Rooted in the land, creating contemporary community

Traditionally, the sukkah is a symbol of shelter, a shade from the elements, that simultaneously conveys both safety and impermanence. By building and sitting in a sukkah every year during the harvest holiday of Sukkot, Jews everywhere acknowledge this duality — creating the space for community, even if (or maybe especially because) it, and all things, are temporary.

In 2013, when I arrived on the Encinitas campus of the Leichtag Foundation for its first Sukkot festival — now an annual event that this year will be held Oct. 4 — it immediately felt like a true community pilgrimage. As people arrived, they made their way onto an open field on the foundation’s property that was punctuated by a series of shaded huts and booths — temporary structures defining the space of this limited-time-only community. 

As the sun beat down in an increasingly assertive manner, guests filled their Leichtag water bottles with water infused with fruit and mint, reapplied sunblock, and sampled gourmet and organic foods prepared by locals and by visiting chefs from L.A., Israel and beyond. On the perimeter, the guests that day stepped inside three unique sukkot, the products of a design competition, each space focused on a different theme: earth, light and water. Children played, their voices mixing with those of the shmoozing adults from the greater San Diego area, along with an unexpectedly substantial contingent from Los Angeles, Encinitas’ neighbor to the north by about two hours.

This ranch atop a hill with views of both ocean and mountains — and with a local history of poinsettia farming — may seem an unconventional space for a foundation. But it is more than just a farm, a ranch and some offices; the Leichtag Foundation also serves as a laboratory for nurturing Jewish innovation and teaching sustainability — in both the organizational and the agricultural sense. 

Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Max “Lee” Leichtag and his wife, Andre “Toni” Leichtag, the San Diego-based longtime philanthropists who made all of this possible, would have appreciated this out-of-the-box thinking about solving large-scale problems, according to Charlene Seidle, executive vice president of the foundation.

“Toni and Lee Leichtag never saw the resources they accumulated as really theirs,” Seidle said, “rather [that] these resources belonged to the community and for the benefit of the most vulnerable and those in need. Toni and Lee loved living in North County San Diego. They loved being involved with important community institutions and giving of their time and money. They especially appreciated being Jewish in a multifaith, multicultural society. Lee loved to mentor young entrepreneurs and leaders.” 

Seidle added that the foundation today describes itself as a “talent agency” that is “providing capacity and resources to the best and brightest social entrepreneurs and leaders,” an approach that reflects the founders’ commitment to igniting and inspiring vibrant Jewish life, advancing self-sufficiency, and stimulating social entrepreneurship in coastal North San Diego County and in Jerusalem. 

This year, the Leichtag Foundation Sukkot program has been renamed the Sukkot Harvest Festival and represents a translation of the autumnal holiday’s themes into a creative day of community celebration. The interactive day — a result of collaborative efforts between Leichtag and four other organizations — is programmed with activities for all ages, food, arts, a creative original performance from the Los Angeles-based theater company Theatre Dybbuk and a sukkah of grand scale. 

Why Sukkot? From the time they purchased the property at the end of 2012, the Leichtag leadership “knew Sukkot would be ‘our’ holiday,” Seidle said. “Besides being an agricultural festival completely aligned with our zoning and permitted uses, the themes of Sukkot resonate with the work of the foundation past and present: values of hospitality, inclusivity, justice, environmental appreciation and stewardship. All these are brought beautifully to light by Sukkot.” 

The festival also attracts a diverse mix of people, including Jews of all stripes and non-Jews, ranging in age from the young to the elderly, Seidle added.

Previous festivals featured a sukkah-design competition; this year, said Leichtag Communications and creative manager Joshua Sherman, the vision was to create one sukkah that is “a space for gathering and communing.” 

“Last year, we loved getting to see the artists and designers look at shmita” the biblical injunction to let the land rest on the seventh year — “and have a conversation with the ideas, express them in architectural ways,” Sherman said. “We learned about the interactivity between the sukkot and the people, and really learned about space; but if you put three sukkot out on a field, it’s big, people are scattered, not sharing a space together.”  

This year’s sukkah was designed by a student team from At the 2014 Sukkot festival, many activities involve children at play. Photo courtesy of the Leichtag Foundation

Leichtag has built opportunities for all its funded projects to interrelate, and it has created collaborations with community organizations all working toward the goal of strengthening the Jewish community in San Diego’s North County — a mostly suburban sprawl south of Camp Pendleton and north of La Jolla. The Sukkot Harvest Festival is the product of a series of collaborations, with project leaders really talking to each other, and working out how to make sure everyone’s visions are fulfilled. 

“Everyone thinks an architect is a stand-alone person,” Crawford said. However, making architecture requires “a huge team effort.”

“That’s what makes this year special,” he said. “There were more opportunities for collaboration between the other design fields and the artists and to meet with members of the foundation and work with them as part of the team. We met with Aaron [Henne] and the [sukkah’s] design changed; he’s going to incorporate aspects of the space into his performance. It’s much richer than when we did it alone; it’s a true team effort.”

“Beyond the signature Sukkot event, [our events are] increasingly more collaborative every year, and [it] is becoming a space for organizations to bring their offerings,” Sherman said.

Perhaps unintentionally, Sherman is invoking Sukkot’s traditional place as one of Judaism’s Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrimage Festivals for which Jews — wherever they lived — would make their way on foot — regel to Jerusalem  to bring first fruits offerings in the Temple. While most SoCal Jews won’t be in Jerusalem for the holiday — and certainly won’t be traveling on foot — there is nevertheless a pilgrimage element to the Harvest Festival. The the event always draws people from Los Angeles and this year many more are expected to join, even with Shemini Atzeret due to begin at sundown that evening. 

The North County Hub: growing innovative organizations

Back in 2011, the Leichtag Foundation had given grants to a number of local anchor institutions for Jewish life, including Jewish Family Service of San Diego County and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center of San Diego, which received grants for the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture for arts programming, and to Shalom Baby/PJ Library, a program welcoming new babies and their families to the Jewish community. Also represented was Hillel, which served several North County campuses.

The foundation brought those organizations and others doing outreach to the unengaged together in their offices, forming the North County Jewish Hub, said Jenny Camhi, who was then a social worker and Hub member and is now its director. “There were no specific directions or agenda,” she said. “We would just sit in a room together and see what happens.” 

By spring 2013, following Leichtag’s purchase of the farm in Encinitas, this collection of different, mostly social entrepreneurial organizations — which originally gathered in Leichtag’s corporate offices — found a vibrant and more permanent space on the ranch’s campus, sharing space and energy and developing what Sherman calls “ninja collaboration skills.” In the co-working space, Hub members collaborate on social, cultural and agricultural programs in North County and throughout San Diego. Members also are offered professional development opportunities to foster innovation and leadership and to encourage collaboration. 

The Hub’s core organizations each center on one of four areas: Jewish life, breaking the cycle of poverty, agriculture and environment, or arts and culture. Several core Hub members are also grantees of the foundation or members of the Encinitas Environmental Education (E3) Cluster —– a group of local nonprofit organizations that work together, including the San Diego Botanic Garden, the Encinitas Unified School District Farm Lab, the San Dieguito Heritage Museum, the YMCA and the Seacrest Village Retirement Communities. Camhi said that, together, the organizations think “about how we leverage each other, how we can make a stronger impact by working together.” 

The Hub currently includes about 45 people working for 12 core organizations that are given dedicated office space, plus six “hot desk” organizations that are granted more limited access to the space. All Hub members “pay forward” the value of their membership by physically improving the workspace, volunteering on the farm or contributing their strengths, skills and experience to other members. “It’s about what skills you bring to the space and what you need in return,” Camhi said.

To promote collaborations, the Hub offers informal and formal structured gatherings — from smaller Friday breakfasts to larger events like the Collaboratory (a gathering for Jewish innovators and creatives) and skill-based workshops on subjects such as public speaking, time management, collaboration skills or social media. (I was an instructor in their social media boot camp program in 2014.) 

Coastal Roots Farm: nurturing farming’s Jewish values at their roots

The Leichtag Foundation’s Coastal Roots Farm grows organic produce that gets donated to a local food pantry. Photo courtesy of the Leichtag Foundation

Coastal Roots Farm (CRF) is newly renamed, but the property has a storied place in North County. Previously, it was owned by the Ecke family, who was famous for its poinsettias for the Christmas holiday season, explained Daron Joffe, CRF’s Director of Agricultural Innovation and Development, who goes by the name “Farmer D.” 

“The agricultural and community connections to this place have been cultivated for generations,” Joffe said. “One of the most potent things we can do is preserve this gem of a property that has such a symbolic nature of preserving agriculture in a place that is steeped in that from a historical perspective, and root this place into the community.” 

Joffe — who has experience in both Jewish and community farming, as well as a successful business at Farmer D Organics — and his staff aim to develop the space as a community education farm, rooted in Jewish identity “and the ancient Jewish agricultural rhythms that are relevant today and can inform how we look at the future,” he said. “It’s a way to bring the community together around the holidays and calendar cycle, using ancient traditions as a platform for community-building, education and enriching their lives, localizing the food system and strengthening the community.”

When Joffe talks about community, he’s talking about several layers, which include the Leichtag Foundation, and the interaction between the farm and the North County Hub. He’s also talking about the E3 Cluster — organizations that are stakeholders in the farm and community influencers. He’s talking about the growing worldwide movement to integrate Jewish values and tradition with contemporary agriculture. And he’s talking about using CRF as a space for training, modeling best practices and inspiring other communities to see how farms can bring people together. 

From July to September 2014, the farm grew produce for the first harvest — with community help in planting and harvesting. The yield was 3,500 pounds of organic vegetables, which they donated to a local food pantry. But then, along came shmita. 

In order to continue to provide food pantries with freshly harvested, high-quality organic food, the farm staff got inventive. Because shmita is generally understood as a command to not grow crops in the ground, they used GardenSoxx — sock-like tubes that are filled with soil and sit above ground. They also piloted an above-ground hydroponic greenhouse. The innovations produced a full harvest — since June 8, Joffe reported, CRF has donated more than 10,000 pounds of organically grown vegetables to North County food pantries. It is now coordinating its planting plans, allowing the pantries to choose their most-needed foods from a menu of options. 

During shmita, the farm team also invested internally in design, branding, logo creation, developing a theory of change and engaging the stakeholders. They also hosted a gathering on Jewish community farming, which “provided input on what the field needs, what can we do to propel the entire field forward,” Joffe said. “A lot of the key pieces will inform what we do for the next five to 10-plus years.”

The farm now offers regular programs, including vineyard days and monthly farm hangouts, which Rabkin described as “social and community-building,” and which drew a multigenerational group of 200 people.

Joffe and his team have big plans. Beyond growing and donating food, they envision that, over time, they’ll be able to sell some of their produce through a farm stand or CSA — community-supported agriculture — or even to restaurants that will bring in revenue to help sustain the farm. In the realm of education, they’ll be modeling best practices, teaching organic gardening, sustainability and homesteading to a wide variety of audiences, from children to seniors, and including those with special needs. The goal, Joffe said, was to “integrate it into the educational pipeline from early childhood through college, to learn about science, math and nutrition [that goes into farming] and tie it back to the school curriculum.” 

The 67-acre farm, Joffe said, will become “a tool for the foundation’s strategic goals.” Twenty acres are being developed as the nonprofit educational community farm. They will be partnering with Farm Forward, a nonprofit advocacy and consulting group that implements innovative strategies to promote conscientious food choices, reduce farm animal suffering and advance sustainable agriculture, to discuss tza’ar ba’alei chayim, Judaism’s injunction to avoid cruelty to animals. They are planning to pursue a large food forest project built on the idea of pe’ah, a Jewish custom of leaving a field’s corners unharvested so as to provide for the poor. In addition, they have a 2.2-acre vineyard where they are practicing orlah, the Jewish custom of refraining from partaking of the produce of a fruit-bearing tree for its first three years. Although they will not harvest until 2017, they have formed a vineyard volunteer corps. The farm is also active in promoting and teaching best practices around composting, in accordance with ba’al tashchit, the Jewish prohibition against waste.

“We have discovered that there’s a huge desire for a place like this,” Joffe said, “for events and activities that are inclusive and rooted in agriculture in a community-friendly way. There are going to be tremendous opportunities for people to enjoy and benefit from what the farm has to offer.” 

Ultimately, the foundation is focused on building sustainable, adaptable and responsive community in the present and into the future, Seidle said. “For now, we’ve identified the farm as a central pathway to that sustainable community, a platform that resonates with so many different kinds of people. But the bottom line of everything we do is about the human capital, the talent development. We are creating and nurturing our own successors, those who will lead our region to new, creative and different heights.”

Israeli farmer beaten to death, reportedly by Palestinians

An Israeli farmer died at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center after being found severely beaten in a field.

The 60-year-old Rehovot resident was discovered Wednesday afternoon in central Israel after reportedly having been beaten by Palestinians who had crossed into Israel without permits, the Times of Israel reported.

The farmer died of injuries several hours after arriving at the hospital.

The motives of his assailants have not been determined.

This Week in Jewish Farming: Packing the larder

When I was a kid, Friday nights were the coziest night of the week.

My family was strictly Shabbat observant, and Friday night meant the onset of 25 hours with no TV, no car and no cooking. It was the latter that gave those nights their warmth and intimacy. Friday afternoon was a flurry of kitchen activity, but by the time darkness fell the dining room table was laden with platters of home-cooked food and the fridge stocked with hearty provisions.

In winter, there was the added heat of my mother’s cholent simmering in the crock pot, its meaty aromas gradually building through the night and filling the house with the smell of sustenance.

My mind has flashed back to those scenes repeatedly as we’ve started pulling our winter storage crops from the ground over the past few weeks. There’s something so reassuring about seeing those stacked crates of onions and winter squash that won’t give out in a week or two like most everything else we grow. For the Sabbath of the coming winter, there will be food.

Regular readers of this space know that, for this farmer at least, worry is a constant companion. In part, it’s the nature of a CSA (community supported agriculture farm) that takes people’s money long before any seeds have been planted. Then there’s nature’s fickle ways, throwing up a relentless series of obstacles to the harvest of top-quality vegetables. And finally, of course, there’s me – hard-wired to fret.

Strange as it sounds, these storage crops are a potent — if partial — antidote to all that. Most of what we grow are fleeting, ephemeral things. Tomatoes are in season for just a short window in late summer. Kale and collards and chard can hold in the field for much longer, but they wither into nothingness within days of harvest.

Butternut squash? Now that’s a durable thing: hard and solid and capable of a little rough handling, in it for the long haul.

While they’re growing in the field, these crops are just as vulnerable as any other – and arguably more so, since winter squash typically requires 100 days or more to mature. But after harvest, once they are pulled and cured and properly stored, they morph into the endurance athletes of the plant kingdom. For months, they will retain all their nutrient goodness and hearty flavors, waiting only for the chef’s knife to release them.

Our first harvest came in early August when we pulled our onions, over 100 pounds of which are already tucked away in my apartment. Another 200 pounds of butternut and delicata squash are currently curing under a shade cloth in the greenhouse and thousands (!) of pounds more are nearly ready to be pulled from the field. Some indeterminate quantity of potatoes remains buried in the earth awaiting our shovels.

It’s an incredible relief knowing they’re there, that as autumn sets in and the first frost looms on the horizon, I’ve got a dependable stash to draw on. Much like those Friday nights of my childhood, I sleep a little more soundly (operative word being “little”) with a larder filled with nourishment.

Yes, it’s an awful lot of existential baggage for a pile of gourds and tubers to bear. Fortunately, they’re durable things.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1957, Israeli farmers successfully raised a new type of potato capable of growing in the desert heat of the Negev.


This Week in Jewish Farming: The cardinal truth of tomatoes

I will now share a cardinal truth of the life agrarian: If you give them tomatoes, all else is forgiven.

OK, the truth may only be trivial. It might not even be true. But some conviction along those lines must have lain behind my decision to plant 1,000 — yes, 1,000 — tomato plants this year. How this came to be is something that unfolded in typical fashion: I seeded a couple hundred plants in drill trays in early spring, looked at them after germination and — freaking out that they wouldn’t be nearly enough — ran to the computer to rush order more seeds that I plunged into soil immediately upon arrival, hoping they would catch up.

They did. In fact, I had hundreds extra, a predicament born partly of the local farmers market informing me after the second week I was no longer permitted to sell potted plants. Thus began a frantic effort to give away these suffering tomatoes, suffocating slowly in their pitifully inadequate four-inch pots. That endeavor was only partially successful. Earlier this week, a few dozen plants, some throwing pathetic little fruits in a last ditch attempt to pass on their genetic material, wound up in the compost pile. (It wasn’t necessarily a bad fate; there they were greeted by several hundred pounds of rotting carrots and cucumbers.)

The vast tomato planting also raised the question of where to store all those fruits between harvest and market. The answer presented itself in the form of a 14-foot box truck that hadn’t moved in months from its parking spot at the auction house across the street. Its owner was more than willing to me let me stash the truck in the shade and use the box as a ripening area, but the engine wouldn’t start when we tried to jump it. So my neighbor — a man I will write more of later, as he has quickly become as indispensable to our success this season as Fred — threw a chain under the body and towed the thing over to the farm.

All this chaos led last week to a milestone of sorts: The first appearance of tomatoes in our CSA boxes. To me, this is the real beginning of summer, the moment when the northeast’s signature warm-season crop makes its debut. If all goes well, our plants will produce a swarm of fruit over the next eight weeks. With a little luck, many will go even longer.

The inaugural tomato variety is the one I consider the finest I’ve ever tasted: The sungold. The product of the breeding genius of a Japanese seed company, this cherry tomato has a deep yellow-orange color and a flavor that is more than just sweet. With their addictive syrupy tang that bursts in your mouth, sungolds are a reliable sellout at the market. On average, I eat one for about every 10 that I harvest.

I had never encountered a sungold before 2010, when I wandered into the greenhouse of the farm I was working on in Vermont, plucked one off the vine and was transformed. Now, no self-respecting small farmer is without them. I’ve seen half pints of these things selling for as much as $4.50 at the farmers market. That’s about a quarter per cherry. Not too shabby.

The onset of the tomato harvest — now a daily task on the farm — is an opportunity to test just how eternal the truth of abundant tomato giving actually is. Not that we have anything to be forgiven for. Our boxes these last weeks have been teeming with seasonal goodness. Squash, kale, beets and basil have all made regular appearances.

But the sight of all those plants weighted down with fruit, one or two of which begin to blush red each week, has removed some weight from these shoulders, now starting to stoop with the fatigue of high season. If all else fails, there will still be tomatoes. And for that, I rest a little easier.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.



This week in Jewish farming: The moral quandaries of bunnies

We were out weeding squash last week when Fred came over to say he had to show me something but he feared it would lead to an act of violence.

Regular readers will know Fred is the farm’s sole employee. (I believe the technical term is “farm hand.”) He’s also a devout Hare Krishna, strict vegetarian and devotee of non-violence. With a prelude like that, I knew where this was heading.

Fred led me to a spot in the field, cleared away some brush, and there in a small hole were four or five baby rabbits. Fred and Raul – one of Fred’s spiritual fellow travelers and an occasional presence at the farm – were busy cooing over their find. I was completely unmoved. I realize this makes me sound like a heartless ogre, but cute as they were, I had bigger fish to fry (or rabbits to roast, if you like.)

I had seen momma bunny hopping around with her cotton tail (Fred had rather unhelpfully christened her Hare Krishna — get it?), and all I could think about when looking at those little tufts of fur was that rabbits breed like rabbits! Soon there’d be lots of Hare Krishnas running around (a Fred fantasy, I’m sure) and I’m pretty convinced they’re the ones that have been chomping on my snap peas. The babies had to go, and I knew exactly how I was going to do it.

The other regular presence on the farm is my landlord Joe. An Italian immigrant with a thick accent and a penchant for dropping the last syllable of words, Joe is a lifelong farmer, a Catholic and a carnivore. He raises a handful of goats on the farm that he kills with a small knife to the throat and butchers himself. A few weeks back, he asked me if any vendors at the market sell rabbit meat. I didn’t know, but Joe went looking himself and came up empty. I figured presenting him with this find would buy me some goodwill.

When I got back to the field, Fred was outraged at what I had done. “I feel nauseous,” he said, and I felt a wave of guilt wash over me.

As I’ve written several times in this space, I’m not interesting in unleashing hellfire on all the life at my farm that doesn’t serve the needs of my crops. For one thing, there is no such life — everything living on the farm and its environs has its place in the ecosystem, the health of which is indivisible from the health of my vegetables. For another, an arms race in the field would be both futile and ultimately self-defeating. What I’m after is balance, cultivating the various forms of life around me but managing them such that there’s space for the food we grow. Sometimes that means absorbing the hits nature delivers. Other times it’s getting the damn rabbits out of the field.

Giving Joe the bunnies seemed to have met the balance standard. The animals would serve a useful purpose as someone’s dinner. That’s killing, to be sure, but not the wanton kind. It doesn’t foreshadow my rampaging through the woods to find all the bunnies and take their lives, but it is a small measure aimed at keeping the population at manageable levels. Fred saw the matter differently: as the needless taking of life and, maybe, as a small act of betrayal.

In the end, the bunnies were spared the knife. Fred retrieved them from Joe, who apparently issued no objection. They are currently being nourished on grass in the courtyard of a Hare Krishna temple in the Hartford suburbs, awaiting the day they are strong and fit enough to venture back into the wild.

Hopefully in a field very far from mine.

This Week in Jewish Farming: Springtime for farmers

I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.

Until recently, that line from 10,000 Maniacs’ 1987 single was just a song lyric. But when I woke up Monday morning and saw a heavy wet snow falling, I swear I could hear my bones rattle.

Not long ago, the sight of an unexpected spring snow would have filled me with joy. In New York, nothing is more tranquilizing for the manic city than a heavy dusting. Today, my livelihood depends on what happens in the skies. And lately, the news hasn’t been good.

I’m not talking about reduced crop yields and other projected effects of climate change, though that’s certainly bad enough.  In many northeast cities, last month was the coldest March in 30 years. Weather records were set in dozens of places across the country. On the morning of my first day of greenhouse work in early March, the farm was so windswept and forbidden I thought I had wandered onto the set of “Fargo.” All of which has slowed down germination rates and made me worry — not that it takes a lot to do that, but whatever — that the seedlings won’t be ready for transplant later this month.

Fortunately, spring seemed to finally get its act together. Tuesday dawned warm and sunny — the first true spring day — and by noon there was scarcely a trace of white left. Something deeper seemed to shift as well. In the greenhouse, the heightened mojo was palpable. After weeks in which I measured progress in the flats by counting individual green shoots, a symphony of growth was underway. Kale, collards, beets, kohlrabi, celeriac — everything seemed to be jumping, even the much-delayed onions. In the tomato tray, one tiny cotyledon was barely peeking out of the soil when I arrived. Two hours later, the stem was standing proudly upright.

The fields are a different story, a soggy mess that will take days to dry out enough to start tilling — assuming it doesn’t rain again of course, a possibility the weatherman pegs at about 30 percent. The first crops are due to get planted outside April 28, eight weeks before the first scheduled CSA delivery. Whether that actually happens is, to a significant extent, beyond my control.

And therein lies the rub. It’s one thing to long for a life more attuned to the rhythms of the seasons. It’s another to actually surrender to them. That’s a hard thing to do when nearly 30 people have collectively given you thousands of dollars in exchange for nothing more than a promise that, come June 19 and every Thursday thereafter for 22 weeks, a box of vegetables will have their name on it.

It’s an interesting moment to pursue a career dependent on the whims of nature. Organic vegetable demand continues to grow rapidly, and there’s little doubt in my mind that if I can achieve escape velocity, I have a viable business on my hands. At the same time, the earth is doing funny things which, for some of us, mean more than just another day with a heavy coat.

Middle Eastern farmers bearing the brunt of plunging olive oil prices

The price for olive oil has dropped to its lowest level in a decade and farmers in the Middle East are bearing the brunt as Spain and Italy dump their government-subsidized stocks at below cost.

“The international market prices are going below sustainable levels,” Nasser Abu Farha, the director of Canaan Fair Trade that works with some 1,500 Palestinian farmers, told The Media Line.

The price of olive oil fell to about $2,920 per ton this month, about half of the peak price of $5,850 in 2006, according to IMF data. While the plunging olive oil prices are hitting the ailing economies of Spain, Italy and Greece, the world’s largest producers of olive oil, they are ricocheting across the Levant, too.

“There is a great deal of consolidation of the olive oil market in Spain and Italy so that the bulk of the olive oil industry is controlled by very few hands,” Abu Farha said. “These giant companies pool most of the Mediterranean olive oil and this gives them a lot of leverage on the price.”

Adi Naali, olive oil division manager of Israel’s Plant Council, said that the dumping was threatening to destroy the local olive industry.

“There is a catastrophic flood of cheap oil from Europe which is threatening the future of the olive famers in Israel,” Naali told The Media Line. “A farmer can sustain a loss for a year or so, but over time they can’t and we fear they will start uprooting their groves.”

About 95% of the world’s olive trees are in the Mediterranean region. Olive oil is so well liked and is such an integral part of the cuisine that according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Mediterranean basin countries also account for 77% of the world’s consumption.

But elsewhere around the world, olive oil consumption has dramatically risen over the past decade – largely due to the popularity of the “Mediterranean diet.” World olive oil consumption reached 2.98 million tons last year, a 3.7 % increase from 2009.

Olive oil producers have also started focusing their exports on non-traditional markets, particularly China, India and Japan.  China increased its import of olive oil by 62% in 2011, but most of the imports came from European countries.

“There was the expectation that every Chinaman would start drinking a spoon of olive oil a day, and the Indians too. That’s a lot of oil, and it is happening, but at a lower pace than expected,” Na’ali said.

The Europeans are now overstocked with olive oil and are trying to clear out their stocks by lowering prices.

“It’s harming us greatly,” Ayala Noymeir, who owns a mill producing organic olive oil in northern Israel, told The Media Line. “The major food chains [in Israel] are importing cheap oil from abroad and are selling it at rock bottom prices. They’re forcing us to get rid of our stocks at below cost.”

Noymeir said that the Europeans were able to dump their products cheaply because they were buffered by a subsidy from the European Union. Israeli customs aimed at protecting local farmers were not high enough to prevent the market from being flooded by the cheap oils from abroad.

“The problem is that when a housewife comes to the supermarket and compares prices, they are inclined to take the lower one, even if it’s lesser quality,” said Micha Noymeir, head of the family business of Rish Lekish, an organic olive mill in Tzippori.

But Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade said he believes there was room for prosperity in the olive oil specialty markets. They work with 1,500 Palestinian farmers from over 40 villages in the northern West Bank to produce olive oil, herbs and tahini. They supply major international retailers including Whole Foods in the U.S. and Sainsbury in Britain.

“The farmers who are escaping the impact of this are farmers who producing connoisseur-type specialty oils, like the farmers that we are working with, or farmers who are organized into fair trade and organic production.”

“We give the farmer a sustainable minimum regardless of the fluctuating of market prices. We give them a safety net of a minimum sustainable price, but we sell to like-minded companies in the West in Europe and North America who are willing to pay a premium on the olive oil prices when market prices are going low,” he said.

He said that olive oil production is a $200 million business in the Palestinian Authority and that it supports some 200,000 families. He said a lot of farmers who are outside their network were suffering since they have been sitting on their supplies waiting for the price to go up and a new harvest season was fast approaching.

“I see the price is going to stay low for the next couple of years, but one thing we are happy about is that we are able to sustain the $6 per-liter for our farmers at the time that it is below $3 in the market place,” Abu Farha said.

In Israel, efforts are underway to increase consumption in order to boost sales. According to the Plants Council, annual Israeli olive oil consumption is about two kilos per capita, substantially less than the 24 kilos the average Greek consumes annually.

“There was a sense that competition would be good and bring cheaper prices for the consumer but what is happening is that they are forcing the local olive farmer out of business and after that happens the importers will raise the prices,” Na’ali said.

“The Europeans are dumping their stocks and the whole market is flooded which is putting people like the Noymeirs and other farmers on the kibbutzim and in the Arab villages out of business.”

The Plant Council recently issued a quality-control sticker for Israeli olive oil which they hope will bring public confidence to the locally-made, high-quality extra virgin oils and boost sales.

Campers Hit the Great Outdoors

The tomato plants are thriving. Their leafy green stalks shoot straight out of the moist brown earth and sway gently in the breeze. The lettuce, alfalfa and spicy greens starts also look healthy. Herbs grow everywhere. This garden, like all gardens at one time, is still in its formative stage — one of promise. This garden, unlike other gardens, is planted in the shape of the state of Israel.

Nestled deep within a Malibu canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Shalom Institute, a Jewish summer camp and nature center, has planted an extensive organic garden on its grounds this year and plans to incorporate the age-old tradition of farming into its summer programs.

“I don’t think any of this is new, but it is fashionable at present,” said Becca Halpern, the camp’s program director. “First every camp needed an Olympic-sized pool, and then it was a climbing wall, now every camp has a garden.”

Perhaps the Shalom Institute’s new garden is not on the cutting edge of summer camp innovation. At this point, maybe it is not even a novel idea, but the garden represents a growing trend in Jewish education, one that brings a predominantly urban culture back to the earth.

And this movement — at least in America — has taken its time. It began in the late 19th century, introduced in the politics of Theodor Herzl, the man credited as the founder of modern Zionism. Herzl’s chief lieutenant, Parisian physician, Max Nordau, made a speech in which he called for the need to develop what he referred to as “muscle Judaism.”

“If, unlike other peoples, we do not conceive of [physical] life as our highest possession, it is nevertheless very valuable to us and thus worthy of careful treatment,” Nordau said at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. “Let us take up our oldest traditions. Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

So how does an organic garden at a JCC summer camp relate to the high-minded ideals of famous Zionists? Well, Halpern explains, the garden is really a metaphor. It is a way of teaching Jewish concepts, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), or tzedakah, which Halpern translates as justice — or more specifically, environmental justice.

And the campers, literally, eat it up.

“I talk about edible and medicinal plants with 10-year-olds,” Halpern said. She makes her point, however, by taking them into the woods and scavenging snacks.

Another summer program has taken this concept of bringing campers into nature to an entirely different level. Yael Ukeles runs Teva Adventure, an outdoor adventure program jointly based in New York and Jerusalem. Teva Adventure has teamed up with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to offer wilderness trips rich in outdoor survival skills and Jewish education.

The organizations’ pilot program last summer was a trip for boys to the wilds of Alaska, where the predominantly Orthodox participants learned skills such as ice-climbing and glacier-hiking, while finding time to pray three times a day and observe Shabbat.

“I think there are a lot of programs like this in the secular world and I think the Jewish community is following suit,” Ukeles recently said by phone from Israel. “A person who is Jewish should be able to participate in a program like this inside the Jewish community; they shouldn’t have to go outside the Jewish community. It is also educationally, a tremendous opportunity, not just in a social Jewish context, but a tremendous opportunity to do Jewish education.”

Ukeles worked with NOLS instructors to build a curriculum that synthesized outdoor skills and Jewish education throughout the trip. She explained that the program relied heavily on metaphors to make a point.

For example, the group drew parallels between their journey and other famous journeys in Jewish history, such as the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. Also, when the boys were tied together as a rope team, while hiking a glacier, the group talked about how this symbolized the connection between all Jews.

The boys also learned how to keep kosher in the outdoors. They cooked together before Shabbat, learned how to erect an eruv and even made challah without an oven under the open sky.

For Gavi Wolf, an 11th-grader from Passaic, N.J., the trip was a “crazy success.”

“The whole experience of being in Alaska was so unreal,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Ukeles. “It was funny because although I had the heaviest physical weight on my back that I have every (sic) had, I felt more at ease and unburdened than I have ever have before. I was with people that I loved in an extraordinary place.”

It is Wolf’s last thought that sums up the single most important factor in the success of any summer program for youths, be it a JCC camp or a wilderness adventure. According to a recent survey by the National Study of Youth and Religion, which measures U.S. teenagers’ involvement in religious summer camps, the thing participants value most is a sense of community.

“If there is one story here that is coming out of the data, it is that summer camp is as much of a cultural activity or more so than a religious activity,” said Dr. Philip Shwadel, a researcher for the project. “They feel more at ease with [other] Jewish kids, especially the ones who don’t live in highly Jewish areas.”

The ability of summer programs to connect Jewish youths from different backgrounds is unparalleled. Like members of a kibbutz, they live and learn together in the natural world. One parent of a Teva Adventure participant noted this lesson and, like the Zionists of old, offered his own philosophy on the future of Judaism.

“Judaism can reach its zenith only through the cooperation of diverse individuals and groups,” Craig Wichell from Sebastopol, in Northern California, wrote in a letter about his son’s outdoor experience. “In Judaism, we each have our role to play.”

While the founders of modern Zionism called for Jews to recreate their more physical past in the present, Ukeles hopes Jews will do this while bringing Jewish education to the outdoors.

“In our climate-controlled lives, we go from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car or a heated house to a heated car,” she said. “It is easy to lose touch and these programs remind us that we are not necessarily running the show here. There is something bigger and in the context of the world, we are small and God is big.”

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