Former Humboldt County tree-sitter starts Jewish nature camp

When her parents last year asked her if she wanted to attend a sleepaway summer camp for the first time, Lucy Nye, a third-grader at a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, left no doubt what she thought of the idea.

“I hate camp,” her mother, Jennifer Nye, a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, recalled her daughter as saying. Lucy’s reluctance may have had something to do with the fact that “she never even had a sleepover away from home,” her mother added.

Camp director Yoni Stadlin (left) works with a volunteer from a local school on the Eden Village farm.

But the moment Lucy was told of Eden Village Camp, the Jewish community’s first overnight summer camp devoted to the environment, the 9-year-old changed her mind, said her mother, who learned of the camp from a classmate.

“I changed my mind because it’s a Jewish camp and I was excited about the camp’s activities,” said Lucy, who has become something of an environmental activist. She also loves hiking, fishing, caring for animals and learning about geology, her mother said.

The camp that drew Lucy’s attention, Eden Village, is in Putnam Valley, N.Y., about an hour from Manhattan. After a three-year planning period, the camp — whose co-director once lived for two and a half months in a tree in Northern California — is expecting between 80 and 120 children for its inaugural summer, beginning June 30.

Along the way, it has received the enthusiastic support of the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, UJA–Federation of New York, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and environmental groups like Hazon, all of which see Eden Village as a pioneer in the Jewish world — one that has the potential of reaching and inspiring thousands of Jewish youth.

“Eden Village is not only the front edge of the Jewish environmental movement, but the future of the Jewish community,” incorporating many of the values the Jewish community cares about, said Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon.

“It’s exciting to know that a generation of Jews will go through Eden Village,” he added. “I wish I could be 9 years old and go to the camp myself.”

Open to third- through 10th-graders, the camp’s nearly 250 acres will include an organic farm with chickens and goats, lakes, hiking paths, biking trails and “green” buildings.

In addition to the usual array of summer activities, like swimming, boating and softball, children attending Eden Village will work on the farm, learn wilderness skills, care for the animals, and cook and eat what they’ve harvested. Campers will also participate in a variety of workshops, such as those devoted to cooking, bicycle-building and photography.

Woven into many of those activities will be the camp’s Jewish education component, which will emphasize Jewish values and traditions connected to them. Jewish programming will feature Shabbat celebrations, storytelling from the Torah and a period each morning devoted to “sacred space,” such as praying, meditation and singing. The camp’s food will be kosher.

Finally, the camp will also offer a counselor-in-training program for teenagers in their last two years of high school, as well as a four-day “family camp” toward the end of the summer.

All of this is the vision of Yoni Stadlin and Vivian Lehrer, residents of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Now the camp’s directors, Stadlin and Lehrer have spent the past three years engaged in the nitty-gritty of applying for grants, working with vendors, marketing and building programs and staff.

Five years ago, Stadlin — a Philadelphia native — was living in a tree in Humboldt County, near Eureka, to protest clear-cutting of old-growth redwood forests. The experience brought him closer to the land and to his Judaism, the two elements that ultimately collided to create Eden Village.

“I wasn’t just going to protect the trees,” he said. “It was also a personal journey, a two-and-a-half-month journey of meditation and learning. I’d go to the top of the tree and pray.”

The idea for the camp “kind of popped up” in his mind three years ago, while he was standing over a sink washing dishes, said Stadlin, 31, who earned a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and has directed Camp Tevah, a science and nature camp sponsored by New York’s 92nd Street Y. His first key supporter, of course, was his wife, Vivian, 29, a lawyer he met on a Birthright Israel trip.

Things began falling into place when UJA-Federation, which owns the site on which the camp is based, offered to lease the land to Eden Village, said Deborah Joselow, managing director of the federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.

Since the property hasn’t been used as a camp in many years, the federation leaders are seeking investments to renovate the property and bring it up to the standards envisioned by Eden Village, Joselow said. She estimates that “creating the camp’s total environment” will eventually cost “in the neighborhood of $3.2 million, half of which has already been raised.”

Another crucial element came into play when the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a group devoted to strengthening the Jewish community through “transformative experiences” at Jewish non-profit camps, announced grants to Eden Village and four other newly established overnight specialty camps. The Jim Joseph Foundation provided the $1.1 million grants, which will be spread out over four years.

What triggered those grants, said the FJC’s Chief Operating Officer Maggie Bar-Tura, was the discovery that “more and more Jewish families were sending their children to specialty camps” — those emphasizing certain activities, like music, science, tennis or the performing arts.

None of those camps were Jewish, she added, prompting her organization to seek proposals for the creation of Jewish specialty camps.

The foundation has also established a “business incubator” for each of the new ventures, providing them with mentors, consultation and technical assistance.

As Eden Village prepares for its first campers, all those involved with the camp are looking forward to what they hope will be the start of something huge.

Reflecting on his past as a tree-sitter, Stadlin noted that “living up in a tree seems from the outside like like a pretty wild thing to do. It’s a large step away from everybody’s comfort zone.

“That’s what I’m doing in starting this camp. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. I know camp, but this is a lot of work. [Eden Village] is a new tree to climb.”