How My Experience on a Farm Brought Me Closer to Judaism



May 17, 2024

I have lived in Jewish communities throughout my life, but until recently, I never understood what being Jewish actually meant. In fact, when I entered college at Tulane University, I didn’t feel connected to my Jewish identity. However, during my freshman year two years ago, I saw an email from Hillel for a FREE trip to Berkeley, California, to visit an Urban Farm, and I thought, “Why not apply?” Little did I know that decision would change my life.

On the day I arrived at Urban Adamah, an educational farm and community center in Berkeley, California that integrates the practices of Jewish tradition, mindfulness, sustainable agriculture, and social action to build loving, just, and sustainable communities, we were given questions to think about, such as, “What does Judaism being inherently earth-based mean to you?”

I had no idea.

During that trip, I learned the utter joy of sticking my hands in the soil, and foraging to make spectacular pesto and nettle leaf tea. I even hung out with goats. And I learned about the land we were on, home to the Native American Ohlone tribe. After a freshman year filled with suffocating anxiety, I gave gratitude to the earth – the lemons growing on the trees, the sun setting. As we celebrated Shabbat and prayed with song, we gave thanks to the people who cherished this land and granted us the privilege to be there. That’s when I discovered that Judaism was what I had been missing.

Still, I didn’t feel “Jewish enough” and thought I didn’t have a Jewish story to tell.

But when I returned from this one-week escape, I incorporated mindfulness practices into my daily life. I started attending Hillel activities and engaging with my Judaism — not necessarily in a religious way, but in a cultural way. Hillel was a safe space for me to eat falafel, attend Shabbat dinner, or just study. My love of Judaism also encouraged me to learn about other religions as well. I even worked as a barista at a nonprofit cafe and Methodist church.

I wanted to go back to Urban Adamah, this place that changed my perspective of the world. And two years later, this spring, I decided to go back to the farm as a student leader. While I was  concerned the experience wouldn’t be as transformative this time around, the second I was welcomed back by Kiki, the programming director, I realized I had nothing to worry about.

The first day, I connected with people in many different ways, whether in deep conversation or by playing competitive rock-paper-scissors. There were both Jewish and non-Jewish students, learning together on a farm rooted in Jewish practice, and everyone put their all into the trip. 

The most beautiful part of this experience was the engagement I had with others. On my first trip, I was the youngest participant, but this time I was one of the oldest. I shared my journey and my advice, helping people realize the idea of being “not Jewish enough” is a myth.

Remember that question I mentioned earlier about how Judaism is inherently earth-based? Well, it wasn’t mentioned in the handouts we got. But the question is so integral to how I cultivated my relationship with Judaism. So I posed it to others, and suddenly, they were reflecting on it too. Those words started to mean a lot to all of us.

Moreover, I became a leader, a person people can confide in and trust. I lead through listening, giving advice, having fun, and just being there for others. My experience with Judaism gave me wisdom, and  taught me to think about myself as part of the world. We live in coexistence with the land, the air, the animals, and each other. And if you see yourself as a tiny piece of a puzzle, being there for others is innate.

The students on the trip were all so different. Many of us would never have known each other, or would have made assumptions about one another and never been friends. But now we had one thing in common. We all chose to be on a Jewish farm for spring break. And that meant something.

Together, we were questioning the world, ourselves, the land, everything. It was amazing. It was natural. And I think Judaism makes us question things; it makes us think.

One of my favorite memories on the farm was my first morning, when I came  down for breakfast and saw 15 people eating together. I was asked if I wanted scrambled eggs, so they could add it to the mix. I was offered coffee from a freshly brewed pot. I was in awe. Like, who are these people and how did I get so lucky to hang out with them? 

This feeling spread throughout the trip. Mindfulness in the morning was significant, with almost every day starting with Avodat Lev, where we would wake up singing, expressing gratitude, and stretching our bodies. We put effort into putting a good start to our morning, and one day, we woke up to watch the sunrise at the beach.

We also saw the beauty of Shabbat as a collective group. Although I regularly go to Shabbat dinner, I’d forgotten the beauty of services. No matter one’s religion, in just an hour, we all experienced a range of emotions,  joy, mourning, finding peace, and then eating. The feeling was indescribable. And since most of us gave up our phones for the 25 hours of Shabbat, we were connecting only with each other, leaving out the stressors from the outside world.

Before my time on the farm, I thought there was a “right” way to be Jewish, and I did not fit that mold. Urban Adamah allowed me to cultivate my own relationship with Judaism, and embrace the parts that resonate with me. I was taught how to think, not what to think. Through song, meditation, conversations, games, music, dancing, services, and prayer, I found myself connecting to my identity. Judaism truly is empowering, but only when we are given the opportunity to empower ourselves with it. As I return to my normal life, I continue to liberate myself through Judaism.

I am Jewish and I am proud.

Hannah Rubinstein is a junior at Tulane University, majoring in finance and studio art, with a concentration in glass.