Twenty of Kehilla Community Synagogue’s 3rd and 4th graders don’t spend the majority of their Hebrew school time at the congregation’s Piedmont, California building. Instead, they dig into Judaism by getting their hands dirty at Urban Adamah, the only urban Jewish farm in North America, located in nearby Berkeley.
These kids are only twenty of the 10,000 annual visitors who come to Urban Adamah’s 1.25-acre site from around the San Francisco Bay Area for hands-on educational programming that combines Jewish values with sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship.
Amazed at how quickly its mission and programs have attracted interest, Urban Adamah, which opened in 2011, has already decided it needs more room to grow and has announced plans to purchase and move to a property twice the size of its current one.
And the best part about Urban Adamah’s pulling up roots is that it doesn’t have to actually do so. Differing from other Jewish farms like Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, New York and the Pearlstone Center in Resisterstown, Maryland and Kavanah Garden in Toronto, which are located in rural or suburban areas, Urban Adamah is currently situated on rented property in an inner-city setting. Accordingly, it has devised methods of growing all its crops in beds that are not only raised above the ground, but also portable and relatively easy to safely transport to a new site.
Urban Adamah’s executive director Adam Berman calls the purchase of the new 2.2-acre parcel in West Berkeley “a once in a lifetime opportunity” for the farm. “This piece of land is off-the-charts amazing,” he told The Times of Israel. There are not many large, open lots in the area, let alone ones that are comprised completely of exposed soil and situated next to a restored creek and wetland area.
Berman, a longtime leader in Jewish environmental education, founded Urban Adamah in 2010 after serving as executive director of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Connecticut Berkshires and founding ADAMAH: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship. He is just as surprised as everyone else at how successful Urban Adamah has become in such a short time.
“It was an unproven model just three years ago,” Berman says. Now his organization is in the midst of a major capital campaign to raise $2.5 million by mid-September.
Berman is grateful for how the farm’s supporters are stepping up to the challenge of raising the requisite funds. Among the many donors is an anonymous one who has pledged $250,000, and the Opaline Fund (a supporting foundation of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund), which has pledged $200,000. Six gifts of $100,000 each have also come in.
Mark Jacobs, president of Urban Adamah’s board, attributes the excitement around the farm and its expanding potential to its tapping into an unexplored need and desire in the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Community to connect Jewish values with agriculture and social justice.
“Food access and sustainable growth are in the air in the Bay Area in general, but this is a very unique Jewish space that is unlike anything else that people have experienced,” Jacobs says.
“Urban Adamah was supposed to be an experiment, a pilot project,” he continues. “We really didn’t know what the receptivity to a mobile urban Jewish farm would be. We thought our focus would be on developing a model that could be replicated elsewhere.”
The shift toward physically expanding Urban Adamah’s presence in Berkeley occurred when it was clear that the demand for its programming was strongly increasing. “That’s when we decided to focus on our breadth and depth here in the Bay Area,” Jacobs explains.
‘There is a thirst here for synthesis between Jewish values, sustainable farming, and food justice’
Casey Yurow, the farm’s director of education and community outreach calls the new property, with its small re-forested zone, “a more vibrant, alive space that will allow for a more immersive experience.” He believes an area to “run around and connect with trees in the middle of the city” will make a huge difference.
None of the new property is paved, allowing Yurow and the rest of the farm’s staff to simultaneously work with the Urban Adamah Fellows (a three-month residential program), the farm’s 250 summer campers, after school groups and all others who come to the farm for its many and various programs on long-term land stewardship and supporting the soil’s health and vibrancy.
For Yurow, Urban Adamah’s growth was not anticipated, but at the same time not surprising. “This is the right place,” he says of the Bay Area. “There is a thirst here for synthesis between Jewish values, sustainable farming, and food justice.”
The farm has become a key partner with local food banks and organizations working to close the fresh-food gap in low-income neighborhoods. Urban Adamah donates 90 percent of the food it produces.
Berman notes that increased use of aquaponics (a system that uses the byproducts in waste water from the raising of fish as nutrients for the growing of plants) on the new site would raise crop yields, with agricultural production increasing almost five-fold to 50,000 pounds of produce annually.
One of the local organizations benefiting from Urban Adamah’s food donations, as well as the volunteer time of its fellows, is LifeLong Medical Care, which provides health and social services to the under-served. “It’s fantastic and our families depend on it,” says Ariana Jostad-Laswell, a healthcare educator and clinical care assistant of the produce Urban Adamah provides free to some 30 LifeLong Medical’s families each week.
“Their fellows also lead a gardening class for our patients. We do a walking group from the health center on Tuesdays over to Urban Adamah,” Jostad-Laswell says. “Moms and toddlers like it as a place where kids get to play outside and get carrots out of the ground.” The farm’s chickens and goats are also a hit with the kids.
Having already raised $1.4 million in pledges, Berman, Jacobs and the rest of Urban Adamah’s leadership have their work cut out for them this summer. They’re betting the farm they can raise the remaining $1.1 million to acquire the larger property they believe can help the Bay Area Jewish community grow in unprecedented ways.