Nurturing their roots: Fellows flock to Berkeleys Jewish urban farm

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It’s 9 a.m. on a brisk Monday morning and Aliza Gazek and Molly Fischman are happily plucking kale from the earth.

They laugh and chat about the day’s activities while harvesting the kale, along with chard and red-leaf lettuce, to donate to the LifeLong Medical Care Clinic. Beyond them, Berkeley’s morning commuters whiz past a chain-link fence.

Just two hours earlier the women — along with 10 other fellows from around the country — were engaged in quiet, contemplative Torah discussions, sitting cross-legged in the sunny front room of their temporary living quarters.

Gazek, 20, and Fischman, 22, are part of the first batch of cohorts to live, work and learn at Urban Adamah, a new Jewish community farm and education center in west Berkeley. The one-acre plot of urban land sits near San Pablo Avenue, anchored by a bar on one side and a bookstore on the other.

The 12 young adults are spending their summer learning about organic farming, social justice and how it all connects to progressive Jewish values. They run educational programs for children and the wider community, utilizing the farm’s open learning tents, outdoor kosher kitchen, chicken coops and rounded greenhouses. They live communally in a teal, two-story house a few blocks from the farm.

Each day begins with Avodat Lev — or “service of the heart.” While the morning session will be led by different cohorts as the weeks go on, in these early stages they are guided primarily by Adam Berman, the executive director of Urban Adamah and creator of the program itself.

Berman, who attended U.C. Berkeley before graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island, returned to Berkeley to go to business school from 1999 to 2001, then served seven years as executive director of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.

There he founded Adamah, an environmental leadership-training program for Jewish young adults, in 2003. The other Adamah was similar in spirit to Urban Adamah; however, it was in a rural area, so there were far fewer visitors to the center. Fellows focused solely on the food justice model rather than community outreach.

“We’re creating a replicable model,” Berman says of the Berkeley program. “It’s our hope in the coming years that we have an Urban Adamah in other cities.”

The 40-year-old returned to the Bay Area last year and announced plans for Berkeley’s Urban Adamah farm in September.

With a staff of four and the help of more than 50 volunteers throughout the past year, the farm was ready to welcome its first cohorts June 5 and the public during a grand opening farm festival June 19. That kickoff event included speeches by Berkeley urban farming icon Novella Carpenter and a local city council member, discussions on the philosophy of farming and fresh pizzas baked in the farm’s on-site cob oven.


Robin Haguewood, a farm fellow at Urban Adamah, picks kale. photo/cathleen maclearie

Now, after the introductory dust has settled and the cohorts are used to the daily routines, they’re ready to discuss Torah teachings, sing songs and read poetry with Berman at 7 a.m. on a weekday morning. Seated on rounded blue pillows, they are wrapped in blankets or wear sweatshirts and socks, with blurry eyes and messy morning hair.


The purpose of the session is to ground the experience and share with one another, Berman says. Despite the early meet-up time, the participants, who range in age from 19 to 26, are remarkably well spoken, each adding personal experiences and thoughtful ideas to the discussion.

They next gather to hang the glass mezuzah on the front door — it has just come in from Berman’s wife, Deena Aranoff, a professor of Jewish studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. She will lead occasional yoga and Jewish learning classes at the farm.

After the daily meditation and morning prayers, the dozen young cohorts amble up a set of stairs and gather around a long wooden table for breakfast. One person offers her homemade granola to the group while another begins a lively discussion on politics.

Seth Harris stands in the kitchen waiting for his hot water to boil. The tall, 24-year-old Pasadena native is in a major transition in his life. Harris says he knew he wanted to work on a farm this summer after spending last summer on a biodynamic farm in Nova Scotia.

“I fell in love with the work,” he says. “There was this tremendous sense of gratitude for the work we’d done. I’d never worked hard enough to ever really rest until working on that farm.”


Aliza Gazek

He grew interested in agriculture after graduating from college, while living and working in Chicago through Jewish service corps Avodah.


In Nova Scotia, while stacking 30-pound bales of hay and pulling weeds while on his hands and knees, he had a religious awakening of sorts, though he likely wouldn’t describe it that way.

“I felt connected in a way that I’ve never felt connected to a high power,” he explains. “It wasn’t like a mystical experience. It was this huge thing, it was right here, right now — this is it. It was this profound sense of everyday and the ordinary and I wanted to see the connections between life, living, surviving, the natural world and what my faith had to say about that.”

That experience led him to Urban Adamah.

Later on the site, farm manager Tali Weinberg goes over a list of agricultural projects for the next week, including seeding, planting squash, composting and beginning to donate to local food banks.

One corner of the farm, dubbed peah, will soon be a free farm stand. Ninety percent of the produce grown at the farm will go to people in need, the remainder will go to the staff and fellows. Berman calls it a kind of “reverse tzedakah.”


Adam Berman, the executive director of Urban Adamah

Beneficiaries will be food banks, homeless kitchens and other nonprofits that feed the needy. For example, Covenant Ministry, a church located behind the farm, will receive produce for its free, Saturday night dinners, which are mostly attended by the homeless and others in extreme need, Berman says.


Bay Area land is expensive, and Urban Adamah got lucky when Wareham Development decided to donate the land for a temporary site. But the project may only be able to stay for two or three years, though Berman is hoping to extend that time frame.

Because of this transitory nature, the farm’s infrastructure is entirely portable. It’s an innovation conceived by Berman and Weinberg, with an above-ground planting system designed by permaculturalist and carpenter Sid Saunders.

In addition to needing movable elements, Berman notes that environmental factors also created design challenges: The soil on the site, like much urban land, is contamintated. Urban Adamah met this challenge by using Saunders’ design: wooden pallet beds that are transportable and prevent the roots of the crops from touching the soil.

Along with the raised beds (which currently hold squash, beans and herbs), there are chicken coops on wheels, and a fruit tree nursery in pots that will propagate hundreds of trees to the community.

There also are rows of raised beds on imported soil, where the chard, kale, broccoli and fennel currently grow.


Rebecca Guenoun

As curly-haired Gazek harvests the greens, the morning sun peeks over hazy early summer clouds and the Stanford student discusses how she got here.


“I’m passionate about social justice issues and really interested in how food systems work,” she says. “I thought this would be a great place to do it, especially given the Jewish context.”

Gazek was raised in a Reform household with a big emphasis on local and organic food — which, she says, is common in her native Santa Cruz.

She sees the new Jewish farming movement — which includes projects such as Hazon’s Jewish Farm School and the Teva Learning Center in New York — as simply a move back to Judaism’s agrarian roots, and likens the movement to the idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

“The concept of repair seems so much more applicable and makes so much more sense when you’re looking at this place where we’ve built up everything. There are food deserts where people just don’t have access to food.

“It’s like we’ve gone past the point of sustainability,” she adds. “None of this is new, it’s just reconnecting [with the past].”

Rebecca Guenoun, a sweet-mannered and soft-spoken student at Vassar College, is working in a nearby greenhouse. Wearing gardening gloves and crouched over potted tomato plants and peppers, she spreads crushed crab shells in the soil for growth.

She, too, is interested in nutrition and food justice issues, but wasn’t sure how that could manifest in the real world. And there’s another side to her interest in Urban Adamah: After growing up in a “Conservadox” household on New York City’s Upper West Side, she’s been struggling lately with her Jewish identity at her very secular college. Quite frankly, she’s in Berkeley to find herself.

Guenoun is hoping to bring back “a better understanding of self, along with general knowledge about farming and agriculture,” she says.


Breakfast with the fellows

So far she loves her experience on the farm. Along with the manual labor, she also likes baking using the center’s outdoor cob oven. Made of clay, straw and sand, it was built in a workshop on location. The cohorts have made pita bread, challah for their weekly Shabbat dinners and more than a few pizzas.


Guenoun cites living with the other fellows and the community vibe of the house and work as the best part, though, as does nearly every other cohort.

“Growing up, I never thought I would be into this sort of thing — dirt used to gross me out,” she says, laughing. “Now I’m lying down in plant beds for hours at a time. I like learning about where my food comes from.”

Fischman is also in the process of figuring out her place in life. The smiley Philadelphia native just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in linguistics and Spanish. She bought a one-way ticket to Berkeley and plans to see if she can find work in the Bay Area after the Urban Adamah fellowship is over. She’ll be looking for anything to do with food, including coffee shop and restaurant work.

One of Fischman’s favorite experiences so far on the farm was working with a gaggle of 24 kids who came through during the first “Camp Urban Adamah” a few weeks back.

All summer long there will be visiting groups of children ages 5 through 15, and others, through partnerships with Jewish organizations such as  the JCC of the East Bay, Congregation Beth Israel, Edah (a kids program at Congregation Netivot Shalom) and Camp Tawonga. In addition, there will be groups just stopping by or spending a few days to learn on the farm about agriculture and values.

The underlying values of Urban Adamah are ahava (love), tzedek (justice) and chessed (compassion). The Hebrew words are displayed on colorful tapestries at the farm, with other helpful phrases from the Torah hung elsewhere. “We love signage here,” Berman says with a smile.

Across the farm, Benjamin Feldman and Jonathan Goldman discuss an upcoming group project and crunch numbers near the outdoor kitchen, which has a sign with a phrase from Deuteronomy that roughly translates to “we ate, we are satisfied and we bless.”


Urban Adamah fellows: (top row, from left) Aviva Paley, Rebecca Guenoun, Evan Gardner, Molly Fischman, Jonathan Goldman, Seth Harris, Aliza Gazek, Eric Himmelfarb, Robin Haguewood (bottom row) Benjamin Feldman, Tali Grossman, Leila Shooshani photo/cathleen maclearie

Urban Adamah was exactly what Feldman was looking for this summer. The Los Angeles native is active in the Reform movement and is currently studying environment, economics and politics at Claremont-McKenna College. He attended New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and spent last summer as a counselor at Camp Newman.


“They’re building their own kibbutz up there and I thought it was an amazing process — it’s what led me to my major,” he says.

He’s been working with New Yorker Goldman to set up a composting bin system using soil and worms. Goldman was working in New York City when he decided to look for ways to fully immerse himself in urban farming and found Urban Adamah’s all-inclusive fellow program.

Along with their work on the farm, the fellows also spend one day a week interning at local community-based social justice organizations addressing issues of poverty, food security and environmental stewardship; places such as City Slicker Farms and People’s Grocery.

Urban Adamah receives funding from many foundations including local ones such as UpStart Bay Area, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Saal Family Foundation and individual donors. Fellows pay $1,200 for a three-month session; the cost covers room, board and the program’s educational component.

Urban Adamah still needs $60,000 by October to implement the programs developed for this year.

Berman says the farm is about 40 percent complete; a big sukkah-like structure for learning will be built soon along with even more raised growing beds.

He is well aware that in a few years, Urban Adamah may have to be packed up, fork-lifted onto a flatbed truck and moved to a new location — plant beds, greenhouses, learning yurts and all.

“Our hope,” he says, “is that if we have to leave this place in the near future, we will find another location where we can continue to serve the community.”

photo: cathleen maclearie

Clockwise from top right, Jonathan Goldman, Robin Haguewood, Molly Fischman and Eric Himmelfarb harvest kale at the Urban Adamah farm in Berkeley.

Urban Adamah is now accepting applications for the 2011 Fall Fellowship To learn more, visit