A garden at Jewish summer camp: Who knew what its effects would be?

by Rachel Nagorsky, OSRUI Alum

Every summer growing up I would arrive at my favorite place on Earth with jitters in my stomach, wondering who my bunk mate would be and if I would get the top bunk.  These feelings were always part of the first day of camp at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. I was always so antsy driving through the gates and having our lunch and introductions “upstairs” (the area where the buildings and cabins were).  I couldn’t wait to head “downstairs” (the area where we lived in tents as opposed to cabins), to my home for the next three to six weeks.

A camper helps weed the garden during Kibbutz HaTzofim Bet 2011.

As our whole unit walked the path downstairs, our first sight was the refet (the animal barn) and the gan (the garden).  Our unit was called Kibbutz HaTzofim and part of living on a kibbutz, at least in the Midwest, is having a refet and a gan.  Looking back we were way ahead of the times.  Farm-to-table back in the mid nineties!  Granted the small harvest probably could only feed about one tent’s worth of kids, but I still have a distinct memory of harvesting a cucumber and cutting it up to add it to our Sysco™ lettuce.

That memory is the one I’ll be focusing on because it had such a lasting impact.  Right now I’m studying to become a garden educator.  This past year I have been able to reflect and slowly put together all the small experiences I had growing up involving gardens and  growing vegetables.  It wasn’t until I sat down to write this article, that I even realized that the garden every summer at camp might have been one of those experiences that has led me down the path to being a garden educator.

The feeling of having my hands in the dirt, putting the seed in the ground and watering the garden until my cucumber was ready to harvest is something I’ll never forget.  The experiential learning that happened every summer in the garden is so powerful and sometimes may go unrealized for many years. Can I pinpoint that it was the garden at camp that started me going down this path? Probably not, but I can’t help to think that it was one of the main contributing factors.

Experiential learning, which is so plentiful at summer camp, through gardening, living communally, and preparing their own meals, is one of the many benefits of summer camps.  I think experiential learning opportunities like this will help children be more conscious and responsible consumers later in life.  Having the connection of where their food comes from during the summer can empower them and can eventually lead to a desire to grow a garden when they get back home.  Now when children go to the supermarket with their parents, they know that the cucumber doesn’t magically appear on the the supermarket shelf, but rather grows on a vine on the ground.

Living in an immersed Jewish setting during summer camp produces people with stronger Jewish identities and stronger connections to their Jewish communities ( http://www.jewishcamp.org/how-we-help/research ).  Adding vegetable gardens to the camp facilities is one more step that can lead to campers having stronger connections to their food as well.

My decision to be a garden educator came from many different experiences, but who is to say that it wasn’t sparked that first summer in Kibbutz HaTzofim when I got to harvest my first cucumber?

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