I am a product of the Jewish camping phenomenon with a combined nine years as camper and staff at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI. spanning the years 1993-2004. As my friends can tell you I am a wellspring of stories that begin with the now infamous opening line "this one time at camp…" I have had countless conversations with other alumni from camps all over the country all of whom can attest to their Jewish identity being what it was today because of their summers at camp.
So to what do all those years at camp, and for that matter youth group, lead? A few years on staff? Some Friday nights at Hillel? A free trip to Israel? I wonder if anyone has done a study evaluating the effects of attendance at a Jewish summer camp on continued engagement in the Jewish community after college. Sure there are plethoras of young adult leadership and young professional groups offering happy hours, tickets to baseball games, and singles mixers, we even have a whole niche in the internet dating market. Yet I would venture to say that a sizable portion of young Jewish adults who went to camp in their youth are generally unaffiliated with little interest in joining a congregation. If they are like me, they have probably sat on a number of planning committees for various Jewish organizations. If they are like me, they have probably participated in a number of fellowships and internships with Jewish organizations. If they are like me, they may have even taken a job with a Jewish organization. If they are like me, they may have found themselves wondering, why, after all of that, does it still feel like something is missing?
I offer this conclusion as adults we are offered ways to "practice" our Judaism as we would a crafting hobby, weekend garden project, or intramural sport; with activity being relegated to nights and weekends. What camp offered us was a way to live a Jewish life as a master craftsman would build, a professional athlete would play, or a homesteader would cultivate; with their skill, their passion, their beliefs informing how they live their daily lives; with no separation, no compartmentalization. Is it possible for us to glean the same level of engagement and feelings of connection, in our adult Jewish lives? Can we shed the idea of religion as a "practice" and turn the whole thing on its head? These were just some of the question I asked myself as I was hanging on to the crumbling pieces of a quite literally self-destructive, albeit amazingly delicious, and completely secular culinary career.
My journey towards sustainability began with a long recovery, still in progress, and a search for the sense of Jewish community I had experienced in my youth. Around that same time, as fate would have it, I was able to reconnect with my childhood Rabbi who graciously listened to my plight and suggested I look into the Adamah program. Having experienced and witnessed first hand the injustices of the food service industry, both environmental and human, I was reluctant to wade back into the muck, but it was hard to ignore the opportunity to participate in a program that appealed to my interests of Judaism, social justice, community, sustainability, and food.
So I packed my bags and moved to a retreat center in rural Connecticut to live with 11 other 20-something Jews for an experience that would end up integrating organic farming, sustainable living, Jewish learning, teaching, and contemplative spiritual practice. Adamah did for me (and over 150 others) as an adult what summer camp did as a child, provided the experience of living a fully engaged Jewish life through the creation and preservation of Sacred Space. (I could draw a map of both places from memory, with my eyes closed, and one hand tied behind my back.)
The ability to create and maintain Sacred Space is the key, I believe, to the strength and longevity of a community. It’s trickier than one might first imagine, after all there are numerous buildings housing all kinds of Jewish agencies throughout the country, and throughout this great city of Chicago. However, buildings are only one kind of space. At OSRUI, a reform Jewish camp, we prayed twice a day out side surrounded by trees under the open sky. In Adamah, we spent hours together in the Sadeh (field) working the land. The out of doors is often overlooked, merely experienced as the “in between” for city dwellers, sure when the weather is good they may take in a baseball game (note: sport stadiums can definitely be considered sacred space), or spend the occasional afternoon at the beach, or taking in a concert at Ravinia, but in general the percentage of time spent indoors dwarfs that spend out of doors.
Our challenge then as a community is to engage our members in a profound and sustainable manner as to inspire a connection to place and feelings of responsibility for the health and well being of everyone in it and everything around it. What better way to do all of this than to start a garden? In the weeks and months to come, as The Gan Project and the Bernard Horwich JCC embark on the creation of a 1/4 acre Homestead in Rogers Park, we will explore gardens as sacred space and a place of real time, hands-on action in the pursuit of Tzedek (Justice), and Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).