Feature: Finding (Jewish) Roots
A group of idealistic and determined young eco-activists are drawing spiritual sustenance from working and protecting the land, getting their hands dirty in a variety of green initiatives across the United States that merge environmental education with Jewish sensibilities.
To the rhythm of djembe drums, Jakir (pronounced Yakir) Manela and Casey Yurow walk a group of 4th graders down to Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Retreat and Convention Center outside Baltimore. Though winter is approaching, turnips, snap peas, yellow squash, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, radishes, beets, lettuce and arugula are still growing. Carrot peelings and cornhusks fill composting barrels, and there is an outdoor solar oven that has recently been used to bake halla. Next, the students harvest cornstalks and plant oats.
“Sweet!” says 9-year-old Leora, putting a worm in her palm taken from the dirt-encrusted roots of a cornstalk she and a friend pulled from the ground. Chad, also 9, hums to himself as he spreads oat seeds. “I like how we get to help the world by planting a lot of food,” he says. “It’s important that the environment is good.”
Chad and Leora are among the 6,000 visitors to the two-and-a-half acre organic farm since it opened in 2007. Manela, 26, Kayam’s director, and Yurow, 27, its educational director, serve as the farm’s environmental pied pipers, marching to the beat of an eco-conscious generation. In their large crocheted kippot and muddy hiking boots or Crocs, they typify the youth that has fused environmental commitment with a passion for Judaism.
“The environmental crisis articulated as a spiritual crisis is powerful for me as a Jew,” says Manela, who lives in a two-room log cabin on the grounds with his wife, Netsitsah, and their 22-month-old son, Lev Yodea (knowing heart, in Hebrew). “This is the issue of my generation. Of my son’s generation. It has really deep ramifications: What kind of world are we going to live in?”
Today, younger, well-educated Jews—many with degrees in environmental or Jewish studies—are turning to farming, exploring different ways to practice Judaism and maintain a healthy lifestyle; others will plant their environmental commitment in professions from law to rabbinics.
About 300 miles north of Kayam, a truck rolls weekly through Westchester County, New York, from June to November, delivering produce and lactofermented pickles to a community-supported agriculture of 40 Jewish families. The back of the white truck announces, “Young Jewish Farmers: Changing the World One Pickle at a Time.” A logo depicts a Magen David with budding leaves; below it are the words, “This truck runs on used vegetable oil.”
The truck is owned by Adamah, a kibbutz-style, ecological and spiritual community geared to college- and post-college youth who spend several months integrating organic farming with environmental study, Jewish learning and community service at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. Adamah emphasizes the link between the Hebrew words for human being and earth, adam and adama. Blair Nosan, 23, one of its 120 graduates—and a pickling apprentice—says she was disinterested in the type of Judaism her Michigan synagogue offered, but Adamah has enabled her to merge selfhood, sustainability and Judaism. Adamahniks come to the program with different levels of Jewish identity; amid a supportive community, they gain confidence as well as practical skills. “Deliberateness plays a part in both Judaism and sustainability,” says Nosan, who plans to return to Detroit to start a business producing high-quality staple foods from local resources.
According to Jewish eco-pioneer Ellen Bernstein, connecting with nature is a powerful avenue to inform and enrich Jewish identity. Many back-to-nature initiatives are moving away from a perception of Judaism as “hard-edged and cerebral,” she says, and toward gardens and farms that are “hopeful and regenerative and meaningful.”
“Cooped up in the concrete box of a classroom…kids don’t stand much of a chance of finding God…but outdoors…there’s a real likelihood they and we might remember our Creator,” Bernstein said in a keynote speech at the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference this past summer.
Manela dubs the young religious-environmental activists “The Tribe” and describes them as “committed and active Jews, intellectual, outspoken, passionate, innovative and creative.” This network of twenty- and thirtysomethings makes up several groups. Hazon and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life are the leading national Jewish environmental organizations. Isabella Freedman houses Adamah and the Teva Learning Center, which provides experiential education for elementary school-age students, teens and families as well as seminars for educators. The cross-pollination of the programs has resulted in offshoots like Kayam Farm, the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia, Toronto’s Torat HaTeva: The Jewish Nature Centre of Canada and Eco Jews of the Bay.
Eco-Judaism is still a fledgling movement, says Kevin Zelig Golden, a 34-year-old attorney at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco and an Adamah graduate. But it is growing fast. “There’s a greater need now because we live in a time of pending crisis,” he says. “People want to get back to basics: food, water, community. They are touched by something fundamental and common both in personal spirituality and in basic needs like eating.”
Leah Koenig, 26, former editor-in-chief of Hazon’s blog, The Jew & the Carrot, says that as a child growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, she was clueless that Judaism had anything to say about the environment. Years later, at the University of Oregon, she took a “Judaism and Ecology” class. “All of a sudden there were these connections between something I thought was irrelevant and something that meant the world to me,” she recalls. She transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont, majored in environmental studies with a focus on religion, interned at Hazon and, after graduation, returned to work there. Now, she says, “I can’t even separate the Jewish aspects of my identity from my love of the natural world.”
Koenig places agricultural tradition in recent historical context, namely in the kibbutz movement and Federation of Jewish Farmers, an umbrella group of 13 associations founded in 1909. She herself is contributing to making history. Hazon’s Tuv Ha’Aretz program, now encompassing 19 CSAs, was partly her idea. In addition to advancing more sustainable living, “bringing people together around food is at the center of Jewish culture, so a Jewish CSA…was a no-brainer,” she says.
Anna Stevenson, 26, currently Adamah’s farm manager, plans to start her own farm in Rochester, New York, with her partner, whom she met at Adamah. “I love it,” says Stevenson, a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, both in New York. “Judaism anchors my environmentalism and that, too, makes Judaism more meaningful.”
Manela traces his interest in the environment to an adventure tour in Israel at age 17. Before Kayam, he had little actual farming experience, though he trained at Teva. “The way we articulate Judaism is new and exciting, dynamic and hands-on,” he says. “It’s a…powerful formulation of Jewish identity.”
What do his parents think? “‘Shocked’ was their initial impression,” says Manela. “Now they are tentatively proud, as long as I can take care of my family.”
Kayam (Hebrew for established, everlasting) is also an educational institution that hopes to inspire social and ecological responsibility and a reconnection to Judaism. “We want to root ourselves in the land whether or not we are in Israel,” Manela explains. “Farming brings Judaism alive in a way people have not seen before. Our people have an instruction manual on how to take care of the earth. It’s called the Torah. Studying [it] makes Judaism vibrant and healing. There has been an alienation between humanity and the land. This work is repairing it at that root.”
What makes a farm Jewish?” Manela asks the 4th graders from the Rosenbloom Religious School of Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno Congregation, clarifying that Kayam follows Torah agricultural laws, such as kilayim, keeping crops distinct from one another. Running alongside one of the much shorter students, he demonstrates the compassion inherent in the biblical prohibition against harnessing the uneven team of ox and donkey.
The farm grew 5,000 pounds of produce last year, supplying Pearlstone’s kitchen, a CSA of 11 families, a farmers’ market at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and a battered women’s shelter. Its greenhouse features an etrog and a carob tree. Each Rosh Hodesh, a different crop tied to the theme of the month is planted in the Hebrew Calendar Garden—sunflowers and potatoes in Kislev for Hanukka’s oil and latkes. The Patriarchs’ Vineyard grows three varieties of grapes, and the Matriarchs’ Orchard blooms with four types of fruit trees. Under a peach tree, Lev’s placenta nourishes the earth, “a twist on the ‘Jewish plant-a-tree tradition,’” says Manela.
At Jewish farms, “ancient Jewish rituals take on new meaning because you are actually dependent on the earth,” says Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, Adamah’s director. On an altar in the field created from a piece of slate and river wood, Adamahniks place the first fruit of each variety—an allusion to bikkurim, the offerings of the first fruit of a harvest.
“We have no rabbi,” Sadeh says. “It’s up to us. We want to make the words of Torah relevant and close to us. They are not just in a book, available only to the learned.” The Hebrew words karov (close) and korban (sacrifice) are related, he explains. “You give up something close to you. We don’t eat tomatoes nine months of the year. So by the time we harvest the first tomato…we’ve weeded and prepared the soil, and when the vegetables mature, we feel, ‘Hey, this is mine.’ That’s exactly the time to make an offering.”
Sadeh, 39, is descended from Hasidim who farmed the Carpathian basin. When family members made aliya, they Hebraicized their family name from Schwartz to Sadeh (field). Sadeh and his wife later adopted the name when their son, Yonah, was born. He has followed in the family’s agricultural tradition, earning a Ph.D. in environmental education. But in the rainforests of western Washington 15 years ago, he experienced a crisis of faith. “The secular, scientific environmental language felt inadequate for describing the sense of awe and wonder and gratitude I felt,” he says, adding that he was upset by a lack of compassion among environmentalists debating the fate of the Pacific Northwest forests. His gateways to ecoJudaism were Shomrei Adamah, the now-defunct environmental organization founded by Bernstein; Kibbutz Ketura in Israel; and Teva.
In California’s Bay Area last year, an eco-Tu Bishvat seder drew 160 people. “Everyone brought their own plate and cup,” wrote Golden, a Hazon board member, on the organization’s blog. “Any disposable dishes were compostable. The Haggada was printed on hemp…. We addressed how environmental choices, particularly our choices around food, square with our tradition to ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself,’ and how we relate to the ‘good land’ that was our heritage….”
A native of the Conservative Jewish community of Spokane, Washington, Golden has worked as a backcountry biologist for Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska; farmed organically in Idaho; taught middle school environmental science; worked with Costa Rican farmers to develop organic alternatives to chemical pesticides; and traveled the South Amazon jungles. But, he says, he was lost spiritually until he found Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal community in Berkeley. He helped start the Seattle-based Northwest Jewish Environmental Project, affiliated with COEJL, and spent six months at Adamah in 2006 after becoming an environmental lawyer.
“Adamah was manifesting what I had envisioned,” says Golden. With a group of like-minded friends, he is planning a West Coast version of Adamah he hopes will be formalized into a permanent land-based center for Jewish spirituality. For now, the group meets for celebrations like Sukkot on the Farm at the Eat Well Farm (Chochmat Halev’s CSA) and Passover in the Desert, a Seder in the East Mohave Wilderness.
“I see myself as a community builder, farmer and teacher,” says Golden. “The rabbinical path also calls me so I’m continuing to study. How to make a living is one of the challenges of this vision.” His fiancée, Kait Singley, a permaculturalist, studies herbal medicine and community gardening.
Simcha Schwartz, 30, and Nati Passow, 29, also dream of creating a permanent Jewish environmental lifestyle. They are the founders of the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia—though as of yet they do not have a farm or a school. “We decided to start small,” Schwartz explains, noting that their focus on education, farming and building with earth-based materials will require millions in funding. For now, the two are working on turning empty urban lots into green spaces that grow food and partnering with the Hillel Alternative Break Program to offer one-week trips to organic farms. Last year’s break was so successful that four sessions with 75 students will be offered this year at three sites. “Taking students out of their normal environment can be a catalyst for the next steps on their Jewish journeys,” says Michelle Lackie, director of Hillel’s social justice department.
Students prepare meals from produce they have harvested, make herbal medicines and learn Jewish agricultural laws. They also build a pluralistic community highlighted by a Shabbat celebration that emphasizes rest after a week of physical work. “I thought I was spiritual before…but here I discovered how to be one with that side of myself,” wrote a student on an evaluation form.
For Rivka Sack, 20, an Israeli-born Teva staff member, transmitting “healthy wholesome Judaism” to the next generation is vital. For example, part of Teva’s curriculum is to encourage students to daven alone in nature so they can connect to God one-on-one.
“One girl stood by the lake meditating as a beautiful mist was rising,” recalls Sack. “When an educator approached her, she said, ‘It’s like the waters rise up in the morning and pray to Hashem.’ It’s so primal in our tradition that Judaism and God can be found in nature. Now we are bringing that back into our lives.” H
Rahel Musleah’s Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.