When Nigel Savage was in his early 30s, he took a break from his job as a financial investment manager to study Jewish texts in Israel. This led to a Mediterranean-to-Sea-of-Galilee hike, then a three-week Jewish wilderness program and eventually, a move to New York, where he founded the Jewish environmental organization Hazon.
Savage says his path to Jewish leadership — an immersive program combining Judaism with outdoor activities or environmental issues — is more common than you might think, and a study released Monday bears that out.
“Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education” looks at the effect of the burgeoning Jewish environmental movement on Jewish engagement. The heart of the study is a survey of 655 people who participated in a program in the area of Jewish Outdoor Food and Environmental Education, dubbed JOFEE, in 2012. They participated in a total of 41 programs ranging from three days to 18 months. Programs included everything from a Jewish farm school and a sustainable food tour to wilderness Torah retreats, family farm vacations and a Hazon cross-country bike ride.
The study also included interviews with professionals involved with JOFEE programs and two focus groups.
The findings suggest that while the Pew Research Center study on American Jewish communities reported declining Jewish engagement among the 18-to-34 set, disengaged Millennials are finding a path back to Judaism through their interest in environmental conservation and sustainable agriculture.
“We need to create new pathways to Jewish life, and I really feel that Jewish life comes alive outdoors in a way that it doesn’t in a Jewish synagogue or at the JCC — even though I personally like Jewish synagogues and JCCs very much,” said Savage.
According to the study, two-thirds of survey respondents said they came to a JOFEE program feeling disconnected to Jewish life. Nearly all of those (95 percent) subsequently found a way to reconnect with Judaism and a third of those (19 percent of all participants) attributed the re-engagement to a JOFEE program.
In addition, 55 percent of those surveyed said that attending a JOFEE program inspired them to organize a Jewish event and 49 percent said attending a program caused them to see themselves as a leader in their Jewish communities.
JOFEE program graduates not only become active in their local Jewish communities, but a surprising number take their interest even further. Of the 108 JOFEE professionals surveyed, more than a quarter said their motivation for going into the field was participation in a JOFEE program.
“All the people who founded organizations in the last few years have had a JOFEE experience,” said Savage. “That’s what the field of JOFEE is doing over and over. It’s building a bridge between food and the environment and the outdoors and some of the greatest issues of our time and Jewish tradition.”
Most importantly to Pew-study agonizers, the survey indicates that JOFEE programs are bringing 20- and 30-somethings back to the fold.
Of the 2,405 people who participated in immersive JOFEE programs in 2012, 68 percent were between the ages of 18 and 40.
“We knew that the whole model of Birthright Israel is that these young people between 18 and 25 are at of a time of questioning and identifying personal missions and deciding how to direct their talents,” said Vivian Stadlin, who co-founded Eden Village Camp with her husband Yoni Stadlin in 2008.
“There was an Eden Village shaped hole in the world of Jewish camping and I wanted one camp that brought to life, Jewishly, the values of environmental protection, spiritual growth and social justice,” she said.
Over the years she’s seen that counselors have been as affected by the summer as the campers.
“A number of staffers, after going to Eden Village, have gone on to spend a lot of time in Israel, which oftentimes they had not expected to be doing,” she said. “A number of people have gone to rabbinical school or got degrees in Jewish education. People have done a lot of hosting of Shabbat dinners and thinking about the rhythm of the week in terms of Shabbat.”
Amanda Winer, who was the camp’s head counselor in 2010, came to the camp knowing that she wanted to be engaged in Jewish life after college.
“But it really wasn’t until Jewish Farm School and Eden Village that I really set a course for professional Jewish education. It became the synthesis of all of the ideas that I had. It sort of expanded the way I thought of Jewish education,” she said.
Now she works as an educator for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, where, thanks to camp, she knows to engage middle schoolers by connecting “The Hunger Games” to the value of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and discussing how Taylor Swift’s music connects to the scene of Ruben and Benjamin in Pharaoh’s Court.
“I’m giving them a little bit of connection,” she said, “so that the next 10 times they hear the song,” they’ll remember the discussion they had.
Rabbi Ezra Weinberg, who served as a director at Eden Village for two summers said he’s watched many a camper and staffer go though major changes over the summer.
“Watching people have transformative experiences was kind of a norm at Eden Village,” he said.
“There is definitely a buzz there, it has something that the Jewish world is really craving, it has a deep connection to the ground — physical, educational and spiritual — and they really weave the three together,” he said.
Such anecdotes as these, along with a growing number of funding requests from JOFEE programs, is what inspired the study, said Jon Marker, a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation, which sponsored the study along with the Leichtag Foundation, Morningstar Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Schusterman Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York.
“We recognized that there was something going on here and we wanted to try to figure out what was there before we move forward,” he said.
Sarene Shanus, chair of the Jewish community development task force of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal at the UJA-Federation of New York, agreed that the study confirmed what she had already been seeing on the ground.
“I think it showed us the value of engaging in these programs,” she said. “It allows [participants] to both be immersed in the experience and to combine their interest in Judaism with their care for the environment and for social action and for making the earth a better place.”
She pointed out that not only do such programs as Eden Village and Hazon Bike rides attract new members, they also serve other functions.
“This is a double benefit, we are both strengthening the institutions that take on these initiatives and it also allows us to pilot new programs,” she said.
She pointed to the Riverdale Y as an example. They had a “greening fair,” which led them to switch their pool from chlorine to the more environmental salt water. “They became known for this. That led people to be more interested in joining and it also changed people’s image of them,” she said.
“For us it’s sort of a home run,” she added. “It really hits our sweet spot.”
Steven M. Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion agreed that JOFEE programs are effective at engaging young Jews, but when asked whether he thought they were more effective than other immersive programs, he said no.
“In general immersive experiences seem to strengthen Jewish connection, engagement and commitment and that includes overnight Jewish summer camps, Israel travel, youth groups, Moishe Houses and now JOFEE,” he said.
“It’s one of many solutions, it’s a good one, but there are others,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet and if there was, there would be a different silver bullet for different populations.”