Where God Meets Green

A New Jewish Summer Camp Caters To Environmentally Conscious Parents and Kids

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
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For kids, summer days at Eden Village Camp, some 50 miles north of New York City in Putnam Valley, N.Y., will be different from days at other Jewish overnight camps. Oh, there will be swimming in the camp’s lake and plenty of hiking. But instead of games of tennis there will be pickling and permaculture. Rather than visiting the canteen for ice cream, kids will pick snap peas to munch from their bunk’s own “snack garden.”

Harvest Time: Farm manager Debra Rich (left) and camp counselor Aliza Sandberg plant kale.
Harvest Time: Farm manager Debra Rich (left) and camp counselor Aliza Sandberg plant kale.

“We call it an in-ground vending machine,” said Yoni Stadlin, who, with his wife, Vivian, founded the innovative camp, which will open June 30.

Eden Village Camp, with its focus on all things sustainable and earth-friendly, is the only camp with Jewish environmentalism as its central principle, said Yoni.

While most camps now recycle, Eden Village takes environmental consciousness to a whole new level: in addition to being kosher, it’s mostly vegetarian. In its renovation of an existing camp property, which had lain fallow for three years, Eden Village is using green building technology, including permaculture designs and straw-bale construction, and energy from renewable sources, including wind, solar and hydropower.

Campers and staffers will pursue a zero-waste goal by composting, recycling and growing food from an on-site organic farm. Two flocks of chickens live in a coop that is moved around the farm so that their waste can fertilize the ground.

A camper holds a chicken, whose drop- pings are used to fertilize campgrounds.
A camper holds a chicken, whose drop- pings are used to fertilize campgrounds.

As central as environmentalism is to Eden Village, so are Jewish values.

“All aspects of the program are infused with Jewish wisdom that comes from our inherently agricultural tradition,” Vivian said. “We’re teaching about Judaism through the land. We’ll leave the corners of the field unharvested in accordance with the tradition of pe’ah in the Torah so that those who need food can have the dignity of harvesting it themselves.”

While she acknowledges this dynamic won’t be simple to execute, campers will be involved in the process of deciding how to implement the vision.

Eden Village has a strict visitor policy for camper safety, so people aren’t going to be able to just drive up and take produce from the corners of the field.

“The question becomes: Do we follow the letter or the spirit of the law?” Vivian said. “Do we harvest it ourselves and donate it? How big do we leave the corners of the field? Through honest discussion the campers will decide [how to deal with it.] And we’ll talk about how we take that value home to our own lives for the rest of the year.”

As much food as possible will be produced on site, including ingredients for challah and grape juice for Sabbath celebrations.

Yoni and Vivian are currently establishing relationships with local farmers and suppliers of organic, natural foods. “Especially in this first year, we won’t be able to produce all of our own food and certain staples we can’t grow. No one around here is growing rice, for example,” Vivian said.

But, she said, “Our cook is committed to interfacing with the farm and making everything from scratch — including homemade hot cereals, homemade granola.”

“We’ll make the most homemade challah you’ve ever tasted,” said Vivian.

The camp plans to grow and harvest its own wheat, mill it and use it for baking.

“We’re doing as much as we can to connect our campers to the source of everyday objects and food,” she added. “It gives a whole new meaning to min haaretz [from the earth]. They’ll know intimately what that means.”

The camp has big backing from funders and is proving more popular with families registering their children than the couple anticipated.

Its 248-acre campsite, which sits in a valley and abuts state parkland and the Appalachian Trail, is owned by UJA-Federation of New York.

The federation is spending $3 million to renovate the camp’s infrastructure and buildings. The camp received a $1.1 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation that was administered by the Foundation for Jewish Camp to develop programming, which will include off-season activities for families and others.

“I have people sigh on the phone and say they were waiting for a camp that fits their needs,” said Yoni. “The values are in line with the values in their home and religion.”

The couple, and their funders, aimed to have 70 campers this first summer. But at press time, 133 had registered. While the grounds can accommodate 350 people, registration will be capped at 150 campers entering 3rd through 12th grades.

Karyn Moskowitz of Louisville, Ky., is sending her 10-year-old daughter, Cicada. A deeply involved environmentalist, Moskowitz first heard about the camp at the Hazon Jewish Food Conference in late 2008.

“It is very important that my daughter eats healthy and I trust Eden Village Camp to make that happen, with the help of the children themselves, and I want Cicada to meet other Jewish children, since there aren’t that many of them here,” Moskowitz said.

She also likes the creative leadership involved in starting a camp like Eden Village, and hopes that Cicada will find role models there.

“Here we have young Jews who are very optimistic about the future, and I want Cicada to grow up like them,” said Moskowitz, “and learn to make things happen by thinking outside the box.”

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at DNussbaumC@forward.com

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