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Living the Jewish Value of Being “Guardians of the Earth” at Camp Harlam

It was just 2 short summers ago that URJ Camp Harlam had a teensy little garden. It was a sweet plot of land with some colorful perennials and herbs for Havdalah, plus a few rows of juicy tomato plants and other green veggies basking in the summer sun. But this summer we decided to put a stake in the ground – literally! – and declare with our sweat and muscles that we are fully committing to “greening” and “growing” at camp. 

garden picIt has been our Jewish vision to commit ourselves to teaching about Tikkun Middot and Tikkun Olam. This means we are truly dedicated to character development education and a continuous focus on self-improvement (Tikkun Middot), while also remaining steadfast to improving our community and greater society (Tikkun Olam).  Through efforts such as recycling, tripling the size of our garden, building a compost for our fruit and veggie scraps, creating an official “Camp Farmer/J-Life Specialty Counselor” position, and continuing to expand our Teva (nature) Department – we feel we can build self-esteem, self-confidence, and menschy kids.  In addition, we know we are creating sacred moments for our staff and campers to see “gardening” and “greening” as integral to Judaism and Jewish life. These activities and programs are a way to truly live our Jewish values.

The URJ, as well as other Jewish camps and schools in America, are beginning to see a vital connection between hands-on learning and the natural world. There is clearly an educational value between gardening, healthy eating, and caring for the world around us.  And the way we “fix the world” is by starting in our own communities; on our own patch of dirt, in our own backyard.  By doing this, we are returning to Jewish ideals and foundational ideologies at the heart of our Torah. It is part of our Jewish heritage since the words of the Creation story were scribed, teaching us that plants and trees and seed-bearing fruits were to be celebrated as “very good.”

The expansion of the garden at Camp Harlam is an exciting venture, one that we feel blessed to be a part of.  John Houston – our “camp farmer” – was fortunate to attend the AMIR Fellowship training conference, in order to develop his skills as a Jewish camp farmer. He gained knowledge in teaching Jewish values as part of working the land. John’s job at camp this summer is to not only grow delicious cucumbers and tomatoes – and we look forward to seeing these “home-grown” veggies on our salad bar! –  but to grow and nurture a future generation of people who care deeply about the mitzvah of being “Shomrei Adamah” – Guardians of the Earth. 

Here is a reflection from John’s experience at the four-day AMIR training this past May in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, in which he learned the hands-on skills of creating multiple camp gardens, a natural compost system, and ways of making gardening fun to children of all ages:

I believe it is vital for our growth as Jews, for our growth as Americans, and for our growth as the human species attempting to survive on this “civilized” planet, to learn what it takes to create food. Currently, we live in a disconnected world. We seem to be highly connected via cell phones, the Internet, cars, skype, and television. However, the more of the world we can see, the less we seem to experience.  It would be as if we had never been to synagogue, but rather had driven by it, seen it, heard what happens inside, and even knew a few of the tunes of the prayers.  Yet would we really know it? Today, that is our relationship with our food and the earth.  We must create ways to feel and experience the magic, to know how sacred and special gardening can be. 

John also added:

Gardening at Camp Harlam will be whatever the children want it to be; what they are willing to put into it.  I can only hand them the tools and the seeds. God willing, seeds will germinate, sprouts will emerge, and buds will blossom.  Or maybe not, but we will learn something from that, too.

By John Houston, AMIR Gardener/Jewish Life Specialty Counselor and Rabbi Vicki Seren Tuckman, Director of Jewish Life, URJ Camp Harlam.

This will be John’s 3rd summer on staff at Camp Harlam. John just spent the past year farming with an organic farmer in Hawaii. This will be Rabbi Vicki’s 8th summer at camp and she is beyond excited at the ways that Harlam has grown each and every year in providing opportunities for campers and staff to truly experience nature, providing infinite possibilities to experience what Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heshcel calls “radical amazement”. We both look forward to watching our camp garden grow into a true cornucopia!

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