Urban Adamah: Connecting to your Jewish roots through the earth

Urban Adamah: Connecting to your Jewish roots through the earth

Oct 2017 | Jewish Peoplehood

Urban Adamah is a 2.2-acre farm in North Berkeley. It serves as a Jewish educational platform, a 21st century American kibbutz where Jewish practice is actualized through farming and the sense of community. Urban Adamah is definitely more of a hub than an enclave, with a natural feeling of connection to the Zionist pioneers of 70 years ago. And this connection is logical.

Adam Berman, founder and executive director of Urban Adamah, elaborates, “We seek to inspire a way of living that is aligned with the core values of Jewish traditions. Our ethical underpinnings are described in Jewish texts in ways that are intricately linked to our 2000-year agricultural history.” Jewish traditions evolved in relation to Jews who were farmers. Agrarian life is at the root of Jewish holidays, rituals, and stories, from Passover in the spring to the High Holy Days and Sukkot in the fall.

The Koret Foundation has always been committed to preserving Jewish culture and values in dynamic forms. This includes supporting a myriad of ways for adults and families looking for community outside of traditional institutions to connect their Jewish identities with their secular interests. Over the past decade-plus, more than 20 major new Jewish initiatives around the country have emerged that seek to build Jewish identity and community through experiences that connect Judaism to the natural world and our food systems. This collective of organizations represents the JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food, Environmental Education) movement. It is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Jewish world, and has demonstrated great success at engaging Jews across all backgrounds and religious approaches.

In 2010, Berman, a Berkeley native and a leader in the JOFEE movement, founded Urban Adamah (Adamah is Hebrew for “earth.”) on a loaned asphalt “plot” in South Berkeley. In 2014, in response to the huge demand for its programs, Urban Adamah took the first significant step toward ensuring its sustainability, purchasing 2.2 acres in West Berkeley that have become a permanent Jewish urban farm. The new farm campus will enable Urban Adamah to greatly expand its program capacity and to double its food production for the community. In Urban Adamah’s first six years, tens of thousands of people participated in its programs. At the new site, the annual number of visitors is expected to dramatically increase.

Programs & Activities Actuals from Previous Site Projected for New Site
Community Group Programs 3,500 participants/​year 5,000 participants/​year
Public Workshops, Lectures, Trainings 1,200 participants/​year 5,000 participants/​year
Fellowship for young adults 42/year 60/year
Summer Camp 210 campers (35/week) 360 campers (60/week)
Hebrew School 50 students from 2 synagogues/​year 50 students from 2 synagogues/​year
Produce Grown 10,000 lbs/year 25,000 lbs/year
Anticipated Total Visitors 10,000/year 20,000/year

Doing Jewish on the farm

Urban Adamah attracts young adults, children, families, and educators who want to get their hands dirty for: an hour or two; a full morning or afternoon; an entire day; an overnight; a whole weekend; a special-focus day camp for a week or two; or a three-month-long fellowship.

Urban Adamah has been described as “Jewish summer camp for kids and adults year-round and in the city.” Farming activities are complemented by arts and crafts, cooking, music, and an infusion of Jewish teachings and celebrations. The allusion delights Berman, who elaborates, “Jewish summer camp played an essential role in my own Jewish journey. Creating an experience for city dwellers to get that kind of Judaism—living, breathing, embodied, relevant, inspiring—is the primary focus of our enterprise.”  (To date, 70 percent of Urban Adamah summer camp attendees are Jewish, as are 65 percent of farm visitors overall.) All programs are led by skilled Jewish educators, dedicated farm Fellows, or community leaders.

Since 2011, 65 Jewish organizations have come to Urban Adamah for educational programs—from synagogues, Hebrew schools, youth groups, Jewish day schools, and Jewish community centers, to a private high school in Oakland, an environmental science magnet elementary school in Berkeley, and two local churches. Urban Adamah also hosts public holiday and educational programs. Every month, there’s a Friday night Shabbat Service and a Saturday evening havdallah (closing of Shabbat) program. Hundreds of people attend its Sukkot festival, its Passover Seder, and other holiday celebrations. It offers an extensive selection of public programs ranging from Jewish mysticism and chanting, to lectures by local educators.

Another core aspect of Urban Adamah’s programming puts traditional Jewish values into modern context. One example is the practice of pe’ah (Hebrew for “leaving the corners of the fields for those in need”). Jewish teachings include the obligation to provide land and produce for neighbors who would otherwise go hungry. At its original site, Urban Adamah gave away more than 10,000 pounds of food a year to its neighbors, through its free farm stand as well as through local food banks and churches. Projections are that in 2018, farm production will exceed 25,000 pounds.

Cultivating new leaders

The Urban Adamah Fellowship is a three-month immersive residential leadership program for young adults (21–31). Fellows work and learn on the farm, and live together nearby. (Construction of a Fellowship house on campus is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2018.) The program combines sustainable urban agriculture with community building, leadership development, and Jewish spirituality. It is an opportunity for the fellows to combine their passion for food and the environment with Jewish life. For many Fellows, their Urban Adamah experience has been the catalyst for reconnecting with the Jewish community.

Urban Adamah currently accepts 14 Fellows per three-month session (held in Spring, Summer, and Fall). The 200-plus alumni of the fellowship program have gone on to work as environmental educators and policy-makers, community organizers, Jewish educators, sustainability advocates, and social entrepreneurs. More than two dozen are currently employed by Jewish organizations throughout the Bay Area.

Inspiring Urban Adamah Fellow Rachel Whittom

Rachel Whittom is an alumna of the Fall 2015 Fellowship program. Without a doubt, her favorite word to describe the experience is “transformative.” She’d always been interested in sustainability and food justice, and, after graduating from UCLA, she was looking for a way “to feel I was giving back to the world, to do something meaningful that would touch people’s lives.” Rachel met with Adam Berman, and the Fellowship program sounded great to her. Interestingly, Rachel’s fellow Fellows were at similar inflection points in their lives. She summarizes, “Overall, everybody was in a state of ‘in between.’ Nobody needed to take a leave from a job—either people had just finished school, were back from traveling, or had just left a job or previous commitment. About half of us were really interested in learning about the physical, hands-on side of farming while the other half were more interested in the food justice and food policy sides. But regardless of these specific interests, everyone approached each and every day with the most open mind and a true desire to learn.”

When Rachel talks about the Jewish curriculum, she glows. “Everything was presented in such an intentional and inter-related way, as we studied the Jewish values—which are also universal values. Everything we learned about, from farming to social justice to food security, was presented with these Jewish values in mind. The fact that we had this ‘Judaism blanket’ on top of everything we learned made the community feel stronger. We all came from families with varying levels of observance, and everyone’s Jewish involvement in college had been different. And two of the Fellows were not Jewish, but had many Jewish friends and were curious to learn more. I would do the Fellowship again in a heartbeat.”

Rachel is now the director of adult and community programs at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay. She credits the Fellowship program with launching her new career, saying, “I don’t think I would have been as open to working in the Jewish community had I not done the Fellowship. And being an alum of the program totally helped me get the job. I am still interested in environmental work, but what the fellowship really taught me is that my fulfillment comes from impacting the lives of the people in my direct community, which is something I get to do every day at the JCC.”

New farm vision

Urban Adamah is the sole provider in the Bay Area (and, as yet, on the West Coast) dedicated to JOFEE experiences. A relatively new kid on the block, Urban Adamah is already setting the national bar for Jewish community engagement and young adult leadership development.

Still, a Jewish community farm is a concept that many in our community may have a hard time wrapping their heads around. Berman says, “I often tell people, you can think of Urban Adamah as a cross between four types of institutions that have been around for a long time: a Jewish Community Center, a synagogue, a food bank, and a kibbutz from the ’50s—where a generation of American young adults sought an approach to Jewish community that was grounded in the land. It was as much about the heart and body as it was about the head. This is Urban Adamah.”