March 6, 2003

The Frum Farm


It's not very easy to find the town of Sunderland, Massachusetts. Sunderland doesn't appear on many state maps, and it's easy to miss the few signs that advertise the small town on windy country roads that cross little streams and rivers, rise up over wooded mountains, and run through the large expanses of green that give the wilderness of western Massachusetts its rural quality.

At first glance, Sunderland would seem the unlikeliest of places to find a community of chasidic Jews, much less find them sitting atop tractors, tilling fields and harvesting organically grown vegetables. But that's exactly the vision a small group of Lubavitch chasidim has in mind, and they already have paid a share of the $620,000 necessary to buy a 70-acre plot of land amid the farms, country homesteads and empty fields of rural New England.

It seems that when you combine a bunch of hippies-turned-chasidim, a gentile real-estate developer and an idealistic rabbi in a place called the Pioneer Valley, you get a curious experiment in religion and agriculture that seeks to bring God and money to the fertile land of western Massachusetts. Though ground has not yet been broken at the Sunderland site (unless you count the planting of heads of garlic during an autumnal harvest festival last October), the project's spiritual and material architects are planning a rural community that will embody the values of chasidism, natural living, Jewish outreach, and rural America. They call it Eretz HaChaim, the living land.

"Instead of a Chabad house, it's a Chabad town," said Rafael Ertel, 30, the acting director of membership at Eretz HaChaim and one of its first members. "For myself and my family this is a dream come true: A place where we can be devoted to Torah and mitzvot and educating those who are not necessarily affiliated, while at the same time living in a place eating our own harvested food close to the outdoors."

So far, eight families have come to the area with plans to move onto Eretz Hachaim once the land, a former fish farm, is made habitable. These aspiring homeowners are hoping their planned community will become not only a site for agri-tourism and a center for Jewish outreach, like other Chabad Lubavitch centers, but a place where they can raise their children in a unique setting that embraces both Torah values and environmental ones. The farm will be a central feature of the community, but its existence will serve primarily as a means to attract visitors to the religious enclave interested in organic farming and Judaism's agricultural traditions. The ultimate aim, like that at any Chabad center, is to draw visitors into a greater interest in Orthodox Jewish life generally.

"We're basing the community on Chabad chasidut, which is reaching out to fellow Jews," said Rabbi Chaim Adelman, the founder of Eretz HaChaim and rabbi of the Chabad house at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a 23,000-student college in a picturesque New England town a few miles south of Sunderland. "We're not insular and we want to be open. Eretz HaChaim will be a very warm, welcoming Jewish community founded on the most lofty principles of ahavat yisrael," love for the Jewish people.

Aside from the farm, the self-sufficient village will have a synagogue, a school, and a mikvah, along with about 30 houses. Adelman says he hopes one day there will be a single structure that will house all the community's shared facilities, including the synagogue and school, an indoor pool, administrative offices, a wedding hall, and a commercial kitchen.

Adelman knows a lot about kitchens. Aside from running the Chabad house in Amherst, where most of Eretz HaChaim's prospective residents currently live, Adelman works as the kosher certifier at several dairy companies in and around Amherst. The rabbi says it was his work in the food industry-and his gradual realization of the virtual impossibility of ensuring a high standard of kashrut in industrial food-that spurred him to dream up Eretz HaChaim.

"The people who are manufacturing the food don't really know what's going on with kosher, and as a result a lot of mistakes can happen," Adelman said. "I began to think of our own farm where we could grow our own stuff and not have to worry about all these things. We could trust our own people."

For all their talk of farming, however, few of the fledgling community's members actually plan on becoming farmers or relying on the farm for sustenance or livelihood. While they may help with some planting and harvesting, almost all the adult members of the community-who include computer programmers, network administrators, sales executives, and teachers-say they plan on keeping their jobs outside of Eretz HaChaim once they move to Sunderland.

The job of farming will fall to a 25-year-old New Jerseyan named Tuvia Helfen, who worked on a farms in New Mexico and Vermont for three years before becoming religiously observant and joining a kollel study program. He plans on employing college interns, volunteers, and residents to help him. Although the farm need not be bound by Jewish agricultural law, since it is outside the land of Israel, for educational purposes the farm will practice those laws anyway, which include letting the land lie fallow on the seventh year and leaving a portion of crops for the poor.

The agricultural plan for Eretz HaChaim, Helfen says, is to plant vegetables like radishes, beets, lettuce and tomatoes in season, produce maple syrup in the wintertime, make honey at the end of summer, and supply the community with the agricultural products it needs for religious observances. That means aravot branches on Sukkot, matza on Passover, dairy products on Shavuot and, of course, wine on Shabbat, if at all possible. There probably will be a few goats on hand, too, to supply milk and cheese, and, despite the vegetarians among Eretz HaChaim's membership, there may be some animals raised for slaughter.

"The hard part of farming and Orthodoxy is that the farm is usually far out and there's no place for the kids to be part of a community and have a minyan," Helfen said. "But this is an opportunity to make it work. There's a market here for organic vegetables, and just meeting people on the farm will be kiruv," a way of drawing non-observant Jews closer to Orthodoxy. "They will see that there are people who are natural and environmental and that we're accepting and open and still keep the Torah," he said. "It's opposite the common perception of the Orthodox Jew."

Rabbi Yisrael Deren, the regional director for Chabad in western and southern New England, says Eretz HaChaim may well help dispel negative stereotypes of fervently Orthodox Jews. "The fact that you have a guy with a beard and tzitzis sitting on a tractor-people can relate to that," he said.

Nevertheless, Deren says that national Chabad, which is based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, does not support the Eretz HaChaim project. Eretz HaChaim does not represent the Chabad approach to Jewish life, he said.

"Chabad is committed to taking the world that we live in and making it a better place," Deren said. "In an ideal world, maybe we all ought to be farmers. But we don't live in an ideal world. There's a reason it's not a Chabad-sponsored project. This is not our thing. It's sort of walking away from the world and trying to recreate some type of idyllic existence. This is not the way we'll change the world."

Community members do not deny that they are attempting to create what one member described as a utopian shtetl, but they say they believe Eretz HaChaim represents the best of what the chasidic movement, and its deceased spiritual fathers, championed.

"We want it to be an ideal community. We want it to reflect the ideals that the rebbe suggested we live by," Ertel said. "All our forefathers were shepherds. I think the metropolitan Jew is an invention of galut, of exile. I think that's drained a lot of vitality out of the Jewish people. The Baal Shem Tov"-Israel Baal Shem Tov, the father of chasidism-"said that God's presence can sometimes be more readily felt or revealed in nature than in the urban environment. It's an irony of modern life that most followers of the Baal Shem Tov are living in cities."

Esther Rothman, a sales executive who serves as the director of housing at Eretz HaChaim, said, "We believe it's really good to live on the land and live a good, pure, simple, happy life." She said the community is about "going within yourself, finding the truth, and working together to bring a messianic ideal."

The chasidic angle is what drew Scott Nielsen, the real-estate developer who has an 85 percent share in Eretz HaChaim, to the project. He says he saw investment in Eretz HaChaim as a way to participate in something Jewish that was devoid of internecine conflict while demonstrating that "economic and spiritual development can go hand in hand." As a member of the Reconstructionist Jewish congregation in Amherst, Nielsen, who is not Jewish, said he also thought his participation would help build bridges between the Lubavitch and Reconstructionist communities.

"While we have some differences of opinion between the Lubavitch group and the Reconstructionist group, there's so much more that is compatible about our view of God in our lives, and our lives and God," Nielsen said. "The rest of the stuff is little stuff."

While the project is a long way off from being a money-maker-community officials estimate the total village cost at $10 million, about half of which will consist of privately owned homes-Nielsen said he expects the land's value eventually to rise substantially. He's already trying to buy up nearby homes in anticipation that Orthodox Jews looking to buy homes in a minyan-accessible area will want to move to Sunderland. The town is less than two hours driving time from Boston and about three hours from New York, and it's near an area where many city people already own weekend homes. One Lubavitch family already has moved to the area and opened up a women's seminary for six girls from Crown Heights. That seminary may serve as Eretz HaChaim's first school until the community's own schoolhouse is built.

"My guess is that if they're really going to make money, then they'll develop some kind of hotel," said Prof. Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph and Bell R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. "A Chabad retreat center that offered kosher food and a Shabbat atmosphere would draw people," he said. "The agriculture will be secondary, much as it quickly became in the Catskills. They were farmers in the Catskills, but the money was really made by all the people who opened up resorts."

Some community members insist that they do not want the village to become the heart of a bungalow colony, but Adelman says the community's efforts to attract tourists may make that inevitable. Within the bounds of Eretz HaChaim's 70 acres however, members are planning a carefully regulated community of 30 families that share common values and goals.

"If you move to Monsey or to Flatbush, so you move there. You have a choice if you want to be on one committee or another," said Chana Luba Ertel, who, along with her husband, is overseeing the membership process. "If they come here, they have to attend meetings. They have to give their time. They can't just come and hang out."

Families who seek to move onto Eretz HaChaim must undergo an extensive application process that includes a visit to the site and interviews with community members. So far, only two families have applied to join the eight already planning to move to Eretz HaChaim.

"We are looking for families who want to use the means of natural living to educate people about Torah and mitzot," Chana Luba Ertel said. "We'll have healthy snacks for our children, school with outdoor activities, exercise, and interactions with animals. They should not just sit all day inside and just learn, learn, learn."

Sociologist Calvin Goldscheider, the Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University, in Rhode Island, says the community's lifestyle is inconsistent with the philosophy and history of Chabad Lubavitch. "Lubavitch was never a rural development," Goldscheider said. "I'm not sure they're trying to recapture anything Jewish. By moving there, out of Crown Heights, they not only change their geography, they change all their networks. A lot of these communities are closer to Carlebach than they are to the rebbe," he said, comparing the late spiritualist and musician Shlomo Carlebach, who was popular with the Jewish hippie crowd, to the deceased Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Many of Eretz HaChaim's future members are, in fact, erstwhile hippies. One calls himself a former (and sometimes) deadhead. Ertel and his wife spent time during the summer before they moved to Amherst at a Rainbow Gathering, a festival of alternative lifestyles. Adelman, who at 46 is the oldest member of the Eretz HaChaim group, says it's only natural that a community-oriented village centered around an organic farm and what members call "natural living" will attract a hippie-ish crowd.

Ertel agrees. "My energy when living in the city was way off," he said. "Here, I have not felt any negative energy from the community." There are several organic farms in western Massachusetts, and the notion of a kosher communal farm run by fervently Orthodox Jews does not seem to have caused much of a stir in the largely liberal and environmentally conscious culture of the Amherst area.

Some community members say they hope one day they will be able to make their village even more organic by converting their homes to solar and wind power, turning Eretz HaChaim into a testing ground for renewable sources of energy. For now, however, the families are making do with what they can afford.

If all goes well, the first families will be able move onto Eretz HaChaim by next summer, once some houses, roads, and basic services have been built.

Deren, who has been watching the plans for Eretz Hachaim evolve with bemused interest, says he thinks Adelman will be able to create a sustainable community, even if it ends up being more like a typical suburban Jewish community than a holistic farm. "It's not that difficult to create what you need to be an Orthodox Jew," he said. "If you have a school and a shul, you have what you need. You don't need a glatt-kosher Chinese restaurant nearby."