Natural Learning Lab: Leichtag Ranch & Farm Connects Community with the Land
By Maayan Jaffe
San Diego County is among the top agricultural areas in the country. It has the highest number of family-owned and certified organic farms in the U.S. In Encinitas, however, the Leichtag Foundation’s ranch and farm is doing more than just planting food (though it does that). It is seeding the future of Jewish San Diego.
The Leichtag Foundation stands on four pillars: building self-sufficiency in the North San Diego County Coastal Region; promoting and building a vibrant Jewish life and infrastructure in the area; supporting renewal and bridging social and economic gaps in Jerusalem; and building connections between San Diego and Israel through engagement, relationship building and interest alignment.
“The farm is a physical platform in which we can carry out all four of these strategies,” says Charlene Seidle, former executive vice president of the Leichtag Foundation. The farm was purchased in December 2012.
A vast property, with more than 900,000 feet of greenhouses, 67.5 acres of farmland and vineyards, the Leichtag Ranch and Farm is a natural oasis within an area that is slowly being overrun by urban sprawl. It is also one of few places in the area that is low-barrier enough to unify San Diego’s diverse Jewish community.
Three-quarters of the local Jewish community is in an interfaith relationship, according to Seidle. Only 9 percent is affiliated with a synagogue or Jewish institution.
“The power of the farm as a tool for Jewish connection and education has been particularly interesting,” says Jim Farley, Leichtag president and chief executive officer.
Last Sukkot, the farm hosted 1,500 people for a Sunday festival, more than 80 percent who stayed for more than four hours, according to Farley. Dozens of volunteers turned out to plant a four-acre food forest trail along the northern boundary of the property. Another 85 people built a trellis system for the vineyard and a group of 100 came to plant more than 2,300 vines. The farm has also played host to a group of visiting Israeli farmers and offers office space to a dozen area nonprofit innovative Jewish organizations.
“We are talking about groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews to secular to non-Jews and everybody in between, says Farley. “All ages and sizes and they all have a connection to the farm. This has really become a laboratory of community learning.”
Leichtag’s success is not unprecedented. A March 2014 report published by Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education (JOFEE) found that 2,400 individuals participated in JOFEE programming in 2012, including several young adults and parents with young children – a cohort that is increasingly difficult to reach, according to most studies. The JOFEE report indicated the median age of participation as 32 and almost as many participants reported being “just Jewish” as affiliated.
Part of the farm’s inspiration came from other national Jewish farming leaders, such as Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Pearlstone and Urban Adamah. Pearlstone was named one of the nation’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits four years in a row by Slingshot, from 2011-2015.
Pearlstone Executive Director Jakir Manela says he has seen children and adults who work on Pearlstone’s farm achieve tremendous growth and insight.
“I see an awakening, an excitement and a joy – a connection to the world and to God – through the experience [of being at Pearlstone]. … Working the land is a window into the Jewish experience,” Manela says.
Audrey James has been volunteering on the Leichtag Farm since last Sukkot. She describes the farm as “joyful” and explains that it has helped her in her journey to reconnect with her Jewish roots. James grandfather was Jewish, but she was raised Christian. As she has started to learn more about her heritage, the farm has provided “a sense of community with its incredible hospitality and warmth.”
“The farm has inspired me to become more involved and to learn more,” says James. “I’ve read the Torah and Tanach, but now I am learning about Jewish observances and that is really neat.”
Daron Joffe, affectionately known as Farmer D, says the farms methodology is to operate with a Jewish lens. While the people who come are getting dirty and farming – as they would on any other farm – he infuses a connection to “ancient Jewish farming rhythms” and to holidays, such as Tu B’Shevat or Sukkot, which inherently have a connection to the land.
“We make it accessible, hip and fun,” he says.
Currently, the farm is being fully supported by the Leichtag Foundation. Farley says soon the foundation will be looking for grants and community partners so it can grow.
“What do we envision? What do we imagine?” asks Joffe. “This farm will be able to provide for our community … and be a model for the country.”
All photos courtesy Leichtag Foundation/The Ranch