As I pulled up to the Jewish Farm School, at 50th and Cedar Avenue in West Philadelphia, I was utterly confused. I was on a paved street lined with houses close together on either side. There was no farm in sight, and I almost got back into my taxi and returned to campus. However, I tentatively rang the doorbell and was greeted by 2002 College graduate Nati Passow, the co-founder and executive director of the JFS.
I quickly learned that the Jewish Farm School is not its own farm; rather, it is an organization that runs programs to teach practical skills of sustainability, global environmental issues and issues connected to food, all in a Jewish context. This means that JFS hosts workshops on topics like bee-keeping and other food issues and relates them back to biblical and modern Jewish teachings.
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The JFS was founded eight years ago and now runs a variety of Philadelphia-based programs, as well as Alternative Spring Break programs across the nation for college students. There have been multiple ASB trips planned with Penn students and, in total, the JFS has worked with over 300 college-age students.
Passow, while at Penn, studied religion and environmental studies, and in the summers he led wilderness trips at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. The summer after he graduated, Passow headed to Vermont where he worked for the Institute for Social Ecology. There, he was exposed to the sustainable agriculture movement.
After piquing his interest in wilderness and sustainability, Passow started working at the Teva Learning Center in northwest Connecticut. Passow ran four-day programs for sixth graders teaching them about forest ecology. Working at Teva maintained Passow’s interest in Jewish education regarding the environment.
He told me that while he was there, he began brainstorming with fellow colleagues and friends about starting a school that was more farm-based.
“We just started scheming … for a couple of years,” Passow said. In 2005, their idea became a reality, and he and four friends launched JFS.
For about three years, JFS ran the farm at Eden Village Camp in upstate New York. This past year they transitioned into more of a training and consulting role with the farm. Now Philadelphia is the full-time focus of JFS’s efforts, as Passow and his family live at the West Philadelphia Jewish farm.
About a year ago, JFS launched their “shtetl’s skills workshop” — shtetl meaning a small Jewish town — in order to revive the tradition of Jewish homesteading.
“A lot of our grandparents and great grandparents who grew up in shtetls, they kept small gardens, they kept animals, they knew how to butcher an animal,” Passow said. “They made their own pickles, they did their own things that now in a modern context we don’t do anymore.”
He explained to me that part of his inspiration for JFS was to remind people of the way Jews used to live, work and engage with nature.
“We wanted to start offering different types of workshops that would teach these types of skills to people,” he said.
Now, Passow says he is looking to expand his involvement in West Philadelphia, hoping to create a Center for Urban Sustainability Project, which would be “a venue for lots of different types of workshops, film screenings, different types of gatherings.”