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Adamah participants at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Canaan, ConnecticutCourtesy Adamah
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The American Moshav Movement

A guide to the earth-based, shtetl-positive Jewish communities spanning North America

Madison Margolin
June 21, 2022
Courtesy Adamah
Adamah participants at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Canaan, ConnecticutCourtesy Adamah

There’s something inherently campy about Jewish community. Across the spectrum from Reform to ultra-Orthodox, Jewish summer camp is most certainly a thing—even in biblical times, while wandering the desert out of Egypt, the Hebrew tribe set up camp en route to the Promised Land. Shabbatons for teenage youth groups or Pesach programs for entire families can feel like camp for a weekend or a whole week, while Hasidic bungalow colonies draw parents and children from Brooklyn and into the Catskills all summer, reminiscent of pop-up villages, tucked away amid the nature of upstate New York. In Israel, moshavim and kibbutzim function as such villages all year round, and even at festivals like Burning Man or Rainbow Gathering, there are Jewish camps calling in Yiddish or Hebrew speakers, offering Shabbat dinners to the greater community, and serving as a contained micro-environment for Jews to practice what it means to be a light unto the nations.

What do we mean when we talk about “camp” anyway? Admittedly, I’m using the term loosely to connote a communal way of life, equipped with all quotidian necessities like child care, a place of worship, and a tight-knit cluster of homes (bungalows, cabins, tents, houses) within walking distance of each other—which is a bare necessity for those who keep Shabbat. In essence, I’m talking about a village, a shtetl, but structured with intention.

In today’s zeitgeist, I see more and more people seek out this way of life. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to rethink how we live: The mandated isolation, on top of what was already a nationwide pandemic of loneliness, made us question the importance of living in community; the emptied shelves and long lines at packed grocery stores in urban centers like New York or San Francisco forced us to confront the practical importance of what it means to live sustainably and to rely on your own food supply. The widespread onset of remote work has made us wonder why we overpay to live in overpopulated, polluted, cities anyway—and for parents juggling home-school and their own at-home jobs, the need for communal childcare in proximity to home has never been more obvious.

For many within the Jewish world and beyond, I’ve noticed a renaissance of the “back to the land” movement, once popular in the 1970s among hippies and those otherwise disillusioned with capitalism and city life, who sought refuge in erstwhile rustic places like Northern California, where they could live sustainably off the land and off the grid, in harmony with nature. Today, I’m seeing renewed interest in this trend—something of a diasporic “moshav movement” inspired by rural communes or Israeli, land-based communities—now cropping up everywhere from California to the Northeast, and from Mexico all the way to England.

While it would be impossible to list the full scope of Jewish homesteads, farms, and intentional communities outside ha’aretz, there are some larger projects I’ve observed or come into contact with over the course of the last two years that have convinced me of a major new strand in the future of Jewish community, one that will far outlast the pandemic and its consequences.

The Bay Area, to me at least, is the heart of the communal living movement. As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I lived in a co-op of 150 students, who adorned the walls of a converted hotel with acid-fueled murals and splatters of technicolor paint. Of course, “adult” co-living might have a different aesthetic, but the cooperative spirit remains—reiterating, generation after generation, since the hippie communes of Haight-Ashbury’s heyday.

Today in Berkeley we’re seeing the advent of a new communal living enterprise called the Berkeley Moshav, the first project of the co-housing nonprofit Urban Moshav. “Co-housing is a way of recreating village life,” says founder Roger Studley. It enables neighbors to be connected to each other, their lives interwoven in the fabric of weekly Shabbat meals, looking after each other’s children, and manifesting a vision of a better world through putting their (in this case, Jewish) values into tangible action. “For most of human evolution, we lived in tribes, in villages. The people we lived our lives with were the people next door,” says Studley. “The amazing developments in communication and transportation over the last 100 years broke that connection, [but there’s now] an epidemic of loneliness, even pre-COVID. Social isolation is a bigger health problem than smoking. The motivation [behind Berkeley Moshav] is that people want to live in community with other people.”

While the term “moshav” today has various connotations beyond its actual definition (rural, Zionist, Carlebach if we’re talking about Mevo Modi’im), Berkeley’s urban moshav takes after the Israeli model, in which residents individually own their own homes, but share space in common, such as a communal dining hall and kosher kitchen for community meals a few times a week. There are other shared spaces too, such as two community guest rooms and a kids’ playroom. The community may try to offer some rental homes too, which would render the moshav more affordable for those who can’t put down a million dollars on a Bay Area condo.

As the Berkeley Moshav is still in the planning stages, so far about 30% of the projected units are already spoken for. The property was purchased using a loan from a generous, anonymous philanthropist—but construction can’t begin until 75% of the homes are pre-sold. “It’s like buying a regular condo or home, except instead of making a down payment at the end, each household’s down payment is invested along the way in order to finance the project,” Studley explains.

A collection of nearly 40 apartment units with a central courtyard, the moshav will sit on a half-acre lot that’s walking distance from Berkeley’s Conservative and Orthodox shuls, Netivot Shalom and Beth Israel. The community is meant to accommodate a range of religious observance levels, as well as age and family composition—from singles to seniors to young children. As Studley describes, “It’s like a year-round, all-ages Jewish summer camp for people with jobs and responsibilities.”

But for those seeking an actual Jewish summer camp—albeit for whole families—the Bay Area’s pluralistic Wilderness Torah is founding a Center for Earth-Based Judaism (CEBJ) in the Sonoma County hills at the site of Camp Newman. “For almost 30 years, I’ve been on the path toward dreaming of and building land-based intentional community,” says Rabbi Zelig Golden, founding director of Wilderness Torah. “I think it’s one of the most important things that humans can do—live in harmony and community, with a common cause and spirituality. Since Wilderness Torah was founded in 2007, it was always the driving vision to create a center for earth-based Judaism and connect it with Jewish intentional community.”

Now that communal center is becoming a reality, with programming centered around climate change adaptation, land tending, adolescent rites of passage, and ancestral crafts: Think camping trips, fire ceremonies, fire resilience education, awakening the rain dance, basket or tallis-weaving, shofar-crafting, candle-dipping, shepherding, permaculture food forestry, and solidarity with local indigenous peoples. Embedded within a 500-acre summer camp (450 acres of which are fairly wild), a dedicated five acres will go to the CEBJ, where families, children, or individual adults can come for retreats, workshops, full weekends, wilderness adventures, and festivals (although no one will be living there year round). Golden compares the vision to some of what Connecticut’s Isabella Freedman Retreat Center offers, but with a unique California flavor.

“Practicing earth-based Judaism means going to the roots of Jewish traditions, practice, and culture—starting with a deep relationship to how the Hebrew calendar guides us in annual rhythm with cycles and nature,” says Golden. “It’s about understanding and embodying that inextricable relationship, the ancestral and mythical, and making it personal, awakening it to our times.” He gives the example of sacred fire as an ancient Jewish practice in both Temples, but which was extinguished with the destruction. “When we speak of exile, part of that exile is our relationship not just to a specific piece of land, but also to a specific way of life, replete with traditions that were related to the elements. In Judaism today, we don’t practice a sacred fire ritual—even though it was one of the deepest practices we ever had, as the way we made offerings for centuries.” The ancient practice of praying for rain (especially around Sukkot) has become similarly obscured—despite the fact that “our whole Hebrew calendar revolves around rain and praying for rain,” says Golden. "[Especially] if you live in California, you know that drought is a real problem. [We have] an ancient memory of the relationship among prayer, ceremony, and the balance of a healthy ecosystem. The Torah teaches us that as human beings, if we fail to love creation and follow sacred laws, then our imbalance will impact ecology. When we don’t have rain, that is imbalance, and we will perish because of it. That’s the deepest climate change teaching of all.”

Certain rituals in Judaism that help us reconcile Torah with environmental resilience, Golden suggests, include honoring shmita or keeping Shabbat. “Being in rhythm [with the calendar and cycles] allows us to remember our own humanity, our own wildness, in relationship to nature,” he says, recounting when God told Moses to come closer and take the shoes off his feet, which Golden interprets as a commandment to be vulnerable and detach from habits of mind and culture.

So today, he asks, how can we unlock ourselves from our habits, rewire, and even re-wild ourselves in order to connect back to our deepest, most natural essence? Shabbat and shmita are one approach, says Golden. “They unlock us from human time, put us in sacred time, and keep us wild,” he says. “They allow us to be feral, to unlock from agriculture for a year [shmita], or from the human economy for a day [Shabbat]. But so much of this has been lost due to modernity,” he says, echoing Studley’s concerns about the way technology and contemporary life have alienated us from our neighbors. “We’re going deeper down the rabbit hole of abstraction and disconnection.” An earth-based approach to Judaism and intentional community are ways to remedy that.

While the initiatives in California are nascent, Judaism’s back-to-the-land renaissance is already in full swing, and growing, in upstate New York. Every summer, the Catskills come to life with Hasidim from Brooklyn and suburbs like Monsey, who make their way up to the luscious, wooded thickets and expansive fields studded with goldenrods that define Sullivan County from late spring until early autumn. About two hours outside the city, the Catskills have been a longstanding petri dish for diasporic Jewish communal living. In the early- and mid-20th century, the borscht belt—Sullivan, Orange, and Ulster counties—drew Jewish families out to resorts and summer villages (which cropped up partially in response to Jewish exclusion from other establishments) to come see entertainment from the likes of Woody Allen. In the past few decades, these Jewish outposts have evolved into Hasidic bungalow colonies and summer camps, where families spend entire seasons, living together in villages on shared property with local shuls, kosher restaurants, and shops nearby. Indeed, the Catskills have grown to become an eclectic mix of Hasidim, hippies, and other upstate locals living side-by-side in one of the most beautiful corners of the world.

Inspired by the bungalow colony approach, a group of friends bought a piece of property together (an abandoned Zionist summer camp), remodeled it, and created Dreamland. Initially owned collectively by six families, Dreamland was led by Zev Eisenberg of the Brooklyn-based DJ duo Wolf + Lamb and his longtime friend and collaborator Chaya Lipkind, a financial services company CFO turned farmer. While most of the Dreamlanders hail from Orthodox backgrounds, the project is more incidentally than intentionally Jewish. Soon after buying the camp, they expanded with four more home sites and the now 100-acre community serves as a spring-summer-fall retreat, replete with a small farm that produces organic vegetables, flowers and herbs for a neighborhood CSA, communal weekend meals (although sometimes they’re catered), Sunday morning yoga on a wooden platform overlooking a creek, and the occasional invite-only music gathering. “As time went on, more friends of ours started buying or renting around the corner, and pretty soon we could be 20 or 25 people for dinner,” Eisenberg says.

Like their Brooklyn Hasidic inspiration, the Dreamlanders mainly spend the summer season upstate—about two and a half months—rather than year-round. And even then, people sometimes return to the city for work. “But when the pandemic hit, everyone was like, ‘Oh, we actually own this doomsday property upstate together,” recalls Eisenberg, who now has an office in nearby Kingston with growing local real estate business. “Everyone made their way over here from all over; we had all spent our time working on our various careers and projects, and never got a chance to sit together for weeks at a time. I credit the pandemic for accelerating everyone being able to spend all that time on the property together. That got everyone feeling what life is like day in and day out, as opposed to some people coming only for long weekends.”

​​But even with the trend toward more communal living, Eisenberg is quick to distinguish Dreamland from a kibbutz. “Everything is financially independent,” he clarifies. “We treat it more as an asset that we all own together. Everyone pays for their own home expenses, and we share in communal expenses like insurance and lawn care.” For such a project to function more like a defined kibbutz or moshav, other factors like child care and education would need to be ironed out—but for now, he says, the children in the families involved in the project are too young for that to be a concern.

Not far from Dreamland, a different kind of project is underway. Nestled behind a crude driveway, up a hill, down the street from shuls, summer camps, and bungalow colonies in the almost exclusively Hasidic summer town of Woodbourne, sits the well-known Teyveh—a 100-acre property that includes wooded forest, a creek, blueberry thickets, a wide-open field, a secluded pond that serves as a mikvah, a barn, a peacock, and a shabby, three-story Victorian house with a wrap-around porch. “For the past 10 years plus, the Teyveh has been operating as a sort of halfway house and nature refuge for fringe members of the Hasidic and haimish community,” says Aaron Genuth, founder of the religious, entheogenic nonprofit Darkhei Rephua, who had previously managed the property. “At different points over the years, the Teyveh has fallen into various levels of dysfunction and disrepair, especially after COVID,” he admits. But at its heart, the Teyveh remains a beacon of hope for a new paradigm that Genuth is hoping to introduce to the haimish (Yiddish-speaking) world. “I’ve definitely seen an uptick in interest, and to some degree anticipated that once the immediate effects of the pandemic became clear, the level of shutdown and disruption would lead a lot of people to start thinking again about living in more direct, healthy, healing community, which includes going directly back to the land,” says Genuth. “There’s a particular magic to the land upstate. Many people have been able to get out of the city and spend a weekend there or a day in the woods, psychedelically or not. It’s rewarding to have that resource for people who need it right now.”

I’ve been to the Teyveh various times, spent many a night underneath the stars in the open field, hearing the chazzanis of local shuls and davening nearby echoing through the glades of tall grass and wildflowers, the dense smell of fresh, muggy August air, with beats of psytrance muffled in the forest. I’ve helped build a sukkah at the Teyveh from local materials gathered from the property. I smoked CBD out of a crack pipe there once. I’ve camped and cried and danced all night long with my hula hoop near a campfire.

On the fringes of the haimish community, and worlds away from the tidy, organizational feel of institutional reform or conservative denominational Judaism, the land projects of the Catskills serve as a less organized, more grassroots counterpoint to projects like Wilderness Torah’s CEBJ.

Having operated programs over the last couple of years at the Teyveh, which included kosher Shabbat and Sukkot mini festivals and a psychedelic Halloween Fairie Gathering, along with the construction of a compost toilet system and other improvements, Genuth is now working with legislators and farmers in the town of Fallsburg (where the hamlet of Woodbourne is based) to develop regenerative community and environmental standards for their upcoming cannabis and community gardening programs. He says it’s a priority to expand the network of local properties, organic cultivators, and Jewish entities eager to collaborate with Darkhei Rephua’s programs that support community-based reconnection to nature, and benefit from opportunities connected to New York state’s recent cannabis legalization program, and its growing (and still largely underground) psychedelic industry.

Land projects and programming, he says, can serve as “a launchpad, an introductory and continuation point for a range of related subjects, from cannabis to psychedelics to mushrooms and various models of regenerative agriculture—for people who want to connect and go back to land-based living and seeing that as a basis for community and culture, and including that in Judaism.”

Perhaps most promising is a merging between the earth-based practices of the Wilderness Torah approach and the embodied Jewish lifestyle so deeply ingrained among those coming from more observant backgrounds. “Where I’m doing a lot of outreach is in the Hasidic and frum world, where in many communities, particularly based in the city, there’s an overall disconnect from a relationship to nature that then translates to a spiritual disconnection,” says Genuth, noting that his points of outreach focus on “the application of Jewish practice in a natural setting where those connections to nature can flow more directly.”

The earth-based orientation presents an opportunity to consider hassidut, what kashrut is really about, and the relationship between what comes from God and where nature and our own bodies fit into that. “How close are we to being in the kind of community that’s cultivating their own food and medicines and really having a relationship to the things that we consume, which in this world they say blessings over?” Genuth asks.

Beyond Dreamland and the Teyveh, there are various other Jewish or Jewish-adjacent projects in the Catskills and Hudson Valley—including Linke Fligl, a queer Jewish chicken farm and cultural organizing project; Yiddish Farm, which provides experiential outdoor education for Yiddish-speaking children; Eden Village Camp; and of course, not far from New York, the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in northwestern Connecticut, and the Alliance Community Reboot (ACRe) in south Jersey.

Because the North American non-Orthodox Jewish community has lost its foundation of shared communal language and geography, it’s struggling to find its identity.

Around the world, Shabbat observance has always been the backbone of Jewish community, compelling those who observe to live within walking distance of each other and a local shul, fostering a tight-knit community structure.

In a neighborhood where the residents are observant, says Joel Rothschild, a software engineer and founding organizer of the Ecovillagers Alliance, which is launching a democratically owned and governed real estate investment co-op, “Shabbat is not only a personal practice, but a presence that envelops the entire place—all the space around you is keeping Shabbos.” And as such, “the practice of Jewish religion is much more coherent in a context where it exists in that concentrated geographic space.” Indeed, because the North American non-Orthodox Jewish community has lost its foundation of shared communal language (Yiddish, Hebrew, or Ladino) and geography, Rothschild posits, it’s struggling to find its identity.

That’s what led Rothschild to start Ecovillagers—to harness the best, most redemptive qualities of the shtetl and apply them to contemporary, diasporic Jewish life (outside of exclusively Orthodox neighborhoods). The organization functions as a financial support network for  community land co-ops—neighborhoods that own themselves, so to speak, collectively. “Not because each individual household owns its house,” says Rothschild, “but because the members of the community are members of this cooperative financial instrument and it owns all the property.” (Although the individuals can still be owners, too, by owning shares of the co-op.)

“It’s socialized in the sense that no one owns anyone’s home,” Rothschild explains. “Ecovillagers Alliance is a nonprofit that will never own anything——and a community land co-op is a landlord that’s owned collectively by its tenants.” All residents, including commercial tenants, have leases, some long-term. The individual member’s return on investment is proportionate to how much equity that resident purchases, while each member gets exactly one vote no matter what. Ecovillagers is currently in the process of incorporating the first two of these co-ops: One is designed to serve Jewish residential communities, and the other to serve Black American communities, both in mid-Atlantic states. The former is Kibbutz Pawpaw, an urban kibbutz and ecovillage in Philadelphia. “Any community like that, which also wants to offer equity to members who want it, can self-organize via this real estate investment co-op and become one of the community land co-ops in the network,” Rothschild explains.

Another organization helping Jewish community and land projects get off the ground is Hakhel, an incubator for intentional Jewish communities that provides mentorship, grants, and other resources. One of the 130 communities under Hakhel’s stewardship is Living Tree Alliance, a “kibbutz reimagined” in the mountains of Vermont that doubles as a homestead and farm education center.

“The homes are private, but connected in a way that we can easily get together, run into each other, and steward the land together,” says Living Tree co-founder Sephirah Oshkello. “We also have a nonprofit where we host enrichment programs that are both secular and connected to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, so for instance we host Sukkot on the farm and Shavuot on the mountain, as well as additional Jewish holidays that we link to the New England seasons.”

As far as childhood education goes, Living Tree Alliance (which currently has four families living on the kibbutz) shares borders with the local high school and middle school and hosts field trips, camps, home school programs, and after-school experiences for their community.  With a treehouse, swings, a swimming hole and ample trails and fields for exploring, the kibbutz land is a magical place for the kids on and off the kibbutz to unplug, play, and learn more about seasonal agriculture and homesteading.

“A big zechus of Living Tree is that it’s intergenerational,” says program founder Melanie Grubman, noting the feelings of safety and security that come with living in a place that’s sustainable and connected to the land. The ideal resident, she describes, “wants to feel the rhythm of their life in terms of celebrations and connection to the earth.” And for those who want to live at Living Tree only seasonally, there are a few farm work-trade opportunities, as well. The community is pluralistic, with each member having their own individual practice and connection toward Judaism and type of observance.

Meanwhile, a bit farther south, writer and publisher Jorian Polis Schutz runs a farm based in the principles of regenerative agriculture, as a Jewish homesteading program and a land project in central Virginia. While a handful on his land comprise an outpost of the Brooklyn community, Polis Schutz, who’s publishing an introduction to Sabbath agriculture, says his goal is to maintain a sense of traditional religiosity while imagining a new way of life. Mahaz, in particular, incorporates farming, agricultural skills, and homesteading skills like crafts and food preservation.

Even farther south—of the border, in fact—on 10 hectares of land, about an hour and a half from Mexico City, is Attesi: a real estate development mixed with sustainable agriculture and housing. Founders Gabriel Mondlak and Moshe Schwartzman tell me it’s founded on three main pillars: education (for adults and children), nature (agriculture, forests, and ecology), and community (the people living on the land and local Indigenous people). About 10 families currently live on the land full-time, while another five to 10 families come every week, every weekend, or every once in a while.

The now 8-year-old project includes formal education, with a school based on Montessori and Torah that educates about 20 children. “We also put a lot of emphasis into building consciousness, understanding the consequences of our decisions on the environment and society, especially around food production,” they tell me. Adults are also encouraged to get involved in their children’s education, so if the kids are learning about agriculture, there are also opportunities for the parents to touch the soil and get involved in food production.

At the heart of the project is a beis midrash, accommodating members at all levels of observance. The moshav also runs a business, with its fiscal composition being 60% real estate (homeowners, as well as long- and short-term rentals), 30% services (restaurants, hotel, consultancy), and 10% production (agriculture).

While Attesi may be the most developed and long-established project of the international moshavim I surveyed, others include Four Elements Ranch in Costa Rica—a similar project to Dreamland, founded by ex-Hasidim and Israeli Americans—and nascent plans for a moshav-type project in the United Kingdom led by the folks behind London’s Masorti Synagogue.

There’s no way to look to the future of the moshav movement without looking back to its roots. Moshav literally means “settlement,” not to be confused with the settlements (hitnachaluyot) or Israeli villages erected in the West Bank.

The moshavim in Israel proper and the moshavniks who live there range in size, intention, and style of being in community. Some moshavim feel simply like gated communities, where maybe you know a neighbor or two. Others, such as with Mevo Modi’im (aka the Carlebach moshav or simply “the Moshav”) serve as prime examples, functioning more as tight-knit communities with a central shul and group activities like women’s gatherings for Rosh Chodesh.

“Growing up with close friends in a small, closed community till today is unbelievably beautiful, and one of the reasons I still live on the moshav,” says Elnatan Golomb, lifelong resident of the Moshav. “In a troubled time, it’s unbelievable. If someone passes away or gives birth, people are forthcoming and want to be there.”

But it’s intense living in a small community, too. On a moshav, he explains, “people still have to work and have their own lives, but there’s a whole sense of investing back into the community. “Different chagim and things, we do for the community.” There’s a difference between moshav kids and other kids, he says, in that moshav kids grow up more open-minded thanks to their greater exposure.

When asked what he thought of the moshav movement taking off outside Israel, Golomb was supportive, but with the caveat that “if anyone isn’t coming to Israel to do the research, then they don’t know what they’re doing.” In Israel, indeed, there are professional consultants who help people structure and start intentional communities and land projects.

“Individuality is okay to a certain extent, there’s a time and place for it, but community has to come above the individual to a certain extent,” says Golomb. “I’m a big believer in community; our nature is to live in community, to live together and take care of each other. It’s part of the circle of life.”

Madison Margolin is a journalist living in New York. She specializes in writing about Jewish culture and drug policy.