(l to r): Hillel students Shani Porter, Michael Newman, Juliana Gildener-Leapman and Kayam Farm Director Jakir Manela at Hillel's Organic Farm Alternative Break.
University of Central Florida sophomore Michael Newman never thought he would ever weed a field for three hours and never expected to have fun while doing it. But earlier this month this is exactly where he found himself.
Newman was one of nine Hillel students who spent a week at the Kayam Farm & Environmental Education Center at the Pearlstone Retreat Center near Baltimore, Md., as part of Hillel's organic farm alternative break.
"Tasks that usually seem tedious are more effectively completed and more fun to complete when you know what you are doing and why," Newman said. "[While weeding] we talked about how weeds grow, why weeds grow and why it's important in farming to keep fields weed free; I didn't even realize three hours went by.”
In partnership with the Jewish Farm School, an educational organization that fosters opportunities for Jews to reconnect with the processes of working the land and growing food, Hillel created two pilot organic farm alternative break programs, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, as a way to provide students with a greater understanding of issues surrounding sustainable food production and the necessary skills, knowledge and resources to affect positive change in their communities and on their campuses. The second organic farm alternative break is being held at Oz Farm in Northern California.
"We wanted to challenge students to think about the role food plays in Judaism and the role sustainability plays as it related to food," said Abbey Greenberg, senior associate for Weinberg Tzedek Hillel. "As the energy crisis expands, this experience gives students a chance to explore their personal and political connections to food and how those connections fit the energy crisis as a whole."
During their daily work periods – a minimum of six hours per day -- participants learn a wide range of skills in sustainable and organic agriculture such as planting, harvesting, natural building and composting. The students at Kayam Farm put up a fence to protect the farm from deer, constructed an outdoor kitchen, managed the compost pile and learned how to clean and prepare the vegetables so that they are kosher.
Because Kayam Farm practices Talmudic agricultural law, the projects weren't always completed in the most conventional of manners such as using the biblical amot measurement, which is the distance between the tip of the middle finger to the elbow.
"We've had to figure out how to best build a fence or dig a hole using strings and rocks rather then sticking entirely to conventional, modern tools," said Moshe Cohen, a graduate student at Louisiana State University. “It’s been a great exercise in team work and creative problem solving.”
Juliana Gildener-Leapman harvests straw to use in mud bricks.
For Juliana Gildener-Leapman, a graduate student at Case Western University, the experience was a great way to slow down from her everyday fast-paced life and get in touch with nature.
"As students we lead such disconnected lives," she said. "We spend all our time indoors and often figure out what would be the quickest meal we can eat rather than figuring out what we can eat that is the best thing for us. This has been a really healthy experience."
According to Kayam Farm Director Jakir Manela, Juliana is not alone.
"With the genetic splicing of food and the bacterial outbreaks more Jews are striving to learn about where stuff comes from," he said. "It's the idea of kilayim or keeping things distinct."
To complement the physical work, participants had the opportunity to study Jewish texts and to hear speakers discussing topics such as Jewish agricultural laws, medicinal herbs, and global food security. A presentation on ancient Israel inspired the group to create their own mud bricks for the outdoor kitchen.
"The week has been about going outside of your comfort zone and doing something you wouldn't normally do," Newman said. "Something like stomping through piles of mud and straw."
For more information on the Organic Farm Alternative Break please visit http://www.hillel.org/tzedek/altbreaks/hillel_alt_break_farm.htm.