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December Roundup & Food Conference
Posted On January 3, 2010

Thoughts on the New Year:

It has been a few weeks since last writing.  The month of December was a blur, with travel (two trips to Texas, one to N. California) and vacation.  But it is now 2010, which means that the summer is just around the corner.  So first some updates, then some musings:

  1. We had our best month yet for recruitment.  In the past ten days, we had nine 9th and 10th grade girls register for camp (considering that we only have 10-20 beds for this age group, this is quite a large percentage of the available spots).
  2. We made our second round of hires for the summer.  Some amazing people applied to be part of our team.  If we were running a huge camp, I would have hired most of those people who applied.  Sadly, we had to turn away many of the people who applied.  I have sent some of them to other Ramah camps, and helped direct others to alternative outdoor programs.  I am convinced that for some of the people we did not hire, this was one of the first times that they have been rejected from a job, because frankly, they were terrific.
  3. We had our best day yet on the website on December 15th, when we had 455 unique hits in one day!  The power of social marketing and networking!
  4. We have been hard at work securing the necessary permits for our trips for this summer.  We got confirmation from a few of the places where we plan to run trips for this summer and are awaiting word on many other trails.

And now for my musings:  Last weekend I spent the week at the Hazon food conference.  For those who are not familiar with Hazon, it is the largest Jewish environmental group in the country.  The purpose of the Food Conference was to bring together Jews who are making their relationship with food and the environment a key part of how they are living their Jewish lives.  There were over 650 attendees at the conference ranging in age from 3 months to over 85 years old!  In addition to eating yummy meals that often lasted more than an hour, I had a chance to meet amazing people involved in all sorts of interesting environmental work.

  • There was Farmer D who, in addition to building community gardens for schools, composts over 50,000 pounds of organic waste each week and sells it to farmers and home gardeners.
  • There was Rabbi Mike who has dedicated his life to helping Jews explore the outdoors through a Jewish lens.
  • There was Juliet who is an avid gardener and grows much of her own food in her backyard.
  • There was Eric who is the marketing brains behind a successful line of granola and organic bread that is found in markets throughout the country.
  • There was Joan who is a renowned cookbook author who has taught thousands of Jews the joys of Jewish cooking.
  • There was Elisheva who is helping to start a new Jewish commune in Colorado—an American Kibbutz 21st century style.

For me, there were three main take-home lessons from the food conference.

#1 Many Jews care deeply about the environment and the food that we are eating.  I know that for every person who attended the conference, there were probably at least 5-10 others who would love to have been there, but for one reason or another (mainly financial) could not make it.  Most of us from Denver received very generous grants from the Rose Foundation to attend the conference.  Without the assistance of Rose, this conference would have been out of reach for many of us.  But the conference also highlighted a major issue in the Jewish environmental movement.  At this point, eating healthy, sustainably grown food is an issue of class.  Sustainably grown food has higher upfront cost.  Today, I went to a farmers market, and bought a pound of broccoli grown about 75 miles away for double the cost of broccoli grown in South America and available for purchase at the local supermarket (I am in San Francisco as I write this).  I have the luxury of spending the extra $1.50 per pound.  But if my expenses were higher, say if I had two or three kids, I am not sure I would feel able to spend the extra money.

#2 There are very few ‘black and whites’ when it comes to eating.  I did not meet many people who said “only eat organic” or “only eat local” or “only eat vegetarian food”.   In general there is a trade off:

  • Organic food is often flown to us from far off places.  When one accounts for the amount of jet fuel it takes to eat a nice organic tomato from New Zealand, one must wonder how much environmental damage one is causing by eating these organic tomatoes.
  • If we only eat local, we might not be getting a good variety of produce.  For example, during this time of year, there is not much produce being grown in Colorado.
  • If we eat no meat, and just use soy as a source of protein, we are causing further damage to the land and our bodies, by taking in the extra hormones found in soy and encouraging monoculture agriculture.

The operative word is not “organic, vegetarian, or local,” but “sustainable.”  When we live in a sustainable manner with the environment, we realize that there are tradeoffs when we eat.  We take these tradeoffs into account, realizing that there is no such thing as the “perfect” food during each part of the year.  For some people, sustainable means eating less meat, for others it means eating more local produce and forgoing some foods in the off season, and for others it means only eating organic food.  But this is a deeply personal choice, one that no one at the conference was trying to dictate to others.  One of the messages of the conference was “be aware of what you are eating and make an educated choice.”

#3  There are some amazing educational enterprises going on today in the Jewish world.  I met teachers who were using the Hazon Tuv Haaretz curriculum in their classrooms, people who are working in camps, Hebrew schools, and synagogues, all of whom are making Jewish environmentalism a core part of their program.

And of course, I have to bring it back to camp. . . For camp, I hope to be able to raise awareness of all three of these issues.  We are committed to living this summer in a sustainable manner with the natural world.  This means every aspect of our program will be open for examination, from the food we eat, to the trails we hike to the resources we use in running the camp.  I look forward to engaging with our chalutzim about the choices we are making about the camp, from the manner we recruit (flying WAY too much) to the use of flush and composting toilets, to the food we are eating (sometimes choosing less expensive food from Costco, instead of locally grown produce).

To be a committed Jewish environmentalist does not mean to reject everything modern.  I believe it means to live in the tension of the modern world and understand that every day we make hundreds of choices that affect not just our own lives, but the lives of people in all parts of the world.  One of our goals at camp  is to empower our chalutzim to take these lessons home with them and help their family make more educated choices given their own personal situations.

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