How the Outdoors, Food, and Environment Leads to Increased Jewish life

by Lisa Farber Miller

My phone rings. “All my life,” the caller says, “I’ve been waiting for someone to connect my love of organic farming and my love of Judaism. And you just did it.”

This is the conversation I had with Ilan Salzberg, who later founded Ekar Farm, a communal urban farm inspired by Jewish values. His call was prompted by an invitation to attend the Hazon Food Conference. Together with the Oreg Foundation, Rose Community Foundation offered scholarships to attract emerging leaders to the Conference.

Our hope was that the Conference would inspire a new Jewish food movement in Denver and Boulder. It worked: one small grant led to a burgeoning array of grassroots and institutional efforts to promote healthier and more sustainable Jewish communities here (see details in Building a Jewish Food Movement in Colorado, A Case Study).

Amid the concerned voices about the future of Jewish engagement, I am excited. A new report – Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) and the companion New York and Colorado case studies – show the growth, creativity, and potential for this young but clearly thriving field.

This is why I am excited: The study makes clear what Ilan taught me – connecting Jewish tradition with contemporary issues, the outdoors, food, environment, in ways that are pedagogically serious – has a profound impact on JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education) participants, and is a key reason many opt back in to Jewish life after years of disengagement.

Seeds of Opportunity demonstrates that immersive JOFEE programs are having a significant impact on people’s individual Jewish identity and commitment, and on leadership development within their Jewish life. JOFEE programs and new methodologies are breathing new energy and commitment into the modern Jewish community.

In fact, too often the Jewish community draws a distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. But many JOFEE participants appear to fit a third profile: people who had to some degree a traditional Jewish upbringing, who subsequently became alienated from Jewish life and then stepped back into Jewish life and leadership through a JOFEE portal. These experiences, such as Jewish farming programs, wilderness celebrations of Jewish holidays, and multi-day Jewish bike rides, are a re-entry point for Jewish life. They then become a path for ongoing Jewish engagement.

Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in particular fit this third profile. While many do not affiliate with traditional denominations or synagogues, the study confirms they have a high engagement in the actualities of Jewish life – observance, friends, commitment, etc.

JOFEE programs also have a significant viral impact on this age group, as last year’s program participants become next year’s program founders. Once people choose to participate in a JOFEE program, there is often a “ripple effect” for Jewish communal life – 87 percent of participants in immersive JOFEE programs say they have helped organize a Jewish communal event or gathering; two-thirds say their JOFEE experience influenced this.

Thanks to this study, funders now have initial answers to the big-picture questions important to all of us who care about increased Jewish engagement: What should we be doing? How can we achieve the most significant long-term outcomes? A list of considerations for funders at the end of the study provides tangible suggestions, including:

  • Support the development of professionals in the JOFEE space to build the capacity needed for JOFEE to reach its potential
  • Consider ways to promote JOFEE concepts and approaches with existing grantee portfolios
  • Support market research to better understand the needs, interest, and constraints of JOFEE participants

This study makes clear that, for those of us who care about and fund the future of Jewish life in this country, the emerging JOFEE strategies hold high promise for renewing Jewish life – and creating a more sustainable world for all.

Lisa Farber Miller is Senior Program Officer at Rose Community Foundation, which joined
Jim Joseph Foundation, Leichtag Foundation, The Morningstar Foundation, Schusterman Family Foundation, and UJA-Federation of New York to fund the JOFEE study. She can be reached at

[eJP note: this post is the first in a series written by panel participants at the 2014 Jewish Funders Network Conference.]

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  1. Steven M. Cohen says

    Here is the text (from this intriguing article) upon which I’d like to comment:

    In fact, too often the Jewish community draws a distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. But many JOFEE participants appear to fit a third profile: people who had to some degree a traditional Jewish upbringing, who subsequently became alienated from Jewish life and then stepped back into Jewish life and leadership through a JOFEE portal.

    1) JOFEE, like other engaging innovations in Jewish life, heavily draws upon people with stronger Jewish socialization and education. In point of fact, if “affiliation” means something more subtle than belonging to a synagogue or giving to a federation (both admirable acts, but not the ways in which young Jews affiliate), then these young Jews are indeed affiliated. They care about their being Jewish, they have Jewish social networks, and they are the sorts of people who can be recruited for innovative Jewish activity.

    2) The profile of participants (relatively high rates of camping, Israel travel, youth groups, Hillel, Jewish Studies classes, etc.) suggests that we need to focus on BOTH socializing young people to jewish life AND providing interesting opportunities for engagement. The latter always heavily appeal to the already connected … and that testifies to the power of Jewish education and socialization.

    3) The appearance of young adult dis-affiliation is over-sold. Studies of Christian young adults report that they go into a moratorium period until they marry. Similar patterns hold among Jews. As early as the 1950s, Marshall Sklare documented the steady rise of Jewish engagement with … marriage, early parenthood, more advanced parenthood. People with Jewish children almost always engage in Jewish life. The problem is that so few Jewish young adults are young parents of Jewish children. Intermarriade (82% among Reform-raised young people), non -marriage, few children, and few children raised as Jews all contribute to low rates of engagement among 20- and 30-somethings.

    In short, we need to expand our investment in Jewish education (camps, Israel travel, youth groups, Hillels, Moishe Houses, film festivals, political action, social justice work, etc.) and keep our eye on connecting more Jews earlier to each other to raise the chances that they will marry, marry each other, persuade their non-Jewish spouses to adopt Jewish identity, have children, and raise their children as Jews. The key challenge is demographic. The key response is in Jewish social network building of which JOFEE is an excellent and very laudable example. … Prof. Steven M. Cohen, Steve34NYC@AOL.Com June 13 2014

  2. says

    Thank you Steven for your astute comments. Our experience engaging young Jewish adults does support your assertion that many of them have had rich Jewish experiences as children. They tell us that they yearn for meaningful Jewish experiences as adults–ones that are compelling and relevant in their lives and offer the chance to make Jewish friends. But just as many of the 25 to 40-year-olds who participate in our Roots & Branches Foundation had nothing Jewish in their childhoods. They also yearn for Jewish community, a community of their peers that is built from relationships they create by working together to make the community a better place. One way we foster these friendship bonds is by offering JOFEE programs. Another is through philanthropy. Our Roots & Branches Foundation (, now in its eighth year, is a collaborative philanthropy program for Jewish people ages 25 to 40 who are interested in giving together to help shape their Jewish and broader communities.

    We hope others will join us in energetically reaching out and engaging young adults who were raised in secular Jewish households. Our Roots & Branches participants explain the impact when you do: “I now feel more confident in my own Judaism and more excited to meet Jewish peers and participate in Jewish activities, even though I view myself as mostly secular.” And another: “Roots & Branches gave me a sense of grounding in a community that I’ve always felt somewhat detached from. . . it has reinforced my desire to be active in the Jewish community and celebrate Judaism as an adult, which I never really thought would be a priority in my life.”