Ilya Varga (left) with Maddy Winard and Olivia Rokhsar making babka in the Urban Adamah kitchen. (Photo/Lezak Shallat)
Ilya Varga (left) with Maddy Winard and Olivia Rokhsar making babka in the Urban Adamah kitchen. (Photo/Lezak Shallat)

Bay Area teens go elbow-deep in Jewish cooking (and values)

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Pickles, medicinal herbs and chocolate babka don’t sound like an appetizing combination, but the trio of offerings delighted the teens who were participating in workshops at Urban Adamah as part of a new Bay Area-wide project to engage Jewish youth.

The cooking workshops at the Jewish educational farm in northwest Berkeley are among nine new activities funded by micro-grants from the Teen Initiative, a relatively new project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay and the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation.

“What excites me about the micro-grants is that it lets groups take risks, dream big and do what they always wanted to do,” said Mike Friedman, the Teen Initiative director and a Los Altos native.

As part of a five-year, $7.6 million endeavor, the Bay Area micro-grants are helping various Jewish organizations and agencies pay for a number of programs and projects, among them: a teen seder in Sonoma, sending local Jewish teens to the United Nations, a Jewish trivia texting game, a youth-juried prize at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and a Teen Trans Day of Visibility.

Micro-grant recipient Urban Adamah wanted to give teens a hands-on experience that emphasized the connection between bread and the Earth.

The Feb. 10 babka class took place in the farm’s kosher vegetarian kitchen. With cackling chickens outside providing the soundtrack, 10 teens made chocolate filling and braided dough into chocolate-swirled babka. The circle of chattering teens, their headphones removed from their ears and their cellphones in their pockets, used rolling pins to flatten out the dough and sprinkle the pastry — and themselves — in flour.

Jewish values were woven throughout. For example, there was a discussion of traditional blessings and the ethical treatment of animals.

“Isn’t it cool that the Jewish blessing makes it so explicit that food comes from the land?” said workshop facilitator Maddy Winard, Urban Adamah’s family programs manager.

At the call of “spatulas down,” Maddy asked the teens to “take blessings from the siddur [prayerbook] and go into the world to find them.” Bearing hand-painted blessing cards as clues, they headed into the vegetable beds to meet the rabbinical challenge of finding 100 blessings daily. Olivia Rokhsar, 16, blessed the sun; Illya Varga, 17, the olive tree; and Izzy Young, 18, the seedlings.

While some teens recognized the blessings from siddur, others had never heard them. Participants came from families with varying degrees of Jewish community involvement, but most were members of Midrasha, an educational program for Jewish 8th-12th graders in the East Bay.

Midrasha had been looking for ways to collaborate with Urban Adamah, said Mark Deutsch, director of the teen group, and the Teen Initiative helped make it happen. It is also helping fund monthly Shabbat-morning meetups on personal distress and wellness, a multiple-night wilderness quest, and various get-togethers between local and Israeli teens.

In his blog, Friedman used a #YesTeensCan hashtag to describe how congregations and organizations such as Wilderness Torah and Keshet have been challenged to “disrupt the current landscape with fresh and innovative ideas to expand their reach to teens who are marginally involved in Jewish life.”

Teens led the way, he added, by evaluating proposals and making funding recommendations.

“They were insightful, kind and inclusive, asking thoughtful questions and grappling with proposals,” Friedman wrote. “They put aside their own biases and preferences to consider what opportunities provided low barriers to entry, and which were truly unique offerings that would appeal to the diversity of teens that make up the Bay Area Jewish community.”

As he watched the kids head off to an afternoon Midrasha gathering — bags of warm babka in hand — Friedman praised the “power of Jewish values” in helping teens “get through what can be a really stressful time in their lives, and to help shape their futures.”

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.