Homespun kibbutz branches out into year-round venture

A homegrown kibbutz that took root two years ago at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa is on solid enough ground to benefit from year-round stewards who will take care of the site between summers.

Operation Kibbutz Yarok was until recently a summer-only operation, created and maintained by campers. With two full-time caretakers for the kibbutz, Camp Newman now hopes the site can become a magnet for schools and organizations to hold retreats or programs — or just come to work.

Persephone Rivka and teenage campers work on Camp Newman’s kibbutz this summer. photo/courtesy of sophie vener

“Oky” was built over the last two summer sessions by teenage campers who helped to develop the spot, planting a community garden, building a mud hut and creating prayer space. Growing on the kibbutz, less than a mile from the main camp site, are organic tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries, cucumbers, squash, onions and lettuce. A barn and lake are nearby, as is a tefillah site for prayer.

“Oky is camp’s model of sustainability and communal living,” said Sophie Vener, 19, who worked on the site both summers. “It connects a love for the earth with Jewish values.”

Vener is living at Camp Newman year-round with Persephone Rivka. Both are former campers and graduates of a gap-year permaculture program in Israel’s Negev Desert at Kibbutz Lotan, which provided the model for Operation Kibbutz Yarok.

Ruben Arquilevich, senior camp director, said he’s been “daydreaming, along with others, as to how to make this resource available to Jewish groups all year long.” So when Vener and Rivka approached him about living on the kibbutz and making it a year-round operation, “I almost had tears in my eyes,” he said. “It’s really beshert [destiny].”

Arquilevich envisions collaboration with organizations such as Wilderness Torah, Hazon and others. “We want it to be another jewel in the Bay Area in terms of eco-programming resources,” he said. He hopes to draw Jewish day schools to Oky for weekday programming, too.

Vener and Rivka are busy creating programs to share with visitors about life on the kibbutz, sustainability, communal living and the religious value of their work.

“A huge part of the Jewish religion and text talks about tikkun olam and the relationship to the earth. Oky provides a connecting experience,” Vener said.

The idea to transform Oky into a year-round operation germinated during the second week of camp, when the women found they would have to start from scratch with the overgrown garden beds.

“You just can’t run a farm, let alone a kibbutz, two months out of the year and expect to see results,” Vener said.

Come fall, the two plan to add chickens to the kibbutz. Others tasks on their list include keeping the garden healthy, building a pizza oven and finishing the tefillah site.

“Our campsite has an abundance of resources, ones that we want to utilize to help our site grow into a full, running kibbutz,” Vener said.

The first outside visitors to Oky came from the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center of San Francisco the weekend of Aug. 26 and held a “growing and healing” retreat.

“Oky has really became a place for spirituality and community,” Vener said. “People come here and clear their minds, get knee deep in dirt and learn the value of communal work.”


To learn more about the kibbutz or schedule a visit, contact Sophie Vener at [email protected] or Persephone Rivka at [email protected]