When Londoner Talia Chain announced she was moving to Kent to set up a Jewish educational farm, eyebrows were raised among her circle of friends.
“I was such a city girl,” she recalls, while dressed in shorts and vest, her hair wild and curly, and standing in the middle of a field surrounded by wildlife.
Ms Chain, 29, grew up in Golders Green and went to JFS. Four years ago, she was working in fashion technology and bored with her job.
She decided she wanted to know more about where food came from and took a sabbatical, spending a few weeks learning about agriculture on a Jewish farm in America.
Now she has founded a similar project, Sadeh, the Hebrew word for “field”.
Her farm launched six weeks ago after Ms Chain crowdfunded £17,000 from the community.
It is based at Skeet House, near Orpington, an out-of-town residential centre for Jewish youth groups for more than 70 years.
Skeet was originally used by Brady youth club in the East End to provide breaks for its members. Ms Chain was surprised to discover its existence, describing it as “the Jewish community’s best kept secret”.
“I am in contact with the people who used to come here and they loved it,” she adds, saying that she is determined to recreate the spirit of young people “digging for potatoes and growing vegetables”.
It was last November when she approached the Jewish Youth fund, which owned Skeet, suggesting that Sadeh should take over its administration. “After some negotiating they said ‘yes’ and my charity took over on March 1.”
As well as running activities for children, teaching them about the environment, Sadeh will serve as a retreat for adults.
“I want it to be a place for adults, kids, youth movements — all of them can come and see what we do here. It is something for everyone.”
Ms Chain — who lives close by with husband Josh — has already created vegetable patches and planted trees that will form an educational forest.
“We have a greenhouse, we have peas here, kale, we grow food,” she adds, pointing out the asparagus. She also gestures proudly towards an apple tree which she “dug out of someone’s garden in Golders Green”.
Her aim is for groups who stay at the farm to be able to prepare at least one meal from the food grown there.
Ms Chain hopes to attract guests from across the Jewish spectrum and it helps that it even has its own eruv.
“I have built a community of people who care about Jewish environmental living,” Ms Chain says. “We only have one planet so why not look after it?”
Groups of up to 70 can visit the farm and stay overnight for a break-even cost of £38 per person, including one meal cooked in its kosher kitchen.
To demonstrate her ten-year plans for the site, she shows me professional drawings of activity areas, outdoor education centres and a pond that will double up as a mikveh.
“I want to buy the house next door and expand. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I can create a community of people who want to live and work on the farm?”
Like a British kibbutz? “Yeah, I guess sort of.”
In her view, it is “insane” that interest in the environment is seen as a “Reform issue” within the community.
“It isn’t. We are an earth-based religion — every one of our festivals revolve around agriculture, harvest and the earth.”
Realising a dream costs money. Fortunately Ms Chain has managed to secure £150,000 worth of funding over the next three years from the Dangoor Education fund, run by philanthropist David Dangoor.
After donating to her crowdfunding campaign, Mr Dangoor visited the farm and was so impressed with her vision that he decided to become its major benefactor.
“I think young people today need a new way to engage with Judaism and the farm brings together things they are passionate about,” Mr Dangoor says.
Ms Chain agrees, asking: “Can you imagine what kind of potential this resource has for the Jewish community?
“I was brought up in Golders Green, my parents were religious but I felt there was nothing for me in the religion till I discovered the farm.
“I realised there is everything here for me in terms of connecting to my Judaism.”
Mr Dangoor strongly believes the Jewish community should be at the forefront of change where the environment is concerned. “As a city dweller myself, I would have liked the opportunity of connecting to the earth in my 20s. It is something I have realised later in life.”
For Ms Chain, the more investors the better.
“The house was financially in a difficult way and I think we will need a further £200,000 of investment to make the changes we need.”
Her dream nearly did not materialise. A few weeks before she was due at the American programme that launched her journey, it was rescheduled.
But with time off work arranged, Ms Chain refused to take no for an answer.
“I phoned them up and said: ‘You don’t understand. I have to do this now. I’ll see you in three weeks.”
She was “chucked in completely at the deep end. I turned up with my hair blow-dried and no idea about the amount of work I was about to do.
“I was terrified, there were spiders everywhere and I hated it. But after two weeks, something clicked.
“I decided it was the best thing ever and that I loved Jews and I loved farming. And look at me now,” she says, pointing out fingernails covered in earth.
“It is the best thing I have ever done.”