LONDON — Skeet Hill House is barely a 10-minute drive from London’s orbital motorway. But, set amid a patchwork of rolling hills and small farms, it feels like a world away.
Purchased by the Jewish Youth Fund in 1940 to provide the healing balm of fresh air and country living to children from the capital’s bombed-out East End, it is now also home to the Jewish farm.
Sadeh is the brainchild of Talia Chain, a self-confessed “super city girl” who three years ago abandoned her life in London to pursue her dream of reconnecting with both the land and her Jewish faith. Her journey is one that she hopes will inspire others to do likewise.
Although hardly ignorant of the world around her – at university, Chain started a charity to raise awareness through art about human trafficking – she readily admits to previously knowing “nothing about the environment and the planet.”
That all changed when her sister gave her a copy of New York Times journalist Michael Pollan’s best-selling book about where food comes from, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“It just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about this. Food is so important to me; I’m a Jew,” she jokes. “I never thought about where a cucumber comes from or what’s a seed? I hadn’t been in the garden for years and I was really uninterested in the outdoors.”
Bored of her job, and with her interest piqued, Chain applied to participate in the Adamah Jewish Farming Fellowship which run three times a year at the Isabella Freedman retreat center in Connecticut.
After a rocky start – “I literally turned up with blow-dried hair; I was so London” – Chain began to hit her stride as she milked the goats, collected the chickens’ eggs and worked on the farm.
“I cried for a week and then thought: this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was like the Garden of Eden,” Chain recalls.
It was not simply, though, that Chain discovered a previously unknown love of outdoor life and physical work. She also encountered for the first time the notion of earth-based Judaism.
Despite her strong Jewish background, Chain had felt herself drifting away from her religion at university. “I discovered feminism; it didn’t jibe with my Orthodox upbringing. It was not sitting with me and I just had a huge gaping Jewish hole in my life because I’d pretty much turned my back on it,” she says.
But, far from home, she found a form of Judaism that she felt comfortable with. “Judaism is an agricultural religion,” Chain believes. “When we were exiled from the Land of Israel we swapped our spades for our law books, because how do you continue an agricultural religion when you don’t have a land? But a lot of the practices are still land-based.”
“Earth-based Judaism sees Judaism through the prism of guardianship of the earth and the soil, from the creation story. Adam is put into the Garden of Eden to guard it, serve it and tend it. I took on all of that,” she says.
Returning to Britain, Chain was determined to recreate what she had found at Isabella Freedman.
She undertook courses and apprenticeships to learn farming skills, raised £17,000 (roughly $22,200) through crowdfunding, and persuaded Skeet Hill House, which she had stumbled across by chance on a retreat, to allow her to start a Jewish farm on unused land on its property.
“In January 2017, I put my fork in the ground and built a compost heap,” Chain says.
She waves away talk of the difficulties she must have faced, saying, “I never really felt like this was a challenge. I just knew it would happen. These things always work out.”
Working alongside a team of volunteers and visitors, the farm has grown to encompass composters, fermenting sheds, an orchard and greenhouses.
Chain enthusiastically displays the fruits of her labors — among them, carrots and cauliflowers, sunflowers, chickpeas, garlic, beetroots, herbs and leeks. In the summer and autumn, the farm will produce berries and fruit. Being in the south-eastern county of Kent, the brewing capital of England, Chain hopes they’ll soon also be turning hops into beer.
Chain believes that food and the struggle for greater social and environmental justice are intertwined.
“There are so many connections,” she says. “Often, people with less income have less access to fresh, organic food — especially vegetables. They end up having lots of horrible, processed food, which leads to all kinds of health problems. Healthy food is such a privilege. It’s a wealth issue and a class issue. Food is a political thing.”
But Chain also hopes that Sadeh can inspire others who have become disengaged from Jewish life.
“Synagogue membership is going down year over year. What are the new and interesting ways of connecting to your heritage?” she asks. “This is such a great one because it doesn’t involve the politics of Reform or Orthodox. It doesn’t have that baggage associated with it. You can still do your own personal practice while practicing earth-based Judaism. It’s pluralist so we don’t have to worry about everybody’s differences, we can focus on our similarities.”
Chain cites evidence to back up her claims. The US environmental charity Hazon conducted a survey in 2012 which found that one-third of those who felt disengaged from their Judaism were inspired through its farm and food education programs to reconnect to it.
In March 2018, Sadeh took over the running of Skeet Hill, a rambling, one-time dowager house to nearby Lullingstone Castle. Managing it has allowed Chain to more closely align the values of the farm and the retreat center. It has also opened the farm up to a much greater range of visitors.
“The dream was to have Isabella Freedman and I now have a mini version of that,” says Chain.
Skeet Hill today welcomes a wide range of Jewish youth and community groups, synagogues and schools, as well as local people. They visit either to use its facilities for their own activities or to participate in Sadeh-run programs which aim to promote positive environmental change through cultivation of the land and environmental education. The house will soon welcome a Jewish artists’ retreat and a Jewish mindfulness weekend.
She is proud of the diversity of visitors – “Everyone comes here. We’re one of the only cross-communal places there are” – and wants to build on its growing reputation.
“I love the Jewish community in all its shapes and sizes,” Chain says. “The challenge is for us to be seen as a serious part of the makeup of British Jewry. I want us to make ourselves known for who we are; our values and our vision and showing that to be a significant part of the Jewish community. We’re the only Jewish farm and retreat center. We should be linked with the idea of British Jewry; people should come from across Europe to see us. We’re still early days, but I really see that happening.”
Her ambitions are greater still, though. Chain hopes visitors to Sadeh leave motivated to think about how they can create a more healthy, sustainable world.
“Everybody needs something that inspires them,” Chain says. “You shouldn’t come here and stop. You should come here and think, ‘What have I learned? What do I need to change in my life?’”
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