Tucked away off of Nall Avenue in Overland Park, lies a modern day Garden of Eden — the Mitzvah Garden of Kansas City. This small patch of green space does what the biblical garden was intended to do: provide sustenance and a sense of community in a place where all are welcome.
This 20,000-square-foot garden, smack in the heart of suburbia, is self-sustaining, feeding both hearts and souls across the metro area. It produces hundreds of pounds of fresh produce that is distributed to area food pantries. While the Mitzvah Garden is under the auspices of the Jewish community, it is a resource for all. The garden provides an educational community service opportunity that nurtures relationships from people across religious and cultural lines.
“Our tag line is it takes a garden to grow a community,” said Ken Sonnenschein, co-founder and chairman of the garden.
A totally volunteer project, the Mitzvah Garden operates under four core values:
To provide healthy food alternatives to those less fortunate in the community; to create a sense of community among the Jewish congregations of Kansas City; to develop a self-sustainable and long-lived charitable program for all ages; and to create an experiential learning environment for both religious and secular studies.
Located west of Nall and on the grounds of The Temple-Congregation B’nai Jehudah, the Mitzvah Garden includes a variety of crops, both vegetables and fruits, as well as a small orchard of fruit-bearing trees.
“The seven species of the Bible grow there: grapes, wheat and barley, figs, date palm, pomegranates and olives in pots,” said Larry Lehman, the Mitzvah Garden’s co-founder.
Among the garden’s staple crops are tomatoes, kale, peppers, cucumbers, onions, sweet potatoes, popcorn, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and bush cherries.
“The garden includes three beehives with 60,000 bees, and we harvested 100 pounds of honey last year that was sold at area gift shops,” Lehman said. “They’re our pollinators.”
A 16-by-16-foot gourd house sits at the edge of the garden, covered with vines.
“The shed there is purposely to capture rain, and it provides for drip irrigation,” said Peter Loftspring, garden volunteer. The garden operates off of solar power.
A tall fence surrounds the garden, but it has been a challenge to keep some predators out.
“We have an 8-foot-high fence to help keep out deer,” Lehman said. “We use fishing line with metallic tape that shimmers with sunlight. Deer will walk up next to it, but they won’t challenge it.”
Garden organizers have even employed some natural helpers to counter unwanted critters.
“We have purple martin houses on site,” Lehman said. “They’re our Air Force — along with the red-tail hawks. They are rodent control.”
The planting season is over, and with summer comes the growing time. Fall is harvest season, with winter bringing rest to the land before the cycle begins again.
The Mitzvah Garden had its beginnings back in 2000, when Sonnenschein moved to the Kansas City area.
Sonnenschein, an area psychiatrist, first learned about the gardening concept while living in St. Louis. He approached Village Shalom, an older adult continuum of care facility across the street from the temple, about putting together a garden plot. With the help of volunteers from another Jewish congregation, Beth Torah, Sonnenschein started with 10 raised beds at Village Shalom.
Volunteers helped tend the garden for a number of years.
Fast forward to 2010 when B’nai Jehudah volunteers Lehman and Andrew Kaplan wanted to do something with open land on the temple’s property.
With a grant from the Herman Levikow Foundation, Lehman and fellow temple member Andrew Kaplan asked Sonnenschein to join them in creating the Mitzvah Garden on a half-acre of land. Lehman, a retired social worker and avid backyard gardener, jumped in with both feet. Soon Loftspring, who is general counsel for Black & Veatch, and Chuck Lushen, an executive with Staples, assisted the trio. Each brought their passion and expertise to the project and involved their children in the garden. Then the scores of volunteers joined in making the garden grow.
“It is not just about direct work,” said Lushen of his involvement. “It’s about getting people engaged in the process and the process of creating food for those who are hungry … getting your hands in the dirt and to till and tend.”
A garden is a metaphor, Sonnenschein added.
“You start something small and inconsequential as a seed, and you nurture it and (it) grows in all kinds of beautiful ways,” Sonnenschein said. “It becomes much larger, bigger and broader.”
In 2014, the Mitzvah Garden expanded by adding an orchard of fruit-bearing trees thanks to a grant from J-Lead, a Jewish young adult organization.
The Mitzvah Garden is sustained primarily by sweat equity and donations, as well as some support from B’nai Jehudah, which is Kansas City’s largest Jewish congregation.
In addition to the regular core of volunteers, the Mitzvah Garden has had the help of others in the community. Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City donated plants that attract bugs that are good for the garden.
“They eat the bad guys,” Lehman said.
Cultivate Kansas City and Kansas City Community Gardens have also lent a hand to Mitzvah Garden.
“They were instrumental in getting us off the ground,” Lehman said. “They came out and looked at the land, suggested what to grow and not to grow and made connections for us.”
A handful of area landscapers donate mulched leaves each fall to use as compost. Area coffee brewer Parisi provides coffee sacks as weed preventive.
All the hard work that goes into the Mitzvah Garden is making a difference in the metro area. Produce is donated to a variety of organizations serving the food insecure, including the Grandview Assistance Program, Support for Survivors of Domestic Abuse (Safehome), Blue Valley Multi-Service Center and food pantries at Village Presbyterian Church and Jewish Family Services.
“Jewish Family Services is honored to be a recipient of produce from the Mitzvah Garden,” said Jo Hickey, the pantry director. The two locations of the Jewish Family Services pantry help feed about 300 families monthly.
“The high-quality produce grown in the garden affords our clients the opportunity to take home fresh produce that they may not have been able to purchase otherwise,” Hickey said.
While the Four Musketeers of Food — Sonnenschein, Lehman, Loftspring and Lushen — lead activities, scores of volunteers help make the Mitzvah Garden grow. The diversity of volunteers mirrors the variety of crops in the garden itself, each bringing richness to this special space.
Justin Pfau, currently a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been volunteering at the Mitzvah Garden since his youth group days. Despite his busy college life, Pfau makes working at the Mitzvah Garden part of his weekly schedule.
“I do a variety of jobs. Depending on the day, I may be planting, weeding, harvesting or delivering to food pantries around the city,” Pfau said.
Pfau’s motivation for working in the garden came from his mother.
“I believe in volunteering because my mother always taught me to give back to those that are less fortunate than myself,” Pfau said. “Whether you are giving money or your time, she always said you should always try your hardest to give back to your community.”
Stuart Bodker, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, is another regular garden volunteer. The local attorney likes being outside, but there’s more than outdoor exposure that motivates him to serve.
“There is the sense of community,” Bodker said. “The garden is open to everyone. We all feel part of something larger and believe that we have made a contribution, no matter how small.”
Janet Holt, a member of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, signed on to volunteer.
“I participated in the 2016 Cultivate KC Urban Tour and visited several area gardens,” Holt said. “I was hoping to find a nearby garden where I could volunteer — like the line in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’: ‘Might I have a bit of earth?’ The Mitzvah Garden turned out to be an ideal spot.”
Holt enjoys being outdoors and gardening; her work in the garden resulted in her receiving a Golden Trowel award for her dedicated service.
“I really like the mission of the Mitzvah Garden — to donate everything we grow to local food pantries,” Holt said. “Working in the Mitzvah Garden gave me insight into several Jewish traditions, which helped make my trip last year to Israel more meaningful.”
Feeding the hungry and building community are important products to toiling in the Mitzvah Garden. Many have found deep, personal meaning by digging in the dirt.
“I derive a lot of meaning by the community aspect,” Lehman said. “It’s really nice to see a 41-year-old woman dig up her first sweet potato and be so excited about it she couldn’t stop dancing in the garden. … And digging in the dirt is therapeutic,” he said. “To be in touch with the earth and be in touch with what it gives to us is a spiritual thing.”
For Loftspring, donating food from the Mitzvah Garden fulfills an important Jewish commandment.
“It is the ultimate form of tzedakah (charity) … and it is truly anonymous,” Loftspring said. “It is a worthy cause.”
About the Mitzvah Garden
Where: West of Nall and on the grounds of The Temple-Congregation B’nai Jehudah
Number of square feet: 20,640
Types of crops: Tomatoes, kale, peppers, cucumbers, onions, sweet potatoes, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and bush cherries
Pounds produced annually: 10,000
Get involved: www.mitzvahgardenkc.com, contact or show up 8 a.m. to noon Sunday