A kibbutz blossoms in Santa Rosa

After enduring 54 days of clearing brush, creating a mud hut from the ground up and tending to several farm animals, the builders of Operation Kibbutz Yarok were ready for its dedication.

“This kibbutz has become my home,” said 16-year-old Julia Sauerhaft. “I came here every day. And when I didn’t, my day wasn’t complete.”

But she wasn’t in Israel. Not even close.

Sauerhaft was in the hills of Santa Rosa not as a kibbutznik, but as an “Avodahnik” — the nickname for participants in the Avodah session at Camp Newman-Swig.

During eight weeks of summer camp from mid-June through last week, Sauerhaft and roughly 45 other 15- and 16-year-olds worked tirelessly to get the kibbutz up and running.


Julia Sauerhaft (front), Eliana Rosen and Nathan Strich work on the mud hut.

Yet the kibbutz still needs a few more summers of work. Future Avodah sessions will take up the project and work toward its completion. When camp is not in session, Maureen Glenn, Camp Newman-Swig’s facilities and retreat center director, will oversee the kibbutz.


On July 31, Camp Newman-Swig Executive Director Ruben Arquilevich, camp staff members and Rabbi Sholom Groesberg, who funded the project, linked arms with the campers, many of whom were still covered in mud.

They sang songs, blessed the land and listened as some of the teen campers spoke about a space that became more and more sacred as their weeks at camp passed.

“Whenever I go to the lake [where the kibbutz is situated], I have to sit there, because it’s so peaceful,” said Nathan Strich, 16. “This is our project, and I know future campers will come out here and enjoy its beauty.”

Kibbutz Yarok features a barn that houses Monte the mule, a goat named Puff (who acts more like a dog) and other animals.

Across from the barn, a garden of organic vegetables, fruits and herbs is thriving. Throughout the summer, campers took turns plucking eggplants, tomatoes, strawberries, peapods and corn to incorporate into Shabbat dinners.

Perhaps the most labor-intensive aspect of the camp was the fairly large mud hut, which fits about 30 people standing shoulder to shoulder. It was constructed with a frame of recycled tires, dirt that was piled high in wheelbarrows and ample buckets of water from the nearby lake.

“I had a parent tell me that for six years, he was trying to get his daughter to take out the trash,” said Ari Vared, Camp Newman-Swig’s assistant director. “Then he watched as she repeatedly rolled a wheelbarrow filled with dirt up a hill to the hut. It was a great moment.”


Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff explains the ritual of placing a mezuzah in a slanted position. photos/amanda pazornik

As part of the dedication ceremony, Israeli Ido Maor, whose home on Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Arava Valley inspired Yarok’s design, and Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff from Temple Israel in Stockton, affixed a mezuzah to the hut’s entrance.


“We are performing a great mitzvah today,” Gwasdoff said as he held up the white mezuzah for the crowd to see. “Just by putting our hands into mud and onto its walls, this beautiful house teaches us so much about sustainability and protecting the earth.”

Seated on a bench inside the hut was 88-year-old Groesberg, the former dean of engineering at Widener University in Chester, Pa., and founder and rabbi emeritus of Contra Costa County’s first and only Jewish Renewal congregation, Shir Neshamah. He referred to his experience with the Avodahniks as “inspiring.”

“I am impressed and thrilled,” he said. “This project is extremely appealing because it combines the two vocations in my life: engineering and the rabbinate.”

As part of the Avodah session, the teens were tasked with other duties around camp. They set tables for Shabbat dinners, led Torah studies and ran a small AIDS awareness campaign to fulfill the social action component of the experience. 

But by all accounts, the teens’ most memorable part of summer camp was biking the dirt path to Kibbutz Yarok at 6 a.m. and working until the sun started setting behind the mountains.

“It’s so cool, so amazing,” Sauerhaft said. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”