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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