Growing up in British cities, the closest Daniel Lichman and Vince Knowles came to agricultural work was planting sunflowers. But a year after finishing their studies, they were working as labourers on a very special farm.
The two are graduates of an American Jewish farming programme — the Adamah Fellowship.
Based at the Isabella Freedman Jewish retreat in Falls Village, Connecticut, the programme annually accepts 28 Jewish fellows from all over the world for a three month programme of farm work. They milk goats, make blueberry jam, pickle cucumbers and are involved in harvesting. But the course is as much about Jewish spirituality as sustainable farming.
Manchester-born Mr Knowles, 23, took the autumn programme. Mr Lichman, 24, who is education manager for the North Western Reform Synagogue, Golders Green, enrolled for the summer. Fellows pay $500 and all other costs are covered by donations and selling goods from the farm.
Mr Lichman “grew up in Hertfordshire, surrounded by fields but I had no engagement with them at all. Then I went travelling in India and I saw people picking rice from paddy fields. I didn’t even know what rice looked like when it grows.”
After studying at Oxford, Mr Knowles “decided that I wanted to spend time farming because I recognised the ability to produce food was a basic human skill that I was lacking.
“Having been totally engaged in academics and then being put in a position where my work was mainly manual labour was definitely out of my comfort zone in a positive way.”
Mornings at Adamah are spent meditating and group chanting. After working in the fields, the picklearium, the greenhouse, collecting eggs or making cheese, the “adamahniks” take educational seminars and leadership programmes.
It is a ‘”touchy-feely” style of Judaism which many British Jews find uncomfortable. “There’s a lot of singing and clapping,” Mr Lichman reported. “It was great. I wish it could happen here more. Of course there are moments which are a bit much. We had a ‘blessing circle’ where someone stood in the middle and we showered them with blessings.
“That felt very weird. It was too much, too early. On Friday nights, we go to the mikveh and jump in the lake. Actually, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Mr Knowles soon adapted to Adamah’s spiritual lifestyle. “In a different context, things seem less weird. It becomes normal, you become less cynical and stop questioning everything and imagining what people might think of you at home.”
Participants can choose to stay in tents, as Mr Knowles did - even over the winter. “It teaches you how to keep yourself warm. It’s a useful skill.”
It was also the first time both had handled animals and watching a kosher slaughter was “very affecting” for Mr Knowles. “Most people have never seen an animal killed. I’m not an evangelical vegetarian, I still eat some meat. But it makes me think more about it.”
The experience led Mr Lichman to recognise how eating meat sustains other kinds of agriculture. “You have to kill the male goats for a dairy to be economically viable. You can’t keep feeding them until they die naturally. And the mothers have to keep giving birth or they won’t produce more milk. Eating meat is the natural result of eating cheese.
“We were forcibly removing male kids from their mothers and it was really emotional. But when we ate the meat we knew it had been really looked after.”
Adamah operates to the highest principles of sustainable and ethical farming. But can one farm make a difference? Definitely, says Mr Lichman. “Every year, 28 people come back to their own communities and people can’t help acting upon what they’ve learnt. It’s an incredible leadership programme.”
Mr Knowles agrees. “I learnt food is not something to be taken for granted; it’s the product of hard work and a balanced eco-system. There’s a giant network of people doing amazing things, who were Adamah fellows. It’s having a very serious effect.”