BERKELEY, Calif. — Today it’s an empty one-acre lot in West Berkeley.
But next summer, if all goes well, the nondescript plot of land should house tomatoes, cucumbers and a host of other fresh garden goodies, planted and harvested by the first cohort of post-college fellows taking part in Urban Adamah: The Jewish Sustainability Corps.
The project, announced publicly this week, is the latest in a growing number of Jewish farming initiatives nationwide and the first modern-day iteration on the West Coast.
“Given the local interest in sustainable food and social justice, it seemed like a no-brainer to do our pilot project here in Berkeley,” said Adam Berman, the founder and executive director of the planned residential leadership training program that will bring groups of young Jewish adults to the city for three months of organic farming, green living skills, Jewish learning and direct social action.
Berman recently moved back to Berkeley, where he attended the University of California, after seven years as the executive director of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. It was at the center in 2003 that he developed the original Adamah environmental leadership training program for Jewish young adults.
In the first summer, six volunteers spent three months on the farm. Everyone who applied was accepted. Now, Berman says, there are 10 applicants for each fellowship spot in Connecticut, with a yearlong waiting list.
Adamah’s 140 alumni, many of whom were not involved in Jewish life before their fellowships, have gone on to fill a wide spectrum of Jewish communal positions. They have become rabbis, Jewish educators and heads of Jewish nonprofits, as well as formed the core of what is now known as the new Jewish food movement.
“The Adamah program has been an incredible success — not just transforming the lives of the Adamahniks but also, increasingly, the other people and institutions whose lives they touch,” said Nigel Savage, the executive director of the Jewish sustainability organization Hazon, which currently has four Adamah alumni on staff.
Like the original Adamah, the Berkeley program will be a full immersion experience. But because it is situated in a city with a significant Jewish population, it also will serve as a Jewish educational center, playing host to visiting school groups and holiday festivities. Berman anticipates 10,000 annual farm visitors by the project’s third year.
“Having Urban Adamah here will open doors for kids to do hands-on learning about the earth and Jewish values from high-level educators,” said Debra Massey, the education director for Temple Beth El in Berkeley, which has 160 students in its youth and family education programs. “It’s really exciting to think about what this can offer us.”
Fellows will spend 10 hours a week with local nonprofits involved in poverty and food access work. Berman hopes the farm will produce 8,000 pounds of food in its first year, and says most of that produce will go to local food banks and soup kitchens. Much of the rest will be sold at farmers’ markets in low-income neighborhoods.
Another innovation is the project’s portability.
Bay Area land is expensive, so instead of trying to buy property, Berman found a local developer, Wareham Development LLC, willing to let him use the land for free for two years. Fellows will live in a rented house, and the produce will be grown in above-ground boxes and temporary greenhouses that can be moved to a new plot of land when the current lease is up. Chicken coops will be on wheels; classes will be held in tents.
Berman says the long-term goal is to replicate the project in other cities.
“This is a great next extension for the movement,” said Nati Passow, the director of the Jewish Farm School, a nonprofit that partners with farms throughout the United States to run Jewish agricultural education programs.
A major criticism of the rural Jewish farm programs like the original Adamah, Passow says, is the lack of direct connection to social justice work. The new Berkeley project will give its young participants the agricultural training they desire while serving the local community — “a great merger of those two pieces,” he said.
But he is moving forward anyway, convinced the funding will materialize. After all, as he, Savage and Passow point out, Jewish environmental activism and eco-sustainability projects attract more young Jews every year, whether to the Jewish Farm School’s farm-based seminars or Hazon’s annual Jewish food conference.
“In the next decade, there’s going to be huge growth in all aspects of urban sustainability,” Savage said. “Creating Urban Adamah is the obvious next step — an opportunity to connect and inspire some of the most talented and idealistic Jewish people in America.”