Adamah: Learning hands-on about Judaism
By Stacey Dresner
Jaclyn Schwanemann, a native of Tampa, Fla., pulls weeds from around young onion crops on one of the fields that is part of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s Adamah program.
“I graduated right before I came here from New College of Florida, a liberal arts college. My major was religion, basically Jewish studies,” she says, peaking out from under a wide-brimmed hat. “I have always been interested in Judaism and gardening and farming – and this combines both. When I found out there was a Jewish farm, I had to come here.”
Schwanemann is one of 14 young adults between the ages of 20 and 30 who arrived at the Retreat Center in early June to take part in the Adamah: Jewish Environmental Fellowship.
For three months, these young people learn about sustainable farming, study Jewish texts, and gain valuable leadership skills.
Working beside Schwanemann one recent day is Yisroel Bass of Washington Heights who wants to start a Yiddish Farm. “This is my first step,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this before and that is why I needed to start here.”
Erin Taylor, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, just graduated from Tufts with a degree in international relations.
“My focus within my major was health, nutrition and the environment,” she said. “I am really interested in environmental education and especially food issues. I really wanted to learn some of the practical skills that will help me teach food access and helping people get access to nutritional food that is environmentally friendly and inexpensive in a successful way.”
The Adamahniks are led by Shamu Sadeh. Shamu, director of Adamah, is part farmer, part teacher. By day he works the farm, and in the evening he can be found leading classes that will teach the young participants in Adamah (“earth” in Hebrew) leadership skills in a Jewish context. And everything ties into the land and sustainability.
“We use farming as a way for people to learn hands-on about Judaism and sustainability…and to work within a natural system. How does an eco-system work? How do you function within it?” Shamu offers.
The Adamah fellows begin their days at 6 a.m. when they participate in “Avodat Lev” – a morning service that includes some traditional and non-traditional prayers, meditation and singing.
After breakfast they work. They may plant seeds in the greenhouse, harvest crops like garlic, onions and strawberries, weed the fields, clear brush, and milk the farm’s goats.
They will also help with the three businesses operated by the farm: a CSA or community-supported agriculture program; a value-added products business selling their own sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles, and jam; and a dairy, where the goat milk is turned into cheese and yogurt and then sold.
Three nights a week, they take part in classes involving both Jewish text and imparting leadership skills.
Classes range from the study of Genesis, “Treatment of Animals in Judaism” and a class on Kashrut. One recent evening the class, led by Shamu, covered Active Listening.
“It is about giving people the skills so they can go out and be change-makers in the world, both on the interpersonal level and on the big societal level,” Shamu explained. “For some people farming and gardening is their way of leading in the world.”
The program has alumni who run garden and nutrition programs in inner-city schools in cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
“In Detroit, we have an Adamah alum who not only helps to run urban gardens…but she does their whole value added products industry, so low income folks are now making pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee and jam off produce they grow themselves to support their community,” Shamu said. “It is one of our alums who learned how to do that stuff here.”
Other former Adamah participants are training to be rabbis, work for Jewish non-profits, work in the fields of food policy or green building, or are nutritionists.
Adamah began with a pilot program in 2003. Shaumu came onboard in 2004. He already had ties to the area – he had worked at Isabella Freedman’s Teva Learning Center in 1995-1996 and taught at Berkshire Community College.
When the current Adamah students leave, another batch of 14 will arrive at the farm in the fall, and then again in the spring. In total, the program has 140 graduates.
But Adamah also offers its farming and land stewardship principles to others in the community.
“The core of what we do is the three-month program, and we do shorter programs – week-long programs, day-long programs,” Shamu said. “I got two calls yesterday from congregations who want to bring up their congregants to learn about the connection between ecology, Jewish spirituality and farming.”
Adamah offers “Family Farm Day” where people can come and work on the farm’s CSA, and “Taste of Adamah” a week-long program for people of all ages.
And they get more out of their time at the retreat center and farm, Shamu said, than just a day digging around in the dirt.
“I am a big believer in Heschel who said the root of all religion is the experience of awe. That is the fundamental definition of the religious experience – wonder…wow! For the most part people experience that powerfully through the outdoors,” he said. “Looking around this place, harvesting, seeing something go from seed to fruit, working the land and seeing things grow. It is an amazing, miraculous, awesome process.”