When 11-year-old Alex Cohen of San Francisco got home from the first summer session of Eden Village West, the new Jewish sleepaway camp in Healdsburg, she asked her younger sister Izzy, who was leaving for the next session in a few days, to do something for her.
“Give your slot to me so I can go back,” Alex told her. Izzy said no way, and two weeks later she came home just as enthusiastic about the place as her big sister.
Eden Village West, set in Sonoma County near the Russian River, hosted 108 campers ages 8 to 14 in its inaugural summer. The camp is modeled on Eden Village, founded in 2010 in New York’s Hudson Valley, which has grown to host more than 450 campers each summer.
Like the parent camp, Eden Village West is “uniquely focused around cultivating skills that connect campers to their food, to nature and to resilience outdoors,” said assistant director Zachary Friedman. Earth-based activities are built around culinary arts, farming, forestry and homesteading.
Another distinction at Eden Village is the Jewish diversity of its campers, representing a spectrum of backgrounds from Orthodox to secular. The food is vegetarian, organic and kosher, overseen by a full-time mashgiach. And while there is a baseline of observance, camp directors say worship services are also egalitarian.
“We think about it like our garden where we actively cultivate diversity,” said Casey Yurow, the camp’s director. “We’re not just accommodating it. With more diversity, we have more resilience and strength.”
Alex, who is Reform, especially appreciated this aspect of the camp experience. She said seeing the way observance was handled made her want to learn more about Jewish culture and religion.
The camp creates openings for learning in a variety of ways. Campers choose activities based on interest, so in the morning they might attend morning prayers, go on an “awareness walk,” or opt to do an art project that is “infused with Jewish inspiration,” said Yurow.
Like most Jewish summer camps, Shabbat is a highlight of the week, with everyone dressing in white and celebrating together. At Eden Village West, the Friday evening before dinner begins with Kabbalat Shabbat in the apple orchard, where campers and staff sing with guitars and dance in a procession through the apple trees. The instruments are put away by sundown.
Most staff members have come out of the Jewish farm movement and have completed the Adamah fellowship or something similar. They bring not only camp counselor enthusiasm to the table, but also skills in cooking, homesteading, forestry or farming.
Tending the crops is a big part of working on the camp farm, as are feeding and caring for the animals. There are rabbits, baby chicks and goats — with goats winning the popularity contest among the campers.
Crops harvested from the farm during the day often make it into dinner that evening. Friedman says it’s not only delicious for camp food, it’s some of the best food he’s ever had.
“When we have grilled cheese and tomato soup at Eden Village, we have chilled tomato gazpacho with three cheese-grilled cheese,” he said. “We make our own pita bread.”
Even pizza, a camp staple, gets an upgrade. “We made the pizza dough from scratch, we made the sauce from tomatoes and we made the cheese ourselves,” said Ashira Langer-Levin, 10.
Ashira and her brother Yisrael were two of this summer’s happy campers from Berkeley. For Ashira, a highlight was on Friday afternoons when they harvested flowers grown on the farm and then used them to decorate the Shabbat tables.
Yisrael, 9, said he loved making bows and arrows in the forestry classes, even though he went in with modest expectations. “I didn’t think they would be that good, but they were really, really good,” he said. He also liked the farming “because the goats are really cute and you get to feed all the animals and harvest the cucumbers and zucchini.”
Another forestry fan was 12-year-old Max Mankita of El Cerrito, who learned how to build “forts and rafts, and how to treat poison oak” with herbs found in the forest. He also loved the elderberry syrup and herbal popsicles he made.
Alex said that as an older camper at age 11, she enjoyed participating in a feedback session with staff about how to improve camp for next year.
“It felt like we were part of the community,” she said. “It’s really fun to be part of a brand new camp because you can start new traditions, and not everything is set in stone.”