it’s essential to helping them foster close bonds with others in the community. Last fall, for instance, One Soil hosted Sukkot, a Jewish holiday celebrating the season’s harvest. Jewish holidays are “really integrated with nature and with the seasons,” Meredith says, so celebrating them with others at One Soil feeds into their mission to connect Durhamites with Jewish agricultural heritage. 

“Being able to provide that experience here, that interconnectedness, feels like a really powerful thing,” Molly says. 

Current JCSA members can get their hands dirty during “Shlep & Schmooze” workdays, but Meredith and Molly hope One Soil can offer space for many more to experience Jewish rituals and farming up close. 

“If we can give people a direct physical, visceral experience – no matter how small,” Meredith says, “it can be life-changing.” 

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Renee Ambroso

Renee Ambroso is the editorial assistant of Durham Magazine. She was born and raised in Durham and attended UNC-Asheville to earn a degree in literature, food systems and culture studies.

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