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The greening of the Jewish camp
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The greening of the Jewish camp

Eco-friendly programs transform a summer ritual

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The new teva shack at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires was designed as a model for sustainable living.
The new teva shack at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires was designed as a model for sustainable living.

SOUTH STERLING, PA. — Just three years ago, the only “green” activities at Camp JRF in the Poconos were composting and an overnight campout (in the woods, on camp property), and even that included hamburgers and hot dogs carried in a cooler.

Now, the cookouts feature lentils, rice, and beans, simulating an actual camping adventure. Campers have a different teva, or nature, session every day, divided into a five-session rotation that includes hiking, arts/beautification, Jewish environmental education, farming, and team building/ropes.

In addition to its organic garden, the camp brings in as much fresh local produce as it can.

The most dramatic project at Camp JRF is yet to come: an eco-village, a completely sustainable housing area that has been in the works for several years. Camp administrators are obtaining the necessary permits and expect to begin construction next year.

It’s a far cry from the days of bug juice, frozen vegetables no one ate, and the occasional visit to the “nature shack.” Throughout the Northeast, Jewish camps are stressing environmentalism in their practices and marketing and incorporating conservation and “sustainability” into their daily activities.

“Twenty years ago, the ropes course was the new hot thing that every camp had to have. Now, gardens are that thing,” said Vivian Stadlin, founder and director of Eden Village Camp in upstate New York, the first specialty camp with Jewish environmentalism as its focus.

While some camps are taking the initiative and creating these programs on their own, others are working with a new initiative begun by The Amir Project. It provides camps with a template for environmental education, beginning with the planting of a community garden, and trains fellows and farmers before camp begins.

David Fox piloted the project in 2010 at Camp Ramah in Canada while he was still in college. The Amir Project has now expanded to 10 camps around North America, including Camp JRF, a Reconstructionist facility, as well as Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and Young Judaea’s teen leadership camp, Tel Yehuda, as well as one in Israel.

Fox and Rebecca Richman, the teva director at Camp JRF, reflect a new generation of Jews, raised in Jewish camping on the one hand, and with an environmental consciousness cultivated in their secular education on the other. They are fusing the two. Richman’s work at JRF is part of a psychology research fellowship she was awarded at Brandeis University, where she is a rising senior. Her major is psychology, but she is also focusing on environmental studies.

Many of the farmers, educators, and environmental leaders at camps have received training in institutions and fields that barely existed 10 years ago. Often majoring in environmental studies, they are doing internships at Jewish-run farms like Kayam, near Baltimore, and Urban Adamah, in Berkeley, Calif.

Camp Eden Village, launched three years ago, represents the zenith of the trend. The camp offers opportunities for youngsters to take part in animal care, wilderness adventure, culinary arts based on foods from its organic farm, herbalism, and the principles of do-it-yourself, sustainable living. Campers eat eggs laid that morning by the camp’s chickens and cook them with herbs grown in their garden. They learn to erect a wilderness shelter and build a campfire, both with zero waste.

Campers also get involved in environmental politics. This year, they initiated a letter-writing campaign to protest fracking — hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique through which gas or oil is extracted from the rock bed — in New York, and even arranged a meeting in Albany with Tom Congdon, assistant secretary for energy in the governor’s office, to discuss the issue face to face.

Eden Village was a recipient of a “Specialty Camps Incubator Grant” from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and the Spiritual Judaism/Saul Schottenstein Foundation B.

While liberal Jewish educators are sometimes criticized for slapping Jewish names on secular values, camp directors insist that Jewish values are infused into every aspect of their programs that promote environmentalism and sustainable living.

Counselors at Ramah in the Rockies lead campers in study of Jewish texts relevant to their wilderness activities. Rabbi Isaac Saposnik at Camp JRF uses the organic gardens to teach campers about pe’ah, the biblical idea of leaving the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor to glean. Jewish values underpin the environmental program, said Saposnik. “You cannot have one without the other,” he said. “It’s a missed opportunity if the campers do not realize that ‘what I grow I must also give.’”

A handful of camps are re-emphasizing their roots in Zionism and agriculture. Camp Galil, in southeastern Pennsylvania, is connected with the Habonim Dror youth movement and its associated kibbutzim in Israel. Environmentally friendly for years, it continues to add green programs. In 2006, counselors-in-training planted a vegetable garden outside the dining hall, continuing a camp tradition of building something for the camp each summer. Now, according to assistant director Ilana Goldfus, members of the kitchen staff come out and pick what they need to cook. Campers are encouraged to pick something from the garden when they are hungry for a snack, from tomatoes to snap peas to green beans.

Camp Shomria, affiliated with the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, found that its environmental roots provide a portal into Jewish camp for families who would otherwise choose a secular camp. The camp, in the Catskills, is situated on land that was a training farm for pioneers who went to Israel. Two years ago, it launched a renewed focus on the environment. “Farming is in the DNA of our movement,” said director Yaniv Shagee. “We figured that natural component was missing at camp.”

A new garden includes two greenhouses. Some 120 chickens provide eggs for the entire summer. Campers tend goats and sheep and bake their own bread. The camp is also trying to shift to using solar energy.

“It’s like the circle is closed now,” said Shagee. “A major mission for us as a secular cultural Jewish camp is to connect with people who are not connected with Judaism. We felt this environmental focus is a great tool to bring people not already committed to Judaism.” The numbers do the talking for him; the camp saw a 10 percent increase in kids last summer, and a 15 percent increase this summer.

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, in Wingdale, NY, the full green embrace began five years ago when Wendy Rosen, an environmental educator from Highland Park, came to camp for visiting day to see her daughter Sara. She wasn’t so happy with the “bare bones” nature program and “rundown” nature shack she found.

She offered her vision to the camp leadership, and since 2008, she’s been the camp’s full-time teva director. Working with her is Atara Jaffe, who just graduated from Tulane University with a degree in environmental studies and a certificate in permaculture from Israel.

Their program includes hiking, gardening, exploring the waterfront, composting, and learning the Jewish underpinnings of environmental stewardship. Ramah started its organic garden last summer, planting 200 ears of corn. A new teva building was built with sustainable lumber and materials and includes a solar fan and natural lighting.

“They need an appreciation and an emotional connection before they will take responsibility and care for the world,” she said in a phone interview from camp. “Through Jewish learning, we make a connection between the environment and ourselves and understand how to make choices to live more responsibly.”

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