Santa Rosa is already known for a number of things — great wineries, historic architecture, the hometown of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. But if the folks at Camp Newman have anything to do with it, Jewish environmentalism may soon be added to that list.
Nestled in the hills outside Santa Rosa Mountains, a quick 15-minute walk from the summer camp’s base, Kibbutz Yarok — or “Oky,” as campers sometimes refer to Operation Kibbutz Yarok — provides campers, staff and community members with a peaceful escape from the structures of urban life.
Built over the course of the past two summers by 15- and 16-year-old campers in the camp’s Avodah group, the retreat currently includes a mud hut big enough for 30 people, an ample vegetable garden, a barnyard (currently housing two small cows, two pygmy goats, and a mule named Monty), a cooking pit, a prayer area and outdoor seating — all of it designed and executed with ecological sustainability and connection to the land in mind.
At first glance, one could think they’d somehow gotten lost and wound up in Israel. But those who have participated in its creation and watched it grow say it means just as much, if not more, to see this kind of kibbutz thrive in Northern California — especially among youth who’ve spent most of their lives in cities.
“I’m constantly surprised by how much the kids all like working on it,” says Sophie Vener, a longtime camper and now a staff member at Camp Newman. “It’s not necessarily always very rewarding, you know, in 100 degree heat, to be digging in the dirt with no power tools.”
Campers began last summer by writing a ketubah — traditionally, a marriage agreement — showing their commitment to one another and to the space. And as the kibbutz has grown, campers have adorned the structure with sayings reminding each other of their responsibility.
Three cabinet panels feature drawings illustrating the ethics of permaculture: “Earth care, people care, fair share.” The dining table (a repurposed door) features the talmudic quote, “It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you to desist from it.”
Based on the permaculture and sustainable village model of Israel’s Kibbutz Lotan — one of only two Reform kibbutzes in the country — “Oky” was born in 2009, and funded in large part by URJ’s Rabbi Sholom Groesberg (whose love of engineering also drove the initial idea and design). The project gained energy when a team of Camp Newman staff members visited Lotan and took part in its permaculture course.
“We’re still learning,” says Ari Vared, senior assistant director of Camp Newman. “But so far everyone loves what we’ve created here … people are really drawn to it.”
The kibbutz garden — which has already produced tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries, eggplant, peas and corn — is one project that will likely grow this coming summer. Last year, campers in the Hevrah group (incoming 10th and 11th graders) used dining hall scraps for a hands-on lesson in composting. This year, they’ll be able to use that compost to help plant and eventually harvest more fruits and vegetables for the camp to enjoy.
“It’s so great to watch — you can see the joy on their faces, pulling up zucchinis and everything,” says Vared. “Kids will go up there to just pick a whole bunch of veggies, and then they hike back to camp and present them to the chef, and she’ll cook them up that evening.”
For Sophie Vener — who’s now 19 and a freshman in college — helping to build Kibbutz Yarok from the ground up (literally and figuratively) only helped reinforce her belief in the deep connection between Judaism and taking care of the earth.
“As a broader movement, I see Jewish environmentalism as kind of a way back to Jewish identity,” she says. “We’re addressing contemporary issues, dealing with serious ethical dilemmas … and so many modern environmental problems touch on things that Judaism can give you insight into.”
Vener is already looking forward to the summer — she’s excited about expanding on the kibbutz’s prayer site, as well as building a working mud oven for the outdoor cooking area.
“I also want to get the garden really up and running,” she says, “and hopefully have a sort of farmer’s market festival that everyone can come to.”
That word “everyone” might be the key. Camp Newman may be a seasonal experience, but Ari Vared says Kibbutz Yarok seems to have almost taken on a life of its own.
“We’re talking to other organizations, and we’re talking about how we can make this a living, breathing learning center that combines Judaism and Jewish life with the earth and sustainability,” he says. “Our hope is that this can be a real jewel for the entire community.”