A New Generation of Jewish Farmers Returns to the Land

Summer Issue 2022

Wendy Rhein’s day begins at 5 am, when she wakes up, checks the weather and puts on her headlamp to bring a bag of kitchen food scraps to her two young Berkshire pigs. “From there, it’s usually off to the sheep, who hear me coming,” says Rhein. “They’ll start running from their enclosure to their hay-bale area, and talk to me the entire way.” She lingers with each group of animals, checking them for limps, coughs and other signals of distress. From the sheep pen, she’ll walk back toward the house to check on the chickens, who have biblical names such as Joseph and Sarah. “By 5:45, I can begin to see the sunrise. I’ll come back in, have my coffee, feed myself and take the kids to school by seven.”

Rhein and her two sons, Nathan, 17, and Sam, 12, have lived on this ten-acre property in rural North Carolina since July 2021, when they relocated from suburban Maryland. They have dubbed their nascent homestead “Chutzpah Hollow”—an acknowledgment of the moxie required to leave “the burbs” for the risks and rewards of agrarian life. Rhein is one of many Jews, both young and old, who are embracing a connection to the earth through farming.

“I can feel successful because I built a chicken coop this weekend,” says Rhein, who also works remotely
full-time as senior philanthropy director at the New York City-based nonprofit Repair the World. “And raising half a million dollars can also make me feel hugely successful. Who says I can only have one of those?”

This modern back-to-the-land movement isn’t limited to Jews, but many have embraced the farmstead as the 21st century’s answer to the synagogue or Jewish community center, reflecting the intersection of Jewish values, environmental sustainability and social justice. Climate change, the costs of urban living and the perennial desire to reconnect with nature have all contributed to the wave.

Wendy Rhein and her sons at Chutzpah Hollow, their North Carolina homestead.  (Photo credit: Courtesy of Wendy Rhein)

Adrienne Krone, who has studied Jewish American farms since 2013, estimates that Jews are disproportionately represented in the movement. Krone says there are “two worlds” of Jewish farmers—the homesteaders, like Rhein, and larger nonprofit educational community organizations which are trying to redefine Jewish life in the 21st century. “We hear a lot about Jewish continuity and how synagogues are losing membership,” says Krone, whose doozy of a title is Assistant Professor of Environmental Science in Sustainability and Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Life at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “We’re not paying enough attention to where people are doing a lot of really exciting Jewish things. Sure, the numbers are small, but they’re growing.”

Moment for just $19.97...subscribe now and get Good Karma FREE

When I speak to Krone, she is driving from her home in Pennsylvania to Colorado to do field research at new Jewish farms at the Boulder Jewish Community Center and a Denver Jewish day school. “If all goes well, I will visit nine Jewish community farming organizations on this trip,” she says. She hopes to make stops in Colorado, Arizona, California and North Carolina—all farming projects that have started since her last trip, prior to COVID.

For Rhein, the dream started ten years ago, in Rockville, Maryland. “I was getting frustrated at how far away I felt from our food system, from the people who were making our food,” she says.

When one of Rhein’s sons was diagnosed with ADHD, she noticed a marked change in his behavior when she prepared food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed food. She challenged herself to cook everything from pizza crust to egg rolls herself, and began planning her escape from urban life: “It took about ten years to both have the courage to do it and to have the finances to be able to buy our property.” COVID made the difference—in July 2021 she moved herself and her sons to rural North Carolina, which she chose for its affordability, its open zoning and its friendliness toward small farmers. “I want to be dependent on and working with a community of people, and less dependent on systems.” She selected her property, with its ten acres, without setting foot inside the house. One notable feature, a 100-foot-long aquaponics system designed to grow both fish and plants, presented her and her sons with their first hands-on challenge. “Within the first 36 hours of being here, all of the fish in our aquaponics greenhouse died,” recounts Rhein. “When the previous owners left, the power didn’t get transferred. It was just a mistake. We had to dispose of 60 koi, quite large fish, and about 50 tilapia that were full of maggots and floating in this greenhouse aquaponics system. How do you dispose of dead fish? It’s not like the trash people just come and pick it up. There are a lot of those unexpected questions.”

The broader history of Jewish agriculture in North America also began with serious mishaps. The first known Jewish agricultural misadventure in the United States occurred in 1825, when
Philadelphia-born Major Mordecai Manuel Noah arranged for the purchase of Grand Island near Buffalo, New York. Noah was a fascinating figure, whose career ranged from corrupt New York City politics to pro-slavery newspaper publishing and being recalled from his diplomatic post on account of his Judaism. He dubbed the settlement “Ararat,” after the mountain in present-day Turkey where Noah’s ark is purported to have landed after the great flood, and envisioned the island as a city of refuge for all of the world’s Jews. However, Noah reportedly had not actually identified any Jews interested in living in the settlement nor arranged any boats to ferry even the ceremonial cornerstone across. He returned to New York City without having set foot on Grand Island, and the project was abandoned.

Depictions of Painted Woods, a 19th-century agricultural settlement located north of Bismarck in the Dakota Territory. (Photo credit: The American Jewish Archives)

The real history of organized North American Jewish agriculture begins with a wave of utopian communal farms founded in the late 1880s. Called the Am Olam (Eternal People) movement, it paralleled Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion), the movement that spawned the first settlements in Palestine in the early 1880s. “It was the same guys, from the same neighborhoods, in the same towns and cities of the Russian empire,” says researcher Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz in the Negev and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Members of Am Olam and Hibbat Zion “embarked around the same time from the same
port—several hundreds of each. And in the United States, it was pretty disastrous.”

Disastrous, says Dekel-Chen, because none of these urban utopians knew how to farm. The 20 or so settlements were remote, frequently on unfit land and isolated from any existing Jewish communities. “If you could formulate a sure recipe for failure, it would have been what they did.”

Baron Maurice de Hirsch.  (Photo credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Things began to turn around when money got involved. Baron Edmund de Rothschild famously bailed out fledgling settlements in Palestine in the late 1880s; the corresponding benefactor in the New World was financier Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Born in Germany in 1831, Hirsch, like the Rothschilds, was a court banker and moved among European nobility. Through his Jewish Colonization Association, he personally bankrolled countless colonies of Russian Jews in both North and South America. In 1900, the Baron de Hirsch Fund chartered the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, which relocated thousands of Jews from New York and other urban centers to rural areas, including upstate New York and nearby New Jersey and Connecticut. Russian-born Herman Rosenthal—veteran of Jewish agrarian experiments in both Louisiana and North Dakota—launched a New York City-based Yiddish and English monthly newspaper for these new immigrants—Der Yiddisher Farmer. Rosenthal became a prominent administrator in one of Hirsch’s New Jersey colonies before retiring from farming life to become chief of the Slavonic division at the New York Public Library.

 

The numbers of Jewish farmers rose throughout the early 20th century. In 1933, the director of the Jewish Agricultural Society estimated that 1.5 million acres in the United States, worth approximately $150 million, were owned by Jewish farmers. These hundreds of communities were located all over the country. In 1937, there were 100,000 Jewish farmers in the United States. Between the world wars, they comprised 8 percent of the total U.S. Jewish population. In contrast, about 40 million people total lived on farms in the United States in 1935, and around 25 percent of the general population at the time were farmers.

A rabbi-farmer near Windsor Locks, Connecticut.  (Photo credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Dairy farmer Abraham Lapping on his farm near Colchester, Connecticut.  (Photo credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

One celebrated community that originated during this period was the chicken farmers of Petaluma, California. “The Petaluma immigrant Jewish chicken ranchers established a community that bore an unmistakable resemblance to the shtetl, the Jewish village of tsarist Russia,” writes Kenneth Kann, a historian who conducted an in-depth oral history of the city. Kann traces the story of this community through several generations, from the deeply political “pioneers” who arrived on the unpaved streets of Petaluma in the first decades of the 20th century to the dilemmas of the second generation, “precariously balanced between the Old World Jewish community of their parents and a surrounding American society that both beckoned and rejected them.” Kann writes that this second generation used their parents’ ranches to establish their own enterprises. The third generation, born in the 1940s and 1950s, “knew very little” about their grandparents’ agricultural efforts. This mirrored the fate of Jewish farming colonies all over the country: After World War II, says Dekel-Chen, Jewish agricultural life in North America “just sort of evaporated.”

There were exceptions. Resettlement of European Jews in the years leading up to World War II contributed to another wave of farmers in the 1930s, trained farmers being one of the few exceptions to immigration restrictions in the United States. And after the war, the Jewish Agricultural Society and other organizations resettled thousands of Holocaust survivors on poultry farms in New Jersey. “What language do chickens speak? English wasn’t needed. It wasn’t a prerequisite to running a farm and enjoying life on the farm for themselves and their families,” said researcher George Quinn at a recent presentation of a database of Holocaust
survivor-owned businesses in New Jersey.

Mr. Metzendorf, a Jewish poultry farmer from Ledyard, Connecticut, preparing turkeys for the Thanksgiving market. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

“The big thing [the Holocaust survivors] enjoyed the most was that they were independent. They finally had a chance to make a living for themselves.” But as in Petaluma, according to Quinn, many of these Jewish poultry farmers transitioned their businesses into motels, restaurants and other endeavors. Large agribusinesses changed the landscape after World War II and, like their non-Jewish counterparts, young Jews mostly pursued opportunities in cities.

Mr. and Mrs. Harry Pearl on their farm near Tracy, Connecticut. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Adrienne Krone says that in the postwar years, as environmentalism was gaining traction in North America in the 1960s, American Jews were preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust. Jews didn’t really start to return to the land until the 1970s and 1980s.

Women and children at the Hightstown farming cooperative in 1936. (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange)

Many of the Jewish-founded agribusinesses that began then—including but not limited to Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, Earthbound Farms in California and Stonyfield Yogurt in New Hampshire—continue today. These were not explicitly Jewish projects, but a marriage between environmentalism and Jewish ethics was developing.

The daughter of Louis Saffer, a Jewish farmer near Branford, Connecticut, picking beans. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Krone describes a shift toward Jewish ecological thinking spearheaded by women such as Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, who founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth) in 1988, which was a forerunner of the Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming and Environmental Education (JOFFEE) movement. JOFFEE was further developed by the Teva Learning Center (founded by Amy Meltzer in 1994), which hosted four-day immersive nature connection programs for Jewish day schools at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut.

The advent of explicitly Jewish farming arguably occurred in 2003, when the farm and fellowship program Adamah was founded at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. The program built on the center’s training experiences with Teva. “When they started training these energetic 20-somethings, a lot of those people went out and started their own projects in the cities where they were from or in the cities where they ended up settling,” says Krone. “Jewish community farms started sprouting up all over the country.”

As with other Jewish movements, Krone says momentum began on the coasts in large population centers such as Berkeley, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. “Then it kind of moved into the middle of the country and the south.” When Krone began this research, she’d hear about a new Jewish farm every few years. “Now it’s like, this is opening, and this is opening, and this is opening. And everyone’s connected.”

“Whether or not their two rows of tomatoes fail or succeed is ultimately irrelevant to their operation.”

About 20 educational Jewish farming organizations have been founded in North America since the Adamah fellowship was launched. They include GrowTorah, a multisite organization that creates gardens at Orthodox Jewish day schools in the New York metro area, Urban Adamah, a two-acre farm in Berkeley, California founded in 2010 by Adam Berman, formerly of Teva and a founder of the original Adamah fellowship, and the Alliance Community Reboot, which is being launched by a New Jersey couple on land associated with one of Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s original colonies.

Unlike the earlier colonies, these projects do not really depend on making a living from farming, or depend on the produce for subsistence. “The whole idea of really profiting, having the farm sustain itself, is not really a thing,” Dekel-Chen says. “[These farmers] work at nonprofits. They seek out grants. Whether or not their two rows of tomatoes fail or succeed is ultimately irrelevant to their operation.”

Rabbi Ellen Bernstein (Photo credit: Steven Tenenbaum)

Adam Berman (Photo credit: Urban Adamah)

As a rule, these organizations either are structured and operated as large nonprofits or aspire to be: Urban Adamah is dotted with plaques honoring donors, and the produce grown on the site is all donated to local food pantries. The site’s bread and butter is programs such as day camps, site rentals and retreats.

 

The Yiddish Farm Education Center, founded in 2012 in Goshen, New York, is an example of a different model that does include selling an agricultural product. Also connected to alumni of Isabella Freedman’s Adamah, its virtual farmstand offers shmurah matzah made from grain grown on site. Yiddish Farm has also hosted 5,000 visitors since its founding, including young adults who want to participate in its Yiddish immersion classes and outdoor programming geared toward Hasidic youth. However, the 200-acre farm, like Urban Adamah, is supported largely through donations.

“These projects see themselves as hubs for building community, for kinds of belonging and practices that don’t really have an answer in conventional Jewish institutional organized life,” says Dekel-Chen, adding that from a historical perspective, the farm or farmstead as Jewish community center is something new. “They’re creating their own reality on these farms.”

Reading the Torah at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Adamah)

Although Rhein’s day job is in Jewish philanthropy, her Jewish “farm” is more of a personal lifestyle choice than an attempt to reimagine Jewish community life. But less than an hour’s drive north of Chutzpah Hollow, outside of Asheville, is Yesod Farm + Kitchen. (Yesod, meaning foundation, refers to a node in the kabbalistic tree of life that connotes transformation.) While Rhein, an early riser, is settling into her workday, Yesod founder and “steward in residence” SJ Seldin is usually still asleep. “We place a really high value on people working at a pace and time that works for their bodies and their brains,” says Seldin. “And for me, I am not ready to go before 10 o’clock on any day.”

Yesod is more in the vein of the Jewish community hubs studied by Krone. The farm sits on 16 acres purchased in 2018 by Seldin’s family. Seldin (who uses they/them pronouns) had always felt very distanced from “synagogue Judaism.” “It didn’t nourish me growing up. It didn’t nourish me as a young adult,” says Seldin. “Being Jewish in relationship to land, in relationship to food, makes sense and is spiritually and physically nourishing.” Seldin had interned at a community farm called Root Cause in the Asheville area in 2015 and was inspired by the “hard conversations about hard things” made possible “because of trust and relationship built through shared agricultural work.” This, paired with the richness of viewing Judaism through an agrarian lens, got Seldin thinking about starting a Jewish farm. “This is the work of my ancestors. And there is language and blessing and ritual and a whole calendar built around the celebration of the cycles in our relationship to humans and to food and to the Earth,” says Seldin. The goal was a place “where people could come and gather and have a space to be and to learn Jewish agricultural values and traditions and to live them.”

 

“Being Jewish in relationship to land, in relationship to food, makes sense and is spiritually and physically nourishing.”

Like many other contemporary Jewish farming projects, Yesod turns to Torah and other Jewish texts for guidance. Jewish civilization has deep agricultural roots: Ancient Israelite society was largely land-based, and the Jewish calendar is tied to Israel’s growing and harvest seasons. Many of the commandments given in the Torah deal with agricultural practices: For instance, Jews are prohibited from sowing one field with multiple kinds of grain; from eating the fruit of a tree for the first three years; and from cultivating the land of Israel in any way during shmitah (sabbatical) years. Today, many Jews interpret these commandments as supporting environmental, social and sustainable agricultural practices.

To create Yesod, Seldin partnered with Justin Goldstein, then a rabbi at Asheville’s Congregation Beth Israel, whom Seldin met at a study group about halachic approaches to genetically modified organisms. One subject they subsequently discussed was the biblical concept of Yovel, or jubilee year. “One of the primary concepts of the Yovel is that land is restored to its ‘ancestral holder,’ which in the context of Torah, prevents one tribe from acquiring land from another tribe, and therefore extracting resources and generating wealth through land ownership,” says Goldstein. “SJ started framing it through a lens of decolonization. I was like, ‘I will follow this human anywhere.’” In 2018, Seldin’s mother offered to buy them a farm.

At the time, Seldin was about 26. “I come from a wealth-owning-class family where that was possible,” says Seldin. “And I knew that while this was wealth from my family, a farm could never just be for me. That’s not how I experienced farming and not how I experienced Jewish farming—it needs to happen in the collective and it needs to happen for a collective.”

Planned community events were put on hold due to COVID-19, and the emphasis changed to “growing a lot of food.” Yesod donates about 30 percent of what it grows—three tithes’ worth—to Root Cause, the nearby agricultural nonprofit where Seldin interned. Less than one acre is in production. “A majority of the 16 acres is wild, and we are watching the ecosystem repair itself,” says Goldstein. Meanwhile, Seldin and the “crew,” who work for the project in exchange for room and board, are codifying their governance procedures and legal status, and hoping to learn more about the Catawba and Cherokee people whose ancestral land they are dwelling on.

Adrienne Krone (Photo credit: Lenny Zimmermann)

Seldin notes that there are obstacles to land ownership: Viable land is scarce and often is in demand for residential or commercial development. “There are not a lot of great economically viable models for farming today,” says Seldin. “The jump from farm worker to farm owner is incredibly difficult. Farm wages are legally allowed to be lower than minimum wage, and land prices have been skyrocketing for years, particularly in the pandemic.” The minimum wage for farm laborers is $7.25 per hour. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, land access is the number one barrier to farming for young and beginning farmers.

 

To help explore and navigate these issues, in 2017 Seldin helped found the Jewish Farmer Network (JFN), of which Rhein is also a member. After an initial meeting on the sidelines of the 2016 Hazon Food Conference, Seldin and Shani Mink, another Jewish farmer, co-created a Facebook page, which now has more than 1,400 members. Over time, the Facebook page evolved into an organization, which has held several conferences. The 2022 virtual conference included sessions on restoring the grains of ancient Israel, yoga for farm bodies and a legislative listening session.

Jewish farming in the United States has always depended on trends in the larger Jewish and American worlds, and the future will be no different. One trend is the advent of remote work, which enables rural residents to make a big-city living. It is an unprecedented development in reversing civilization’s millennia-long slog toward urbanization.

Krone thinks that over time, Jewish farming projects will become ubiquitous: “Any decently sized Jewish community is going to have somewhere where Jews can go and learn about shmitah, and learn about pe’ah [leaving the corner of one’s field unharvested, to be collected by the poor] and some of these biblical agricultural principles, and grow something, or pick something, or water something, and have a kind of Jewish agricultural experience.”

Krone says that this has to do with the marriage of environmentalism and social values, as well as simple momentum. “Jewish communities are going to start looking around and saying, ‘Well, we’d better get on board with this. We don’t want to be the only ones without it,’” she says. “Climate change is on the minds of a lot of people—and when they figure out that there’s a way that they can bring Judaism and the environment together, that often feels really attractive.” Even if they don’t start or work for a farm, says Krone, urban Jews might sign up for community-supported agriculture programs, or attend family farm days and “make the connections between environmentalism and Judaism that feel really important right now.”

“We’ve strived to create a peaceful place, to be good conservators of the land, and to generate good food, in a way that is community-supporting.”

In Marshall, North Carolina, 40 miles north of Asheville and just south of Tennessee, the Goodwin Garden sits in the Appalachian foothills. Rebecca Goodwin and her husband, a former National Institutes of Health (NIH) contractor who now works as chief information security officer for Buncombe County, relocated from suburban DC five years ago to their 60-plus-acre property, and they haven’t looked back. The Goodwins are more in the Rhein mold—Goodwin still works remotely for NIH and is in a remote PhD program as well. Her husband left his job when they moved from DC, initially to work on the land full time, before COVID changed their plans. Goodwin’s happiness at having exchanged the noisy sirens of Silver Spring for the starlit nights and frog song of the Blue Ridge Mountains is still palpable. She describes her new home—with its blueberry bushes, chickens and flowers—as paradise.

“We’d been looking for a while to change our lifestyle, be somewhere less frenetic, be able to see the stars, have a healthier way of life,” says Goodwin. “We’ve strived to create something that is a peaceful place, to be good conservators of the land, and to generate good food, in a way that is community-supporting.”

The Goodwins have been experimenting, first with the blueberry bushes they inherited from the property’s previous owner and also with growing sunflowers, raising guinea fowl and chickens, processing fermented foods and agrotourism.

“Our house is halfway up a mountainside,” says Goodwin. “We’re in a really narrow holler alongside a branch from the river that runs alongside the road at the bottom of the narrow valley. The mountainside across from us is just trees, trees, trees. And when the fireflies start to emerge, we just sit out there and it’s breathtaking. Every day, every moment, it’s a little bit different.”

Her return to the land has been a spiritual experience, she says. Asked whether she’s found Jewish community in rural North Carolina, she responds, “I have found several people who are Jewish here and it’s been a little bit of a surprise. But it hasn’t been a problem for me. I feel like where I am is a holy place.”

Rebecca Goodwin and her husband, Mark, on their farm, Goodwin Garden, in the Appalachian foothills in Marshall, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Goodwin)

Opening picture: Collage photos; Adamah farm / Wendy Rhein / Urban Adamah

Related Posts

One thought on “A New Generation of Jewish Farmers Returns to the Land

  1. North Dakota had the 4th largest number of Jewish homesteaders in the United States (after New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). After 1900, North Dakota had some very successful Jewish homesteading settlements. As an example, of the Jewish homesteaders in McIntosh County, ND, (the largest Jewish homesteading settlement in North Dakota, South Dakota, or Montana), approximately 80 percent obtained patents to their land – either after the required 5 year waiting period under the Homestead Act, or, like my grandparents and great-grandparents, purchasing their land outright prior to the waiting period. This was approximately 2x the success rate of homesteaders generally in the United States. I researched and wrote the Nomination which resulted in the placement of the Ashley, North Dakota Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery on the United States Department of the Interior’s National Historic Registry in 2015. In 2017, I organized a Rededication of this remote Cemetery, to coincide with the placement of two boulders on site with educational plaques. North Dakota’s Governor named the day of the Rededication, “North Dakota Jewish Homesteader Day.” The award-wining book I co-wrote with my late dad, Kenneth Bender, Still (North Dakota State University Press 2019) tells the tales of my courageous ancestors who emigrated from Russia with no farming experience, but an excessive supply of determination and faith. I recently wrote a screenplay about their lives, which continue to inspire subsequent generations. If you know someone who may wish to bring this epic tale to the big screen, feel free to contact me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.