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- A Better Jewish Future

URBAN ADAMAH: The Jewish Sustainability Corps

Jewish Engagement and Renewal in 21st Century

by Yonatan Cohen

In June 2011 the Jewish Community of the San Francisco East Bay will formally welcome Urban Adamah: The Jewish Sustainability Corps into the community at its location in Berkeley, where I serve as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.

Over the course of this year, I had the great privilege of attending several brainstorming sessions led by Urban Adamah’s founding director Adam Berman, together with stakeholders representing many communities, all Jewish denominations, and the environmental Jewish movement. I am also currently working with Adam on a model for a synagogue day camp at the urban farm.

These meetings have left a singular impression upon me: this project is a game changer. It creates an accessible context for deeply affiliated Jews and, just as importantly, unaffiliated Jews to come together and explore their Jewish identities in new, invigorating, and exciting ways.

The proposal that follows represents the bulk vision of Urban Adamah, including a description of the particular partnership we are piloting this summer.  I am honored to represent this emerging Jewish organization as a model to be replicated across the country.



Urban Adamah is a unique Jewish response to the need for healthy food in poverty-challenged neighborhoods while also empowering Jewish young adults through their farming, Jewish community building and leadership training experiences to become agents of change for a socially just and environmentally sustainable world.

Urban Adamah’s primary program is a three-month intensive leadership-training residency for Jewish young adults in their 20s (fellows). Key to its success, the fellowship is based on an intensive service-learning model. Fellows live and work together full time, and are fully immersed in an ecologically aware, service-oriented and spiritually vibrant way of life informed by Jewish values and practice.

As part of their training, fellows help operate a portable urban organic farm, and are involved in all facets of the food production cycle. The majority of the produce grown on the farm is distributed to members of the local community most in need, primarily through food banks. The farming experience itself is distinctly Jewish. From counting the barley harvest during the seven-week omer period, to collecting honey from bee hives, to welcoming a sweet New Year, to decorating the sukkah with the autumn harvest and tithing produce, the fellows’ environmental and agricultural training adds new depth to their celebration of Jewish life.

Urban Adamah farms also serve as experiential Jewish education centers serving the Jewish communities that surround the farms. Through a summer camp, an afterschool program and public festivals, fellows teach programs to children and adults of all ages that combine farming and sustainability with Jewish tradition and values.

In addition to farm work, fellows spend time each week interning with local, community-based social justice organizations. Projects are mostly hands-on in nature and address issues of poverty, food security and energy use. Through these internships, fellows have the opportunity to work directly with diverse populations, gain practical skills, broaden their understanding of complex social challenges and make a real contribution to improving the quality of people’s lives.

Urban Adamah is a response to three trends: The first is growing desire of Jewish young people to connect to Jewish community in non-institutional settings and in ways that speak to their individual values and passions. The second is the mounting degradation of the earth’s biosphere and the concomitant rise in awareness of environmental issues, especially among young people. The third is the growing food and nutrition crisis in our country. Obesity is at record levels, especially among the urban poor. Access to fresh produce and health education in many of these communities is severely limited. Urban Adamah is a powerful response to each of these trends.

Twelve Urban Adamah fellows will be selected to participate in the pilot three-month program starting June 2011. Successive programs will take place each fall, spring and summer. The Urban Adamah program is highly replicable. Pending success in Berkeley, Urban Adamah hopes to establish sites in other cities over the coming years.

Urban Adamah builds on the success of the Adamah Fellowship established by Adam Berman in 2003 in Falls Village, Connecticut. Today, Adamah alumni are serving in significant leadership positions in Jewish communities throughout the country and in Israel.




The Need

  • Jewish Identity: The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey showed an American Jewish community in crisis. For the first time in American Jewish history, the number of self-identified Jews had declined over the course of a decade. More recent studies offer a similar though slightly more nuanced perspective. A 2005 Project Reboot study found that while Jewish young adults are not necessarily interested in the Jewish institutions of their parents’ generation, they do in fact seek Jewish community, but often in informal and non-traditional ways. They also seek an approach to Jewish tradition that reflects their particular values and passions. Finding Jewish programs, communities and organizations that meet this need is our challenge and our opportunity.
  • Environmental Awareness: Environmental consciousness is a cultural phenomenon that has grown exponentially over the past twenty years. The number of college-level programs in Environmental Studies in the United States has risen from a dozen in the early 1970s to over 200 today.[1] Organic farming—a direct response to ecologically destructive agricultural practices—has also grown dramatically. Worldwide organic food production has grown at an astounding 30%–40% annually over the past decade.[2] In the United States, acreage devoted to organic farming doubled from 2005 to 2010.[3]  The increasing demand for healthier food seems to be matched only by people’s enthusiasm for learning how to grow it. The number of volunteers on American organic farms—mostly young adults—has risen 20% annually since the early 1990s, and is expected to continue at this pace well into the current decade.[4]
  • Poverty, Obesity and Urban Food Deserts: Much has been written over the past decade about the link between poverty and obesity. Low-income neighborhoods around the country have obesity rates three times the national average. Causes include: food and agricultural policies that make high caloric and low nutrient processed food the least expensive option in most places; the prevalence of fast-food restaurants in low income neighborhoods; and the relative dearth of high quality fresh produce available in these communities. In West Oakland, CA, for example, (just south of Berkeley) where the average annual household income for its 24,000 residents is $20,000, there are 40 liquor and convenience stores and not a single full-service supermarket.[5]  Similar stories can be told about low-income communities across the country.


The Opportunity

Jewish young adults have gravitated towards environmental and social justice movements, and have assumed leadership roles in college and national organizations. In this country, we have witnessed the rise of a cohort of smart, caring, socially aware young Jews who are galvanized by environmental and social problems but disengaged from Jewish communal life. Finding a way to reconnect these Jews that also makes the world a better place is an extraordinary opportunity.

The Jewish Response

Jewish tradition is rich with connections to the natural world and a call to social justice. As humanity’s negative impact on the natural world grows with each passing year, our core values of tzedek (justice) and chessed (compassion) invite us to respond in new and meaningful ways. Commandments like Bal Taschit (do not waste), Shmita (letting the land rest) and Tzaar Baalei Chayim (preventing cruelty to animals) take on new meaning in the context of current ecological degradation. Timeless practices like shabbat and kashrut invite renewed connection in an era when the energy we use and the food we eat have life and death consequences for people around the globe. The environmental challenges of our time also invite re-investigation into Jewish holidays and prayers, many of which are based on agricultural and seasonal rhythms.

The Jewish community’s growing interest in environmental stewardship has mirrored that of the general environmental movement. In 1992, there were only two Jewish organizations working to raise environmental consciousness within the Jewish community; today, there are over two dozen, the most prominent of which include Hazon, the Teva Learning Center, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Canfei Nesharim, the Kayam Farm, Wilderness Torah and the Jewish Farm School. In addition, there are several organizations including Avodah, Mazon and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which address some aspects of urban poverty and food deserts.


The Model

In 2003, Adam Berman, now spearheading Urban Adamah, founded the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. The Adamah Fellowship is a three-month immersion program for Jewish young adults that integrates Jewish learning and living, organic agriculture and leadership development. Fellows acquire a deeper understanding of Judaism and its inherent connections to the natural world, a well-developed set of leadership skills and the tools and passion with which to be successful advocates for change within and outside of the Jewish community. For many who feel disaffected by mainstream Judaism but are inspired to attend the program for its ecological training, Adamah is a pathway to discovering their Jewish identities.

Over the past seven years, the Adamah Fellowship in Connecticut has flourished. Today the program receives one hundred and fifty applications for twenty-eight available fellowships annually. The 140 graduates to date have sought further Jewish learning opportunities and have assumed leadership roles within Jewish institutions. Upon completion of their time with Adamah, fellows have matriculated into rabbinic and cantorial programs, developed Adamah-inspired programs in Israel and Maryland, written for Jewish publications, staffed the Jewish Organizing Initiative and Avodah, and have taken jobs at Jewish organizations such as Hazon, Derekh HaTeva, Bustan, the Teva Learning Center, Hillels and Jewish Day Schools. Many alumni report that they would not have chosen Jewish career paths or significant Jewish enrichment activities if not for their Adamah experience.



Urban Adamah builds on the success of the Adamah Fellowship in Connecticut and expands its impact. Like its predecessor, Urban Adamah is an intensive residential immersion program that speaks to the hearts, minds and spirits of Jewish young adults. The Urban Adamah farm in Berkeley will also serve as a Jewish and environmental educational center for thousands of Jewish students and community members each year. In addition, fellows will work with local community based organizations on direct service projects that address issues of poverty, food security and environmental stewardship.

Urban Adamah fellowships run for three-month periods in the summer, fall and spring. The fellowship is based on an intensive service-learning model. Fellows live and work together full time, and are fully immersed in an ecologically aware, service-oriented, and spiritually vibrant way of life informed by Jewish values and practice.

Urban Adamah fellows will live in a rented home within biking distance of the farm. The home will also serve as an indoor classroom and host facility for Shabbat programming, Jewish festivals and other community gatherings. Through their residential immersion experience, fellows will have the opportunity to create their own community, one based on Jewish values, respect, the valuing of difference, full participation, a commitment to conflict resolution and an emphasis on open communication

The Urban Adamah curriculum has three components:

1. Avodat Sadeh (Service of the Field). Fellows will spend the majority of their time learning and practicing sustainable agriculture on the one-acre Urban Adamah farm in Berkeley. They will be involved in all aspects of the food production cycle—including crop selection, farm design, pest management, planting, harvesting and distribution. The majority of the produce grown on the farm will be distributed to members of the local community most in need, primarily through local food banks. The farming experience itself will be distinctly Jewish. From counting the barley harvest during the seven-week omer period, to collecting honey from bee hives, to welcoming a sweet New Year, to decorating the sukkah with the autumn harvest and tithing produce, the fellows’ environmental and agricultural training will add new depth to their celebration of Jewish life.

2. Avodat Kehilah (Service to the Community). Urban Adamah fellows will contribute to the larger community both as educators at the farm and as interns will local non-profit organizations.

  • Community Education: As educators, fellows will offer hands-on programs to local residents, families and students from Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. For Jewish groups, educational programming will combine farming and sustainability with Jewish tradition and values. The curriculum for visiting groups will be drawn from the cutting edge work developed by the Teva Learning Center (www.tevalearningcenter.org), the nation’s premier Jewish environmental education center in Falls Village, CT, and the Kayam Jewish educational farm (www.pearlstonecenter.org/farm), in Reisterstown Maryland, which runs Jewish farm education programs for thousands of Baltimore-area Jewish students each year.
  • Social Justice Internships: Fellows will also spend an average of 10 hours per week working in local, low-income neighborhoods with community-based environmental justice organizations. Projects will mostly be hands-on in nature and address issues of poverty, food security and energy use. Examples include working with City Slicker Farms (www.cityslickerfarms.org) to support the installation of food gardens in the back yards of low-income families in West Oakland; participating in the Ecology Center’s Farm Fresh Choice (www.ecologycenter.org) program which teaches nutrition education and sells local produce at East Bay public high schools; and serving as chef educators in programs run by Cooking Matters (www.cookingmatters.org) which teaches individuals how to prepare the produce they collect from local food banks.
  • The Urban Adamah farm will also serve as a gathering space for the Jewish community as well as secular organizational partners and the community members they serve.

3. Limmud (Learning). The Urban Adamah fellowship includes a curriculum of study designed for personal growth and leadership development. Fellowship studies will cover material in four primary areas:

  • Jewish Studies: The study of Jewish texts and traditions is a key component of the Urban Adamah curriculum. Fellows will delve deeply into the Jewish tradition’s understanding of the natural world and our relationship to it. While limmud sessions are primarily focused on Jewish perspectives on environmental and social justice issues, fellows will also explore topics such as prayer, holidays, Shabbat, Jewish ethics and the weekly Torah portion.
  • Sustainability/Environmental Justice: Fellows will learn about environmental sustainability and social justice through lectures, readings and discussions of environmental topics. In addition, fellows will attend hands-on skill building workshops and seminars on topics that include sustainable agriculture, environmental justice, energy, water and green building. Leaders from our local community partner organizations will teach many of these sessions.
  • Teaching/Pedagogy: Fellows will learn how to teach an experiential curriculum on the farm to students of all ages and backgrounds. The curriculum will integrate hands-on farm work with the broader environmental and social issues that inform the greater Urban Adamah enterprise.
  • Leadership Training: Urban Adamah trains fellows to become effective advocates for change, empowering them to take leadership roles in their communities after they complete the program. Our training focuses on active listening, conflict resolution, public speaking and meeting facilitation, among others. These skills are taught through exercises, discussions, role-play scenarios, and one-on-one mentoring. Fellows also participate in trainings run by our community partners that address issues of oppression, racism, and economic inequality.


The Fellows

The Urban Adamah program is for young adults in their 20’s. Most will be recent college graduates, seeking additional life training opportunities prior to embarking on a career path. This time period has been coined as “emerging adulthood” by the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who describes it as a time of “increased experimentation and exploration, of trying on new adult roles.”[6] It is a stage when adult identities are formed, and in which our socializing institutions have enormous influence. Urban Adamah will select individuals who have the greatest potential for Jewish and civic leadership.



It is prohibitively expensive to buy or secure long-term leases on vacant urban land in the Bay Area (and in many other parts of the country). Yet, we found that some developers are willing to lease their property at low or no cost for short periods of time (2-3 years) to non-profit organizations interested in using their land to serve the public good. Urban Adamah’s farm development strategy takes advantage of this impulse. We have developed a portable urban farm design for empty lots awaiting development, growing food and teaching sustainability on land that would otherwise sit empty. All farm structures including planting boxes (with imported soil*), greenhouses, irrigation equipment, fencing, the chicken coop and the teaching tent can be erected quickly and are designed for deconstruction and reuse.

In July of 2010, Urban Adamah reached an agreement with Wareham Development, the largest single owner of commercial real estate in West Berkeley, to lease (at no cost) a 40,000 square foot parcel of land at 1050 Parker Street in West Berkeley through 2012. This will be the site of the first Urban Adamah Farm for at least the first two years. Wareham Development supports the vision and values of Urban Adamah and has offered to help us secure a new parcel should they decide not to renew our lease in 2013. In addition, it is our hope that as the impact of Urban Adamah on the local Jewish community grows, a permanent site, perhaps hosted by a local Jewish institution, will be established.


E. Urban adamah and congregation beth israel – a partnership model

In August 2011 Congregation Beth Israel (Berkeley’s Modern Orthodox community) will launch an innovative, two-week, Jewish farm camp program for children ages 6 – 12. Campers will grow and harvest their own food and explore how our tradition connects us to the food we eat and rhythms of nature. Over the course of two weeks campers will gain new skills, meet new friends, and enjoy the fruits of their own efforts.

CBI’s Urban Adamah farm camp will respond to three communal needs.

Firstly, it promotes achdut (unity) and engagement with all of klal Yisrael.  The partnership between CBI and UA provides a point of entry for the thousands of unaffiliated Jews in the Bay Area who care about issues of social justice and food access and education, but are unable to locate those concerns in the life of their local synagogues.  By integrating hands-on Jewish education with relevant social concerns, these elements of the Jewish community will gain access to more established Jewish communal life. At the same time, the camp will provide a Jewish environment that meets the religious needs and ideals of the community’s Orthodox and observant children and families.

Secondly, this camp provides a paradigm for year-long programming.  CBI-UA will offer periodic, follow-up events, for the summer-camp attendees throughout the year in the hopes of further deepening the group’s sense of community. In addition, CBI-UA will host programs for the teenagers of the synagogue, who are under-served by the local youth movement chapter and or don’t necessarily feel engaged as much by formal synagogue activity.  Furthermore, the CBI-UA partnership will provide some of the Bar and Bat mitzvah students of the community with alternative programming as part of their studies.

Lastly, CBI-UA will serve as a model for institutional partnering.  As non-profits struggle with decreased funding, local institutions can learn from this sharing of resources, staff-people and funding to facilitate the CBI-UA programs.  This can be replicated in future programs with day schools, high schools and other synagogues.



Urban Adamah will make a difference in at least three realms:

  • Growing Jewish Leadership. The Fellowship will foster the next generation of inspired, environmentally aware, service-oriented Jewish leadership. Fellows will apply the gifts of the program—a love of Jewish tradition, a commitment to tikkun olam, a deep connection to social justice and environmental stewardship, and a broad set of teaching, leadership and community-building skills—to their future lives and communities. Each year, Urban Adamah will run a fellowship program for three cohorts (spring, summer and fall) of twelve participants each. (Year one will start in the summer)
  • Building Bay Area Jewish Community. For Jewish visitors to the farm, Urban Adamah programs will offer meaningful and joyous opportunities to learn about an embodied, earth-connected and socially committed way of living Jewishly. The fellows themselves will serve as inspiring role models for the integration of environmental and social commitment with inspired Jewish living. Urban Adamah anticipates running programs for 6,000 visitors to the farm by year two of the fellowship.
  • Pursuing Social Justice. Food is the foundation of life and health. At Urban Adamah, we believe that high-quality, healthy food shouldn’t be the privilege of a few but should be accessible to all. Urban agriculture is gaining momentum across the country as a key component of sustainable food production and community wellness. The Urban Adamah farm will directly support the community through the distribution of local, organic produce. Urban Adamah anticipates growing over 6,000 pounds of food annually. The majority will be donated to local food banks or sold inexpensively in low-income communities with barriers to accessing whole foods. In addition, the internships with local, community-based environmental and social justice organizations will allow the fellows to directly make a difference in the lives of thousands. Living and working in low-income communities in the East Bay will allow the fellows to interact with people from diverse economic, cultural, religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds, thus building bridges of connection between Jews and many diverse populations.

[1] http://www.greenbergresearch.com/index.php?ID=1218

[2] International Federation of Organic Agriculture: http://shop.ifoam.org/bookstore/product_info.php?products_id=518

[4] According to Willing Workers on Organic Farms. www.wwof.org.

[6] Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens to the Twenties, Oxford University Press, p. 26

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