To Love Judaism, Be Jewish in Nature-Based Community

By Yoni Stadlin and Vivian Lehrer

[This is the first article in a series about the connection between Jewish identity, food, and the natural environment, written by grantees and partners of The Covenant Foundation.]

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

For thousands of years, the Jewish people didn’t have Jewish summer camps. We didn’t have Sunday school. We didn’t have day school. And yet, we transmitted our heritage, intact, from generation to generation.

What cultural elements were in place, in those times before modernity, that made it possible to so strongly maintain our tradition? Which of these elements can we best draw from now, in today’s increasingly complex world?

First, we lived directly off the land – we had an intimate, reciprocal relationship with our natural environment. Secondly, we lived in villages, in which each person was likely to feel a sense of purpose and role within the larger community.

At Eden Village Camp, we believe humans were designed to live this way. Our camp has “village” in its name because we aim to create a temporary village that brings to life these foundational elements – deep nature connection and meaningful relationships among people. In doing so, we see again and again our campers and staffers coming alive in new ways, calling Eden Village “life-changing” and even “life-saving.”

For example: a camper rises with the sun, collects eggs from the chicken coop, brings them back to her group, and proudly announces, “Breakfast!” This is a child’s self-esteem and sense of belonging growing before our eyes.

Over the past twenty years as a Jewish nature educator, I have come to recognize how strongly people respond to being in land-based community. In line with the research behind Richard Louv’s landmark book, Last Child in the Woods, I think deep nature connection is a crucial nutrient for human thriving. When we are disconnected from the earth, we ultimately pay a price. Similarly, we pay a price if we’re not eating healthy food, or considering sustainability in our consumer choices. To use the analogy of nature educator Jon Young, it’s as though we’re running the wrong operating system on our hard drive.

For campers and staff alike, Eden Village is a reboot for our hard drives. At camp, we live much more closely to the experience for which we are designed, an experience which many of us haven’t been given in a long time. We live in a dynamic sensory experience, engaging all the senses as we spend most of our days outdoors. We’re using our bodies for meaningful work, like harvesting herbs and then preparing medicinal salves, which often frees the mind for humor and play because we’re focused on the present moment. Because we prize care for our land and each other, people quickly feel safe to explore and create.

The essential function of our Jewish culture is to connect us – to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. Most of our culture, at its core, is rooted in our connection to the land we lived on; consider the agricultural foundations of our holidays, our lunar calendar, and so much of the content of our Torah. Our ancestral connection to nature provides the roots of our religion’s foundational tree. Over thousands of years, our tradition has become increasingly rich with music, texts, history, and more. These are the branches and fruits of our tree.

Jews are sometimes called “People of the Book,” but to revitalize Judaism, our branches and fruits, we need to become People of the Land again, in addition to People of the Book. We need to revitalize our roots – our nature connection – because this is how people will most fully spring to life, feel playful, connect deeply with others, and whole-heartedly love their community.

This is much of the secret sauce of Eden Village Camp.

Since 2009, Yoni Stadlin has served as founding director of Eden Village Camp, the Jewish farm-to-table sleepaway camp with locations in New York and California. He is a dynamic educator who finds that nature, music, and play are a magic recipe for community. His recognitions include The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize and Jewish Week’s “36 under 36,” and he holds an M.A. in Informal Jewish Education from JTS. He has lived in trees, sailboats, and Philadelphia. He acknowledges the extensive privilege he has been given and aims to leverage it toward meaningful positive change.

Vivian Lehrer is Co-Director of Eden Village.