Nature-based programs no longer a novelty

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Jewish learning programs that take place in nature or elsewhere outdoors have become increasingly popular over the last decade.

“I don’t think that the word ‘explosion’ is too dramatic of a word to describe what’s happening,” said Adam Berman, the founder of Urban Adamah in Berkeley.

Berman’s 4-year-old urban farm and community/education center holds regular education programs that highlight the connections among Jewish holidays and rituals, food and agriculture. For Sukkot, families with children were invited to harvest corn and make tortillas; an upcoming workshop will share Israeli farming solutions for growing food with low water resources. The one-acre working farm gives away 90 percent of its crops to local residents in need.

Berkeley-based Wilderness Torah also highlights Judaism’s earth-based roots in many ways, such as by bringing groups to camp in the desert for Passover and on a farm for Sukkot. Established in 2007, the nonprofit also holds a Tu B’Shevat celebration in a redwood forest and runs outdoor Jewish education programs for elementary school and bar and bat mitzvah–aged children.

“People are looking for real experience and authentic connection,” said Zelig Golden, Wilderness Torah’s founding director. “In the modern time, there’s a crisis of disconnection. People are living in a fast-paced world. People are living with technology, which on the one hand deeply connects us, but on the other hand separates us from the reality of day-to-day life.”

A 2014 national study of so-called JOFEE experiences (JOFEE is a newly created acronym for “Jewish outdoor, food and environmental education”) found that experiential Jewish programs that integrate nature and food are particularly effective at engaging young adults in Jewish life.

In 2012, the study noted, more than 2,400 people nationwide — a majority of whom had felt disconnected from Jewish life at some point in their lives — participated in immersive JOFEE programs. After participating, the study found, a third felt reconnected to Jewish life.

Chalk one up for the outdoors, food and environment.

Driven by people seeking a similar connection, or reconnection, Wilderness Torah has grown exponentially over the last few years, Golden said. The organization’s first event in 2007, Sukkot on the Farm, had 35 attendees; last year, more than 300 showed up. Wilderness Torah gets so many requests from people around the world who want to establish similar programs in their own areas that it is exploring starting an international training program, Golden said.

There’s been an explosion in Jewish farms nationwide, as well. Berman now counts a dozen across the country, all founded within the last 15 years.

And the Bay Area is somewhat at the center of it all.

“Urban Adamah and other organizations like it are speaking to a value set and an interest set that is pretty prevalent among progressive people in the Bay Area, Jews being a subset,” Berman said. “People are interested in connecting their spirituality and culture with these new areas of interest.”

It’s no surprise, then, that food and garden programs have become mainstays of Jewish community organizations, day schools, preschools and afterschool programs.

The Peninsula JCC in Foster City has a food justice garden tended by preschoolers and volunteers; the produce is donated to feed the hungry. At Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, garden educator Moorea Malatt teaches students in the temple’s afterschool program Hebrew words as they tend plants in the garden’s 12 raised beds; typical conversations topics in the garden also include biology, conservation and creation, Malatt said.

“The children are just so much more engaged,” Malatt said. “They just seem so happy to be outdoors and to be learning Hebrew in a way that’s not on a chalkboard.”

One reason outdoor, food and environmental programs tend to have a strong impact is because many of them are immersive, allowing people to create strong personal relationships within a short period of time, Berman said. Nature-based learning can also be impactful because ideas are experienced as well as spoken or heard, Golden said.

“It creates a deep, rich experience that’s mental, but it’s also deeply felt,” Golden said. “Judaism is an ancient tradition with very deep ancient roots …In this modern age, people are seeking ancient roots.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.