Berkeley’s Adam Berman is at the root of Jewish farm movement

When the editors of Time magazine made “the endangered Earth” their 1988 person of the year, they had no idea how it would affect one San Fernando Valley teenager.

“There are so many things broken and challenging in our world, but for some reason, it was the environmental challenges that spoke to me in a really deep way,” says Berkeley resident Adam Berman, 42. “It broke my heart.”

From then on, the Conservative-raised Jewish day school graduate put his considerable energy into environmentalism, starting an environmental club at school and a recycling program in his Encino neighborhood.

The interest became a calling and then a career. Today, it’s safe to say that the Jewish environmental movement would not be where it is without Berman.

A decade ago in Connecticut, he co-founded the Adamah Fellowship, a three-month farming and Jewish learning program for post-college Jews, and then he moved west to create Urban Adamah, a similar project in Berkeley, in fall 2010.

Those programs have trained many of today’s up-and-coming Jewish leaders. More than 600 people have gone through the Connecticut program, and 100 more are alumni of Urban Adamah; many are now working in food justice, as rabbis, as Jewish and environmental educators, in community gardens, and in other related fields nationwide.

Oakland resident Zelig Golden was 32 when he did the Adamah Fellowship in 2006. An environmental attorney in San Francisco, he wanted to take his life in a different direction. Adamah helped him clarify his goals.

“While there, I was able to embody a reality that connected Earth-based living and farming with Jewish community,” he said. “That empowered me to realize my vision of reconnecting people to the Earth.”

In 2010, Golden became the co-founding director of Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that promotes Earth-centered Jewish practice and holds popular outdoor holiday celebrations such as Sukkot on the Farm and Passover in the Desert. Berman sits on its board.

Berman is not only a visionary, he’s also a savvy fundraiser.

From its earliest beginnings on a temporary lot on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, Urban Adamah has grown to include a summer camp, which began with 30 elementary-school campers its first summer in 2011 and will have 235 this year. It has donated 25,000 pounds of fresh produce to low-income Berkeley residents and last year hosted 10,000 visitors.

It also has shown enough staying power that in December, the organization signed the deed to its own land, purchasing a 2.2-acre parcel on Sixth Street for $2.14 million. With the help of a $5 million capital campaign, Berman hopes to increase the size of the current farm (now in a leased lot on Parker Street) and triple the amount of food grown from 15,000 pounds to 50,000; expand to include event space, a farm-to-table café and a commercial kitchen; and provide housing for the cohort of 14 fellows each season.

“I think I have good communication skills, but our success speaks for itself,” he said. “It’s a combination of the success of our story and the extraordinary potential of this land; it’s incredibly compelling to people. I don’t have to say very much.”

In just a few years, Urban Adamah has had a discernible impact on the East Bay Jewish community.

“Urban Adamah is not like a JCC or synagogue,” said Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. “It’s a new programmatic model. It gives us the ability to reach out to people we couldn’t reach otherwise, and therefore fulfill our greater communal mission.”

And its influence reaches beyond the East Bay. Dozens of Bay Area Jewish organizations have consulted with Berman on how to add gardening or farming to their curricula, as everyone from Chabad schools to Reform synagogue educators recognize the educational and environmental potential of growing food.

Berman lives in North Berkeley with his wife, Deena Aranoff, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union, and their 20-month-old daughter, Shira.

Aranoff is also a certified yoga instructor, while Berman is a serious practitioner of Qigong, a Chinese movement and meditation practice. She is traditionally Sabbath-observant while he is not; on Saturday mornings, she is likely to be at Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, while he might be leading services at Urban Adamah with his guitar.

Berman grew up the middle of three brothers. His parents raised them Conservative — all three attended the Heschel Day School in Northridge.

He studied environmental policy for two years at U.C. Berkeley and then transferred to Brown University.

In between, he spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“I mainly went to Israel to learn more about Judaism so I could come back and, in a grounded way, tell my father why I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Berman confesses with a laugh.

That’s not quite what happened. Although he spent his first year out of college farming and meditating at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, traveling around Latin America and helping to build a school in Costa Rica, the three seasons he spent on staff at Camp Tawonga in the early ’90s influenced him more than he had realized.

“That was the first place that made me realize I actually have a place in the Jewish community,” he said. The Judaism he experienced at camp “showed me the kind of creativity possible in Jewish tradition, so it could become relevant to me.”

Berman in the chicken coop photo/cathleen maclearie

After a brief stint in law school in 1995-96, Berman headed east to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut to become an educator and then director at Teva, a program that offers experiential and nature-based education for Jewish kids. At Teva, he made an interesting observation: While the kids who came had a great time immersing themselves in the natural world for a few days, their counselors, who were there for much longer, were the ones undergoing the more dramatic transformation — they were talking about how they could change the world.

“If we’re looking at long-term impact, it was clear to me that there was a powerful opportunity to create a program designed for 20-somethings, instead of them being the accidental output of the project,” he said. “Something should be designed from the beginning for their growth and development and engagement.”

Based on that, he and Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, the previous director of Teva, came up with the idea for Adamah. Recognizing that young Jewish adults were interested in multiple causes, the two men talked about how to integrate environmental values with sustainable agriculture and Jewish living and learning.

Berman returned to Berkeley with that plan in the back of his mind, obtaining his MBA at Haas Business School in 2001.

And then, at just the right time, in fall 2002 the job for executive director of Freedman came available. Berman shared his vision for Adamah with board members. They told him that he was welcome to pursue his idea, as long as it did not interfere with his other responsibilities or divert any funds from the budget. Berman agreed.

In the summer of 2003, using $5,000 donated by family, the pilot for Adamah was launched with six fellows, most of them local. They camped in tents, studied and farmed round the clock — and, if they weren’t committed already, developed a passion for Judaism and the environment.

It was quite the group. Among them were Nati Passow, who went on to co-found the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia, where he is now executive director; Yigal Deutscher, founder of Eco-Israel, a program of Hava & Adam Farm in Israel, who is now working for Hazon; and Shir Yaakov Feit, who became the musical director of Romemu, a Jewish Renewal community in New York City.

Berman leading Havdallah service photo/courtesy urban adamah

The program clearly was a success — Adamah had tapped into a growing interest within the Jewish community.

“It wasn’t a hard sell to say to a funder interested in Jewish continuity, ‘If you want to meet Jewish kids where they’re at, I know where a large subset of them are,’ ” Berman said.

The following year, Adamah ran summer and fall fellowships, and since then hundreds of 20-somethings have gone through the program, bringing to Jewish leadership many idealistic young Jews with a deep connection to social justice, farming and the environment.

Of course, Jews have always farmed. The Israelites, like many ancient cultures, worked the land, and French Jews made wine from their vineyards for centuries.

“For 2,000 years Jews were farmers just like everyone else,” says Berman. “The residue of that legacy is present everywhere in Jewish tradition, in our holidays, prayers and texts, so exploring Judaism through that lens is easy. Things like sharing our harvest with the poor, how we treat animals, letting the soil rest and the redistribution of land are all core Jewish values, which all come from our agrarian past.”

Today, the Adamah Fellowship continues without Berman. With Sadeh as its director, the East Coast farm has more than 30 goats and grows vegetables for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and the fellows sell their pickles and jams and other products. Last year, Freedman merged with the environmental organization Hazon, and Adamah is now part of that larger structure.

Meanwhile, a growing number of alumni are becoming leaders in the Jewish community and elsewhere.

“Programs like Adamah made a space for people to bring different pieces of their identity together,” said Anna Hanau, who was an Adamah fellow in 2007 and stayed on for a few years as the farm manager. “Adamah was an invitation to be your whole self — your Jewish self and your eco-self, woven into these other values, and that was what was missing in my previous Jewish education.”

Hanau met her future husband at Adamah, and in the early phases of their courtship they talked about starting a farm together. Establishing a kosher meat business in Brooklyn was not part of the plan, but that’s what happened once the couple realized there was a growing demand for kosher, humanely raised meat — a demand, ironically, created in large part by the new Jewish food movement they were part of.

Tending the crops photo/cathleen maclearie

Tending the crops photo/cathleen maclearie

In 2010, the couple launched Grow and Behold, a sustainable kosher meat business based in New York that ships nationwide.

“I did not expect [Adamah] to change the whole course of my life, but I was open to that possibility,” said Hanau. “I was 20-something, and was totally surprised at the idea that I could be a college-educated, suburban city person who could decide to be a farmer. It was all very radical.”

While many Adamah alumni have gone into farming or Jewish education, others have entered the rabbinate. Adina Allen, who will be ordained in June by Hebrew College near Boston, is one of 12 who are either rabbis or in rabbinical school.

“Adamah allows you to live immersed in Jewish community,” she said. “You live the Jewish rhythms of time with a diverse group of people. That experience is what allowed me to become ready to go to rabbinical school.”

The work was beginning to take a toll on Berman, however. In the spring of 2009, he was drained, both physically and emotionally. He took a year off to spend time in nature, meditate, practice Qigong and “ask the universe what was next for me.”

“In reflecting about my work,” he says, “it was really clear to me that I had made the biggest impact with the Adamah Fellowship, and it was clear that that demand was higher than the number of spaces we had.”

He also considered how many more people could be impacted by a farm located in a city versus a rural location, especially if the food grown on that farm was donated to people who don’t otherwise have access to healthy food.

He set his sights on Berkeley, where he had spent several formative years and where he felt there was a core Jewish community that would understand what he was trying to do.

A friend introduced him to Rich Robbins of Wareham Development in Berkeley, who in 15 minutes was sold on the project and leased him an unused lot for free for three years. Now that Berman and his team have purchased their own land, Urban Adamah should break ground on its new home by the end of this year.

One way the program has affected the local Jewish community is by bringing young Jewish activists to the Bay Area, where many of them stay after their fellowship.

The program “provides a wonderful blessing through the fellows that stay,” said the federation’s Brandt. “They imbue the community with additional Jewish teachers who are interested not only in agriculture but Jewish learning and teaching, so it’s greatly enriched our collection of Jewish professionals.”

Berman now sits on the federation board, a sign that his organization is very much a part of the Jewish establishment. “Adam is a caring and thoughtful Jewish leader,” said Brandt, and “we wanted his voice to be on the board to take advantage of his talents.”

As things ramp up for the big move over the next year, Berman has his eye on changes that will be possible in the bigger space: tripling the number of children served in the summer camp, Hebrew school and afternoon activities; offering overnight and camping programs; creating festivals for holidays to accommodate 1,000 or more people; and offering a yearlong apprenticeship program.

“Being Jewish for me is about both being deeply connected to my Jewish and ancestral roots, and being in daily contact with and making a positive impact in the broader world,” Berman said. “That’s what keeps me inspired and engaged about this work; we’re simultaneously strengthening the fabric of the Jewish community and in that process, we’re strengthening our community’s muscle to do good in the world.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."