Fields of Dreams: The Jewish Farm School and Its New Plot of Land

Look out at the plot of land and you will see an empty field, surrounded by thick forest on three sides, and tennis and basketball courts on the fourth. But when Simcha Schwartz, associate director of The Jewish Farm School, … Read More

By / August 18, 2009

Look out at the plot of land and you will see an empty field, surrounded by thick forest on three sides, and tennis and basketball courts on the fourth. But when Simcha Schwartz, associate director of The Jewish Farm School, gazes out that way, his vision floods with goat sheds and shade structures, rows of purple cabbages, green peas, fiery tomatoes, and yellow flowering broccoli; with hoop houses and green houses and busy bodies bent over plants, walking through rows of seedlings, walking with hoes, some wiping their brows, smiling, staring up at the sky.

"The first step of planning a farm is observation," Schwartz says. So for now he and his colleagues are watching the grassy field, noting how water flows through it when it rains, the shade and sun patterns throughout the day, when the wild deer and gopher seem most active.  

Schwartz, 31, along with his good friend Nati Passow, 29, co-founded the Jewish Farm School (JFS) in 2005, along with a group of other colleagues from the Teva Learning Center and Adamah. The group aimed to reconnect Jews with the land, food production, and an environmentally sustainable way of life. Although they have neither a permanent farm nor school just yet, JFS has reached a wide variety of people through their diverse programming and courses. They visits schools and teach gardening and farming skills, they teach workshops on urban sustainability, they have partnered with the Teva Learning Center on Teva’s Annual Seminar on Environmental Education, they have offered keynote speeches and classes and workshops at Hazon’s Food Conference, they run their own Alternative Break trips on farms throughout the country, and they have also launched a consulting business called Cooperative Design, which  works with synagogues and other Jewish institutions to create systems that foster cultural, ecological and social sustainability.

But this summer most of JFS’s attention has been focused on establishing what they hope will be their first permanent farm at Eden Village Camp. The camp is a project of Yoni Stadlin, 30, a former colleague of Schwartz and Passow at the Teva Learning Center, and his wife, Vivian Lehrer, 29. The couple has received a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation to start a camp on land owned by the Jewish Federation. This farm venture is a synthesis of three main players: The Jewish Federation is funding the installation of the farm, and is interested in seeing it as a year-round project that will bring Jews of all affiliations to the land to solidify a sense of Jewish identity and involvement. Camp Eden Village is happy to host this JFS farm in order to provide educational garden activities for their campers and staff, and to grow food for the dining hall. Eden Village Camp has also asked JFS to run related programs around the site, like maintaining "snack gardens" with cherry tomatoes and berries outside the bunks, and planting fruit-bearing trees around the fields. JFS’s dreams for this land include running year-long projects like alternative breaks, workshops, and retreats, providing the Jewish community with progressive cutting edge farming techniques and models of natural building and living. JFS also hopes to use the farm as a training grounds for rising Jewish educators who want to learn about farming, Judaism, and the rich intersection between the two.

This collaboration is exciting for Schwartz, who for a long time has been dreaming of a life style centered around community, sustainability, Judaism, and nature. The past five years have seen him working on a farm in Georgia, working for Teva, Hazon, American Jewish World Service, and in Israel. In all of these experiences he felt a deep connection with his Jewish roots, and a longing to combine the things he loves – farming, Judaism, education, and community – in a long-term living situation. Schwartz has recently moved to the Eden Village Site full-time.

It is also a dream for Passow, who, before JFS took off, was incorporating similar interests into his career as carpenter, writer, and founder of an urban nutrition initiative after-school gardening program. Passow cites the Talmud as one source of major inspiration for urban gardening, as it teaches that it’s forbidden to live in a city without a vegetable garden, and provides elaborate instructions on how to feed society’s disadvantaged with sustainable farming practices.

Schwartz and Passow recently received an additional boost of support with a grant from Bikkurim, an incubator for new Jewish ideas. Bikkurim has provided them with a New York-based office on Wall Street, organizational consulting, and professional development trainings and workshops.

While the main fields at the potential new home for JFS remain patiently empty, with the help of their intern Jacob Holzberg-Pill, they have planted gardens outside the caretaker and director’s houses at Eden Village Camp. The thin red-veined leaves of beet greens and fuzzy squash leaves with their yellow flowers, and purplish green of kale poking through the dark soil offer a taste of what’s to come.

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