Award winner to launch garden for Arab, Jewish kids

Matthew Zoloth-Levy leads a double life. By day the 22-year-old Berkeley resident works on an Oakland horse ranch helping troubled teens. But he spends his nights planning for his dream year working and studying in Israel.

Next year the winner of the annual Haas Koshland Memorial Award will leave his job with Americorps — a national volunteer program modeled after the Peace Corps — to turn his dream into reality. Come February the recent college graduate will head to Israel to launch an organic garden created and maintained by Arab and Jewish children.

"The more I read about what's going on in Israel, the more I realize this is something I have to do," he said.

Although anxious to leave for Israel, Zoloth-Levy is equally driven to complete his work with Americorps, aiding Bay Area teens who are struggling to overcome a range of emotional and behavioral problems.

"We take these kids out riding, give them a horse to care for and in the process teach them a sense of responsibility," he said.

While sad to leave the troubled teens, Zoloth-Levy said the projects he'll undertake in Israel as a Haas Koshland Award winner are more along the lines of what he really wants to do.

He'll be applying the grant toward a year that includes plans to start the organic garden with elementary school children at Neve Shalom, a community of Jews and Arabs who live together on a moshav outside Jerusalem.

He also will collaborate in cultivating an organic community garden with members of Kibbutz Keturah in the desert north of Eilat, and will study at both the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located within Kibbutz Keturah, and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Established in 1982 in memory of Daniel E. Koshland and Walter A. Haas, the Haas Koshland Award funds a year of study and enrichment in Israel for outstanding students like Zoloth-Levy. The merit award is initiated and administered by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund.

For the past 13 years, the award has been funded with unrestricted grants from the JCEF, according to Frances Geballe, chair of the Haas Koshland Award committee and a daughter of Koshland.

However, two years ago, in an effort to ensure that it continues in perpetuity, Geballe and her family established a permanent Haas Koshland Endowment Fund, now totaling some $265,548.

Discussing this year's winner, Geballe said he was chosen from a strong group of candidates. "With Matthew, it was his enthusiasm that really stood out," she said. "He was so sure of what he wanted to do and anxious to get on with his future."

Zoloth-Levy, a graduate in religious studies from Claremont's Pomona College, said: "My ultimate hope is to create a center of intellectual Jewish learning that is entwined and sustained by farming and environmental action.

"This gesture of farming is not simply a nostalgic re-enactment of pre-Exodus days, it is the beginning of a response to the most immediate crisis confronting myself and my generation. Our shattering of the global ecosystem demands that we enact a radical tikkun," he said, alluding to tikkun olam, Hebrew for repairing the world.

An aspiring rabbi who attends the modern-Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Zoloth-Levy strives to one day launch a Jewish environmental center in the United States.

He found out about the award through a bulletin board at San Francisco State University, where his mother, Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, heads the Jewish studies department.

Although the award comes with no strings attached, Zoloth-Levy said he feels a sense of obligation to "turn this blessing into lifelong acts of creation within and for the Jewish community."