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.”
For more information on summer programs, visit
A Portion of Parshat Re’eh
In this portion, God tells us something so important that it is mentioned twice: Do not sacrifice anywhere but in the Temple. Why is this so important? Why can’t the Israelites build an altar to God anywhere? It’s similar to the idea of “appropriate restaurant behavior,” a phrase your parents might have mentioned to you a few times.
It is not proper to run barefoot around the restaurant, waving a baseball bat and screaming: “Dodgers rule!” But you can do that, say, at camp or on the beach, if you are properly supervised. Same thing with the sacrifices. God and the Levites felt that sacrifices needed to be controlled and properly supervised, just in case the Israelites got out of hand and started acting in ways that might not be appropriate for Jews who follow God’s commandments. And, they added, it is not the actual sacrifice of an animal that is important. It is the intention and the prayer that accompanies it. The moral of this story is: everything has its time and place.
Mitzvah Garden Nature Project
In this week’s portion, God says to Israel: Choose the right way to live your life. If you follow the commandments, I will bring lots of rain and food to your land. So here is an idea for a mitzvah:
Plant a garden — large or small. You will not get any rain in the summer, so help God by watering and weeding every day. When the flowers bloom, cut them, wrap them or put them in a vase and bring them to someone as a present. Maybe to your friend who needs cheering up or to your grandparents who want a special visit.
A Portion of Parshat Ekev
My Mother’s Kitchen: A Natural Disaster Area
My mother had a green thumb. Too bad she employed it in the kitchen, not the garden. To her credit, she was such a good housekeeper, you could have eaten off her floors. Which, unfortunately, was preferable to eating off her plates.
There are people, I’m aware, who are terror-stricken at the mere thought of visiting a dentist. I, however, who am as prone to fear and panic as anyone and more than most, can snap my fingers at the drillmaster. It’s all a matter of early conditioning. For compared to some of the culinary disasters concocted by my mother, root canal isn’t all that threatening. In fact, many was the time I used to wish I had anything, including cotton wadding, to nosh on, so long as it hadn’t been prepared by you-know-who.
We had a weekly dinner schedule in our house. Monday, we dined on meatloaf or lamb chops; we could tell them apart because the chops had one big bone, and the meatloaf had hundreds of tiny ones. On Tuesday, we had salmon patties. On Wednesday, we’d receive a care package from the local deli. Thursday, we had tuna fish and leftovers. Friday was our night for boiled chicken and barley soup. After all these years, I don’t recall what, besides indigestion, we had on the weekend.
If my mother could be said to have had specialties, they would have been her Tuesday and Friday night offerings. I don’t know who first invented the salmon patty, but I suspect he must have been related to the shmo who dreamed up chipped beef on toast. My mother used to sweat over those darn salmon patties, which didn’t help their flavor any, but probably didn’t hurt, either. At dinner, she would glower at me as I studied the orange-and-yellow creations, trying to determine, in “20 Questions” fashion, whether the objects would qualify as animal, vegetable or mineral.
My mother would remind me on such occasions that children were starving in Europe. I would urge her to mail my dinner to Poland. The nice part about my plan was that the patties wouldn’t have required wrapping. Put a stamp on one of those babies and it could have been mailed to starving children on the moon.
As if Tuesday night weren’t hardship enough, on Wednesday my lunch bag would contain a salmon patty on stale white bread. Go try to swap one of those for a cupcake! On Wednesday, believe me, I was quite prepared to keep the salmon patties and mail my mother to Europe.
It was on Friday, though, that she truly outdid herself. There are people, I understand, who absolutely adore barley soup. Which only proves, as the missionary said to the cannibal chief, that there’s no accounting for taste.
I was able to hold a spoonful of barley soup in my mouth for a remarkably long time. I could probably have kept it in there for a month, if one can possibly survive a month without swallowing. Actually, I would eventually swallow the soup; that is, the liquid portion. I would manage this by slowly and ever so carefully filtering the liquid through my teeth. This would eventually leave me, though, with a mouthload of barley. I would sooner have swallowed hemlock. After about half an hour, my parents would finally cave in. The soup would be removed from my presence and the entree would be served. It is hard to describe boiled chicken to those whom fate has spared. But such a chicken, one can safely assume, doesn’t get to go to barnyard heaven.
It always seemed to me that the Allies missed a golden opportunity to end World War II long before 1945 rolled around. It would have meant sneaking my mother into the kitchen of the German High Command. As I see this daring plan taking shape, by Tuesday night, there would have been a vague, but general, queasiness among the various field marshals. By Wednesday, when Goebbels and Goring discovered salmon patty sandwiches in their lunch bags, morale would have begun plummeting. And, by Friday evening, when Der Fuhrer himself would have been sitting with a mouthful of barley, while my mother noodged him about all the starving children in Milwaukee, you could have started the countdown to unconditional surrender.
Home Care — A Right, Not an Option