Adam Berman was a typical all-American kid, obsessed with the LA Dodgers and baseball cards. But something inside him hungered for more.
“As early as the third grade,” recalled Berman, “I began asking myself big life questions, like: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the point of it all?” His answer came to him when, at age 17, he saw Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue for 1989, this time featuring neither celebrity nor Nobel Laureate but Planet Earth.
“The whole issue was devoted to environmental degradation. I remember reading it and just sobbing,” Berman said. “Something about the reality of what was happening to our planet touched me deeply.”
Later, armed with years of Jewish day school, summer camp, and a BS in environmental policy from Brown University, Berman went on to become director of the Teva Learning Center, the largest Jewish environmental-educational organization in the country. In 2002, Berman was appointed the executive director of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in rural Connecticut, where he founded Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship.
Adamah—“earth” in Hebrew—is a three-month residential leadership-training program for young Jewish adults that integrates organic farming and environmental literacy with progressive Jewish living and learning. Since its first seeds were planted, more than 100 of its alumni now serve in leadership positions throughout the Jewish world.
Adam left Isabella Freedman in 2009 to return to California, where he founded Urban Adamah: The Jewish Sustainability Corps, an organic farm and Jewish environmental-education center located in Berkeley (www.urbanadamah.org).
“Urban Adamah is Adamah 2.0,” Berman said. “It takes the best of what we learned in rural Connecticut and leverages it for even greater impact in the world.”
Urban Adamah operates with a core staff and groups of a dozen fellows in their 20s who spend three months living together and integrating social and environmental issues and sustainable agriculture with Jewish living and learning. Fellows come from various backgrounds, but all have demonstrated strong leadership experience in the communities in which they have been involved in the past. They cultivate the farm, run educational programs for visitors, and partner with local organizations to address issues of poverty and food security within the community. Over 90% of the produce grown on the farm is distributed locally to those in need through soup kitchens and food banks.
Community building, communication, facilitation, and public speaking are just some of the leadership skills that are developed through the course of the fellowship. Fellows work with area non-profits dedicated to fighting poverty and hunger, building food gardens in poor neighborhoods, teaching families how to grow and harvest their own produce, and teaching how to prepare healthy food using fresh ingredients from local food banks.
“Our urban location means we can reach significant numbers of people,” Berman said, highlighting the major difference between the Urban Adamah and Adamah programs. “Being in a city means we can also focus on social activism. Our farm not only produces first-rate organic produce, we also provide it free of charge to those with barriers to quality nourishment.”
A typical day for the fellows begins with a daily meditation and service, loosely based on shacharit (morning prayers); staff and fellows join to connect and set their intentions for the day ahead. Then the fellows head to the farm to work. Farm chores may include building compost bins or a new greenhouse, seeding, harvesting, farm development, or maintenance. All produce is organically grown in raised beds. All farm structures are portable in the event that the farm needs to relocate to a different parcel of vacant urban land.
In the evenings, fellows attend study sessions, with topics ranging from the basics of farm management to the complexities of global climate change. Several times a week the farm welcomes visitors, including children from local Hebrew schools and summer camps.
“Some of our alumni will choose to pursue paths in urban agriculature, but most won’t,” Berman explained. “Mainly, they will take the gifts of the program—engaged Judaism, environmental training, community building skills, and leadership development—to become agents of change in their own lives in their communities.”