In Boulder, new JCC marries goats and Judaism

There’s not much to see yet at the site of this city’s new Jewish community center, just some trailers and earth-moving equipment covered in snow.

But the first inhabitants already are on site living in a pair of sheds. Though it’s cold, they don’t complain much. That’s because they’re goats and chickens.

With five goats and some 40 hens, the animal farm is a key part of the $27 million center slated to open on 12 acres in the summer of 2016. Already operating as a co-op for fresh eggs and goat’s milk, the farm is also one of the elements that makes this JCC highly unusual. Here are a few others: The JCC will have no full-service gym or indoor swimming pool – or membership fees.

“I think the whole idea of what Jewish engagement is in the 21st century has been changing,” Jonathan Lev, executive director of the Boulder JCC, told JTA. “We want to capture what people love and overlay it with Jewish values. For many, coming to the farm and milking goats and taking care of the chickens is their Jewish engagement.”

Boulder’s JCC, founded in 2005 and currently located on a smaller site elsewhere in town, is focused on its preschool and community programming rather than on membership. The institution is guided by four pillars reflective of values dear to local Jews and Boulder residents generally: food and wellness; innovation; arts and culture; and early childhood education. Its $2.7 million operating budget is covered by program fees and fundraising.

For the innovation pillar, the JCC launched a Jewish overnight entrepreneurship camp last summer, Camp Inc., in Steamboat Springs. For arts and culture, Lev cites Boulder’s annual Jewish film festival, now in its third year and held every March. On early childhood education, the JCC’s popular preschool is one of four getting special support from the Rose Community Foundation, the Union for Reform Judaism and the JCC Association to increase enrollment and build stronger Jewish connections.

The farm is the anchor of the food and wellness piece. Some 20 family members already belong to the co-op, taking shifts about once a week to clean poop, refresh the feed and milk the goats by hand. In exchange, they receive fresh milk and eggs. The farm, which may be the only Jewish animal husbandry co-op in the country, is also open to occasional milkers and the wider Jewish community.

“The farm is this idea of connecting people, having them engage in something meaningful and building community around it,” said Lev, 36, who at the time of his hire in 2010 was the youngest JCC director in the country – as well as the fledgling JCC’s first full-time employee. “Twenty-first century Judaism and Jewish life is determined by the connection points people make. People are searching for meaning. And they’re finding it in unique ways. People go to farms on a regular basis here. What would it mean for them to go to a Jewish farm?”

Last year, when one of the goats went into labor on Purim, holiday revelers in costume came to watch the birth, naming the newborn Vashti after the Persian queen from the Book of Esther. Now three of the five goats are pregnant, with due dates around Passover – perfect timing to turn the milk into cheese by Shavuot, a holiday traditionally focused on dairy foods.

“Getting to go out for a visit with the animals is really great therapy for the average person,” said Becca Weaver, the JCC’s farm and sustainability director. “A lot of people do other things, sit at a computer all day. Getting out and bonding with the animals is very intimate and tactile.”

Then there’s the Jewish social justice component. The community decided to stop milking the pregnant goats several weeks before their due dates to adhere to the traditional injunction against causing animals unnecessary distress. When new chicks are brought to the farm, they’ll come from humane breeding operations rather than the “cruelty of the industrial food system,” Weaver said.

Weaver’s parents’ family charity, the Oreg Foundation, donated the land on which the JCC is being built – part of a 32-acre parcel the family foundation purchased 15 years ago for a future Jewish community campus.

“The JCC is the first recipient of a land grant from the foundation,”said Julie Shaffer, executive director of the Oreg Foundation. “It’s Oreg Foundation’s hope that there will be other community institutions that will come forward and want to be on the campus.”

The new JCC capital campaign needs $3 million more to reach its $27 million goal.

When it’s complete, the JCC will house a preschool, social hall, meeting rooms, yoga studio, sports fields, playgrounds and summer camp facilities. Two acres will be devoted to the farm, which will include greens, strawberries, raspberries, apples, plums and beehives. There will be handicapped-accessible raised beds, an outdoor kitchen and child-friendly education space. The veggies will be organic and excess food will be donated to the Boulder Food Rescue, which collects donations by bicycle to avoid using fossil fuels. In keeping with the focus on high environmental standards, the JCC building will be LEED-certified.

It’s all very Boulder – a university town of some 100,000 with the social consciousness of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley, and the farming and ranching sensibility of the West.

Boulder’s Jewish community is relatively young and growing quickly. The most recent Jewish demographic survey, in 2007, found about 13,000 Jews living in 7,600 Jewish households in Boulder County, located about 40 minutes northwest of Denver.

“A lot of these people have zero affiliation or interest in Jewish community,” Lev said. “But the possibility of engagement is tremendous because of the large Jewish population.”

Half a century ago, there was just one synagogue in town. But the Jewish presence grew considerably as technology companies moved to the city, the university grew and Boulder’s location in the foothills of the Rockies drew outdoors enthusiasts. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, moved here in 1995. The University of Colorado-Boulder launched a Jewish studies program in 2007 and now has a kosher eatery. Boulder has two Jewish Renewal synagogues, a couple of Chabad centers and one Reform, one Orthodox and one Conservative shul. An online Jewish news site, Boulder Jewish News, was launched in 2009.

At the JCC, the budget has more than doubled since Lev came on in 2010, and he said 4,000 people were reached last year through programming.

“The JCC provides so many portals into Jewish life,” Oreg’s Shaffer said. “This community offered Jonathan opportunities for professional growth, and he’s paying us back many times over for his vision of what this community can be.”

The goat herd: A story of chevre, Shavuot and backyard goats [RECIPE]

The most common question people ask when they visit our home is: “Why the goats?”

We live in the city. A few houses west of us, four lanes of Lincoln

Boulevard traffic roar past day and night. Planes from cursed Santa Monica Airport buzz overhead. And on any given night, sometime between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., an LAPD helicopter will make sure to flood our bedroom with its searchlight. It’s Venice, man.

Two years ago, into this urban landscape, I brought our first goat.

Yes, I said goat. Yes, I said first.

My daughter and I were at John’s Feed, buying chickens. John’s, I assume, is a holdover from the days when Huntington Park was surrounded by farmland; there is no other reason for a ramshackle feed store in the midst of a treeless landscape of warehouses and strip malls. 

John’s Feed stockpiles the chickens that end up next door at a live butcher shop called La Princesa. I usually buy chickens there for egg-laying. They are already full-grown, and I get the added pleasure of taking a creature off death row. On this day, when my daughter and I showed up, we noticed that, in the same crowded, feces-filled pen with the chickens, stood one miserable goat.

She was standing on her hind legs, straining to look out the window to the street.

We took her.

But why have goats? I often wonder if it’s in my blood. Eskimos have 30 words for snow. Jews have more than a dozen words for goat. You and I are generations removed from our agrarian ancestors, but their relationship with the world’s first domesticated animal lives on in our language. Azmaveth and tsaphir are he-goats. Gaddiel, a holy goat. Gedi, a young goat. Jaala and seirah are young she-goats. Ez, a she goat. Tayish, a butting he goat. Uzzah, a strong goat. Zibiah and aqqo, zemer, dishon and yael — mountain and desert goats. Ancient Jews depended on goat meat and milk for food; they slept in goat-hair tents. Their closeness created empathy: Jews were revolted by the thought of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and so, today, we can’t eat cheeseburgers. There is a Hebrew word for hell: azazel, familiar to us from Yom Kippur. It translates literally as “lost goat.” Hell, for Hebrew, was when you lost your goat.

The Christians saw goats as the devil. The apostles saw themselves as sheep and Jesus as their shepherd.

Sheep huddle together and look to the shepherd for direction. Goats are stubborn and willful. The word capricious, meaning picky and discerning, comes from the Latin capro, for goat. Goats break fences and, thus, rules. Sheep are grazers, content to munch the grass at their feet. Goats are browsers — they refuse the grass and strive to eat the trees and bushes just beyond their reach.

Goats are deeply communal, bonded to one another. Sheep run, goats stand their ground. (Thoroughbred trainers used to calm their skittish horses by placing a fearless goat in their stall. To throw a race, you would sneak into the stall at night and get someone’s goat. A cliché was born.)

Story continues after the jump.

Rob Eshman’s goats: Ollie, left, and Goldie Horn

In Matthew 25:33, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus tells how he will judge nations when he returns: “And [Jesus] will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on his left.” Sheep go to heaven, goats to hell. The horns Christians imagined on Jewish heads did not make them look like the devil: They made them look like goats.

Is it any wonder that goat beside the butcher shop called out to me? It’s not just that I couldn’t see her ending up as birria — Mexican goat stew — or chavito — split, grilled goat. It’s that we shared cultural DNA.

I had driven my wife’s Prius to John’s Feed Store that day. The goat, a black-and-white Nigerian pygmy about the size of a small spaniel, went into a cardboard box and into the trunk. Somewhere on the 110 Freeway North, I heard a crash. Her two devilish horns had busted the packing tape, and I drove home with a goat in the rear view mirror.

We named her Goldie Horn. When my wife arrived home from a work trip, she found her car had been completely waxed outside and detailed inside. She said I was the nicest husband in the world. Then she saw the goat.

We moved Goldie into a spacious side yard. But goats, every goat book informed me, care about two things: food and companionship. See, I explained to my wife, they are Jewish. Soon my daughter and I visited a goat rescue and returned with a dun-colored mutt goat we named Ollie.

But why goats, people still ask.

To which I often answer: Why not? Nobody walks into your house and asks, “Why dogs?” even if your pet is not fit to protect, or hunt, or even play. No one asks, “Why fish?” though you can’t eat them, or, “Why canaries?” though they don’t lay eggs. And no one asks, “Why cats?”— except me.

Goats don’t bark or scratch. In our urban ecosystem, their odorless pellets work like plant steroids, replacing the need to buy fertilizer. They come when I call them, will stand on two legs for treats and enjoy a good scratch. As I write this, Goldie is rubbing her head against the card table I’ve set up in my backyard. In a moment, I’ll let her butt the palm of my hand.  It’s a game we play.

It is weird, I know, but it really isn’t.

On Sunday mornings, I use a broom and dustbin to scoop up the layer of goat pellets, crushed dry hay and soil that carpets the animal pen. The dust plumes up and coats my face and fills my nostrils. It’s a fantastic smell — exactly like a fine unlit cigar passed under your nose. Next time someone is reaching for words to describe their $200 Cohiba, just say, “Hay, dust and goat s—-.”

I don’t even mind when I forget to feed them first thing in the morning. I have to go out after I’ve showered and dressed in my suit, carrying a slice of timothy hay, their pebbly poops squishing under my black polished shoes. I can see my wife, Naomi, at the window, watching — just like she did at the window of the Mendocino B&B one morning of our honeymoon when she saw me down by the shore tasting the seaweed. It’s a look that says, “Who, exactly, did I marry?”

I don’t tell her that when they break out of their pen and tiptoe into my study, Goldie always tries to nip a page from the same book — one of Naomi’s ancient Hebrew treatises on Jewish mysticism.

These goats, I swear to her, have made me a better Jew. Abraham, Itzhak, Yaakov, Moses and David were not scholars or preachers. They were the original men who stare at goats. Not surprisingly, the cycles of our holidays play out according to the cycles of these animals. That’s especially true now, during the holiday of Shavuot. 

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It’s traditional to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and blintzes during the festival. The rabbis will tell you that’s because Torah is like mother’s milk to us. But my goats teach me something different.

Goldie and Ollie have been fixed. But when spring arrives, Ollie still yearns after Goldie, and a long-dead urge reawakens, and he tries. If they weren’t city goats, rescued from other people’s appetites, Goldie would be kidding now, her milk flowing. There would be more than we could drink, and we would be making cheese, and out of the cheese, blintzes.

The first milk the Hebrews drank, the first simple cheese they made, came from goats.

“Why goats?” people ask, and then they answer their own question with another: “Do you milk them?”

No, but a few months ago, my goats inspired me to take a cheese-making class from Steve Rudicel, owner of Mariposa Creamery in Altadena, the only goat dairy in Los Angeles. Rudicel, a young, sturdy farmer type, started the class with a brief explanation.

“Milk needs to be small,” he said. “Milk needs to be local. Seek out quality dairy ingredients. It makes a big difference in the lives of the animals. The hardest-working part of the dairy farm is the animals. We’ve lost respect for the animals.”

Rudicel paused. 

“Goats are some of the sweetest creatures I’ve ever met,” he went on. “I’m often moved by the milk we make.”

In front of about 75 people, Rudicel had to stop to compose himself. 

“Why goats?” That’s the answer. These animals start out in your blood, but they quickly make their way to your heart.


Fresh goat cheese is one of the easiest foods you can make. It takes five minutes of active cooking time, over two days. And its taste is far superior to the standard logs of chevre cheese product available in gourmet stores.
All specialty items are available by mail-order at


Good liquid thermometer
Large spoon
Large, clean pot
Cheese maker’s muslin or molds


1 gallon pasteurized goat milk (I use Summerhill Dairy, which is readily available at Trader Joe’s. It costs $3 quart, or $12 a gallon, which yields just over 1 pound of goat cheese.)
1/8 teaspoon MM100 or MM101 starter cultures 
3 drops vegetable rennet
1/4 cup spring or distilled (not tap) water 

Heat milk gently to 74 degrees F.

Add a scant 1/8 teaspoon starter culture and stir for two minutes.

Dissolve rennet in spring water. Add to milk and stir for 2 minutes.

Drape a towel over pot and leave at room temperature for 12 to 20 hours. The curds are ready when they appear solidified and liquid whey floats on top. 

Ladle curds into cheese maker’s muslin, tie around a wooden spoon or dowel and suspend over a pot. Allow to drip at room temperature overnight. Or, you can ladle into cheese molds and allow to drain overnight.

Unwrap cheese, sprinkle with sea salt, drizzle with great olive oil, and it’s ready to eat. You can also stir in seasonings (salt, chives, etc.), then cover and refrigerate.

Makes slightly more than 1 pound of cheese, enough to fill about 6 chevre molds.