Is environmental education the wave of the Jewish future

More than five months after the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey highlighted rising intermarriage rates and declining connections with organized Jewish life, proponents of a newly released study believe they may have the antidote for what ails the Jewish community: Head outside.

Experiences that blend Jewish learning with the outdoors, food and environment are attracting a growing number of Jews, particularly younger Jews, to meaningful and inspiring Jewish life, reports the first national survey on the matter.

Wilderness Torah’s “B’naiture” b’nai mitzvah program, 2012 photo/courtesy wilderness torah

“Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE),” a report released March 10 by a group of six major funders and the nonprofit Hazon, suggests that these experiences have great potential for growth and for stimulating Jewish engagement.

“For the last decade, a growing number of young Jewish people have been connecting Jewish tradition on the one hand with food, the environment and the outdoors on the other,” said Nigel Savage, president of Hazon, which is based in New York and has an active San Francisco branch.

“What the study makes clear is that these programs are having an enormously significant impact — on people’s individual identity and Jewish commitment; on leadership development; and, in relation to food and the environment. JOFEE programs are strengthening Jewish life, and are having a significant viral impact as last year’s program participants become next year’s program founders.”

The study identified 2,405 people, participants in 41 JOFEE programs in 2012, including Jewish holiday retreats, conferences, outdoor/food adventures, camp fellowships and apprenticeships. Examples of the vast array of JOFEE experiences include Jewish farming programs, wilderness celebrations of Jewish holidays, multiday Jewish bike rides and a sustainable food tour of Israel. The report examined only immersive experiences, which are considered to last four days or longer.

A key finding showed that 32 percent of survey respondents who felt disconnected from Jewish life at some point but subsequently found a way to reconnect said that a JOFEE experience was the top reason. In fact, it emerged as the most popular reason for reconnection, followed by “new Jewish friends or community” at 22 percent.

Eighty-four percent of respondents said JOFEE experiences increased their sense of hope for the Jewish people, while 67 percent of those who now consider themselves leaders in this Jewish community said their JOFEE experience influenced that leadership. And 86 percent agreed with the statement, “How I relate to the outdoors, food, or environment is an expression of my Jewishness.”

The study was funded by the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, Leichtag Found-ation, Morningstar Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Schusterman Family Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York.

“For many people, especially young adults, JOFEE offers an attractive entry point and an ongoing path to Jewish engagement,” says Al Levitt, president of the Jim Joseph Foundation. “We always look for unique ways to create and support Jewish life and learning opportunities, and the outcomes of JOFEE programs are very promising.”

The acronym JOFEE, coined specifically for the study, is lingo that the report’s supporters hope will grow to define a movement and become part of the Jewish vernacular.

“This study is kind of fascinating because it shows that underneath the radar of organized Jewish life over the last dozen years, this new field of Jewish food education, Jewish outdoor education and Jewish environmental education has grown really sharply, and is having a positive impact pretty much everywhere it goes,” said Savage.

Jakir Manela, executive director of the Maryland-based Pearlstone Center — a Jewish retreat, farm and education center — said a growing number of funders believe that some combination of JOFEE’s components is “relevant … in almost every, if not every, Jewish community across the country, and is worthy of consideration as a pillar of what a dynamic … Jewish education should look like in the 21st century.”

Respondents in the JOFEE survey had a median age of 32, and a summary of the study said the figure “demonstrates the appeal of immersive JOFEE programs to a younger population than the Jewish population nationally.”

Manela agrees, saying, “My sense is that synagogues and federations, and in general the Jewish world, are really hungry and excited to see young people coming out of programs like this and saying, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready to participate. I’m ready to contribute. I’m ready to make an impact. I’m ready to lead. I have a vision for what Judaism can be, how I want it to be part of my life and part of the community.’”

With Jewish life at least on some level “up in the air” right now, and both older and newer Jewish organizations “creating the Jewish community of the future,” Savage said the JOFEE study shows that anybody running a Jewish institution or event should be asking, “What do we have going on in our community or our institution about Jewish food, Jewish outdoor education or Jewish environmental education, and what could or should we be doing?”

“To know that there is this arena of Jewish life that is so full of hope, so full of promise, so full of potential,” Manela said, “it gives us all greater hope in the Jewish future.”

J. staff contributed to this report.