At Eden Village Camp, a brand-new Jewish sleep-away camp in Putnam Valley, 50 miles north of Manhattan, the children are actually clamoring to eat their vegetables.
On a recent hot and muggy Wednesday, while approximately 40 campers ranging in age from 8 to 17 listened eagerly from the long dining hall tables, a counselor announced the lunch menu: eggplant and summer squash, fresh from the camp’s own farm and stuffed with polenta, quinoa, lentils, feta cheese and pickled Swiss chard, along with a green salad.
“Is this from the land?” asked the counselor rhetorically. After the campers enthusiastically responded in the affirmative, the room resounded with a hearty “Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, boreh pri ha’adamah,” the Jewish blessing thanking God for creating “the fruit of the earth.”
And with a clinking of cutlery against metal dishes and serving bowls, everyone noisily dug in, making quick work of the nourishing meal.
One of five camps to emerge this summer from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Jim Joseph Foundation’s “Jewish Specialty Camp Incubator,” Eden Village — in which kids learn about environmental sustainability, milk goats and take electives in things like herbology and permaculture — feels, true to its name, like a little paradise, free of the cliques, bullying and talking-behind-the-back pettiness that all too often plague summer camps.
“Here we don’t have color war,” observed Ceren (pronounced Keren), a 14-year-old camper from Chicago. “Here we would have color peace.”
Campers, who run the spectrum from unaffiliated to Modern Orthodox, use words like “healing,” “spiritual,” “inspiring” and “loving” to describe their experience. The entire camp abides by a “no body chatter” rule that discourages individuals from commenting on each other’s clothing or physical appearance. The rationale? As Ceren explained, “There’s so much more to a person than a shirt. You should look within.”
More practically, noted Amy Randel, a Portland State University senior and one of the counselors for the preteen girls, the rule “suppresses the fuel of middle-school-girl cattiness.”
Despite the current idyllic feel, Eden Village’s launch got off to a somewhat rocky start. In late June, shortly before the first campers were to arrive, the Health Department said the new camp, which is on a site used by several now-defunct Jewish camps and owned by UJA-Federation of New York, lacked the requisite water permits. Fortunately, Eden Village was able to take up residence for a week at Surprise Lake Camp, a federation-affiliated Jewish camp that is a 20-minute drive to the west.
Quickly, the staff figured out a way to transform the unexpected glitch into a teachable moment.
“We made it into our Exodus story, about making our way to the Promised Land,” explained Yoni Stadlin, who co-directs the camp with his wife, Vivian Lehrer. “We talked about journeying, about working for it. We had a huge shofar blast when we arrived [back at Eden Village], and one of the counselors dressed in a Moshe costume all week.”
Perhaps most importantly, the staff was able to maintain parents’ confidence and trust throughout the ordeal.
“The way they handled it was a testament to how together they are,” said Nancy Braun, whose 10-year-old daughter Dorothy just finished a three-and-a-half-week session at Eden Village, including the first week at Surprise Lake. “There was no panic. They put us at ease.”
Braun, of Philadelphia, said she and her husband were drawn to Eden Village because it was “just the combination of things we were looking for: environmental values and Jewish values.”
When Dorothy, who had never been to sleep-away camp before, and a friend attended an information session at their Conservative synagogue, “both kids said, ‘That sounds great. Sign me up now.’”
Enrollment at the new camp is double the projected goal. While only 40-50 kids are on the site at any one time, campers can choose from various sessions ranging from 10 days to seven weeks, and more than 140 kids will have attended by summer’s end.
The plan is to gradually grow the camp, which currently can accommodate about 100 campers at a time, but could have as many as 350 once all the facilities, which were vacant for five years before Eden Village moved in, are renovated and developed.
Right now, entire sections of the camp — including several old cabins — remain unused, and the 1.85–acre agricultural field (not all in active use yet), represents only a fraction of the space that will eventually be farmed.
On a tour of the field, Simcha Schwartz, co-founder and associate director of the Jewish Farm School, which partners with Eden Village on the farm, pointed out the “peyos” garden in the corner whose crops are reserved for the needy, and the calendar garden, with plots devoted to plants symbolizing each month of the Jewish calendar. The Av plot has a rose bush, its thorns symbolizing the sorrow commemorated that month, and it also is the camp’s geniza, the place where old papers containing God’s name are buried.
The verdant field brims with vegetables and herbs: tidy rows of eggplants, lettuces, green peppers and summer squash are almost ready to be harvested, along with giant fragrant basil leaves. Enormous dragonflies buzz about.
Never tilled before, the land didn’t look this way a few months ago, Schwartz said.
“We were gifted to get the land, but it was the worst soil imaginable,” he explained. “We spent months moving rocks out of the way.”
In addition to the agricultural field (which produces some, but not all of the camp’s food), other gardens dot the camp, with each cabin boasting its own “snack garden,” containing berries, cherry tomatoes, carrots and mint. And a small herb garden sits outside the camp kitchen.
The camp “farm” is also home to four goats (the adult female produces a quart of milk each day) and 18 chickens, each of which lays an egg a day. More livestock are expected next summer.
So popular are the morning goat-milking and chicken-feeding options among campers so far that these activities are “sold out” each day.
To be sure, Eden Village, which during this reporter’s visit hosted a “peace fair,” is on the hippy and earnest side and will not appeal to everyone. Kids meditate and do yoga. Many of the counselors have long, slightly unruly hair and beards; billowy pants and batik skirts appear to be the unofficial counselor uniform. On Tisha b’Av, the focus was less on traditional commemorations (which often address the Holocaust and the destruction of the Temples) and instead on, what co-director Lehrer refers to as “the broken Temple that is our earth.”
While other camps perform light musicals, last week at Eden Village the campers, wearing homemade costumes, rehearsed an eco-themed play called “Hope For the Flowers.” Dinner each night is preceded by “Share,” in which all manners of activities and abilities are applauded (“We share because we care,” is the activity’s motto.) A recent “Share” featured a bunk of teen girls playing guitar and singing a song, off-key at times, that included lines like “We all bring something special to our world” and “Different cultures, unique races add to the soup of diversity.”
And while Eden Village offers traditional camp activities like arts and crafts, boating, swimming and basketball, its neglected, cracked, net-less tennis courts testify to the fact that sports is not high on the priority list.
Nonetheless, counselors and campers appear to be almost uniformly thrilled with Eden Village.
Because the camp is so small, teenagers participate in many activities alongside younger kids, giving the place a casual, family feel in which younger kids frequently clamber into older kids’ (and counselors’) laps.
David Azer, a counselor for the younger boys who is famous in the camp community for his Yiddish-accented “Grandma” impersonations, said, “This place has been really good for me. Yoni [Stadlin] has so much time for us as staff. We feel supported and are able to give to our campers.”
Azer, who is a senior at Brandeis, added, “Camp has so much potential to be this healing force in kids’ lives. You have the chance to say, ‘Don’t bring your Game Boy or iPod — here we’re going to do things differently.’”
Daniel, a yarmulke-wearing 13-year-old from Worcester, Mass., stopped pedaling the camp’s bike-powered blender (whipping up strawberry-banana smoothies) to answer a reporter’s questions.
“I LOVE this!” he exclaimed. “I have made a bunch of friends here. I like the art and music, the herbalism and the soccer — all of it!”
Taking a break from play rehearsal, Nava, a 10-year-old aspiring actress from the Riverdale section of the Bronx, said, “I love the motto, ‘try new things.’ That really inspired me.”
“Before I came here, I didn’t like zucchini,” she added. “Now I love it — it’s like my favorite food.”
The Kinneret Day School student has also been won over to the local, humanely raised foods movement. “It’s important to know where your food comes from,” she said.
Counselor Amanda Winer, said her bunk of 11-year-old girls “really get” the camp’s farm-to-table ethos. “They’re like, ‘I harvested the food, it was cooked, and now it’s on my plate!’”
Noah Schmidt, a 17-year-old CIT and “farm apprentice” from Amherst, Mass., raved about the fact that “it’s just 70 paces from the farm to the dining hall.”
But even Eden Village kids don’t survive on veggies alone.
“We have dessert every night!” Schmidt added.