The Power of Gardens at Jewish Summer Camp

Amirby Anabelle Harari

After a whirlwind year of graduating from Mount Holyoke, volunteering for four months in Nepal, and traveling for a few months in India, I landed somewhere I never thought I would be – Jewish summer camp. I grew up going to day camp at the JCC in Northeast Philadelphia, but spending eight weeks in the woodlands of Ontario with some 500 Jewish was certainly foreign to me.

And yet, when I was accepted to the Amir Fellowship to be a garden-leader at Camp Ramah in Canada, I knew I would be embarking on yet another journey of self-discovery, one that would push boundaries and what I would learn immensely. The summer as an Amir Farmer did not disappoint.

I spent the summer tending to a garden that was entirely organic, and a fairly new concept for many of the campers passing through. Everyday five groups of campers would come to the garden, to work and learn as part of their Jewish learning. We discussed environmental processes, talked about where our food comes from and even touched on some social justice issues related to race and class.

While the year before I spent teaching children in developing countries, I came to Ramah suspecting that the campers there would not understand the complexities of the world, and furthermore, would not care. However the campers I taught completely surprised me. They were thoughtful, engaged and quite eager to learn how watermelons grow.

When a woman from the local food bank came to speak to my campers about food issues and how many food bank recipients don’t receive fresh fruits and vegetables, the campers listened intently and compassionately. They understood the Jewish concept of pe’ah, donating the corners of one’s field to the needy, as well as the strong Jewish tradition of tikkun olam and tzedakah. I could tell that the campers that summer felt that their hard work would be contributing to something greater than the confines of the camp and helping people who really needed it.

Over the last few years I’ve seen a tremendous surge of environmental education in Jewish schools, synagogues and summer camps. Food is inherently something all people can connect to. Whether the food connects us to culture, tradition, religion or seasons depends on how we frame our conversations on food.

Amir helps frame the conversation of food around the serious environmental and social issues of our time, all the while allowing kids to experience the beauty of growing a garden. It incorporates a strong Jewish tradition of charity and compassion and fuses it with a vibrant experiential education curriculum.

Food sustains us, it connects us and it teaches us. If we allow more of these conversations to infiltrate our schools, homes, and lives we can expect a generation of people more aware and sensible about food, and hope to make huge strides toward a healthier and just food system.

I am so grateful to have spent that summer gardening, teaching and learning at Camp Ramah in Canada. The Amir fellowship was truly an inspiring and meaningful experience, one that has helped shape me into a better Jewish environmental educator.

Anabelle Harari is a writer, educator and advocate of healthy food systems. She is currently a Jewish Food Justice Fellow with the Leichtag Foundation and works with the Hunger Advocacy Network on advocating for better food policies in California. Anabelle believes that everyone deserves food that is accessible, affordable, culturally appropriate and grown sustainably. Connect with her on twitter @thelocalbelle for more food inspiration.