I couldn’t go back to school. So I started a farm to connect with my Jewish values.


This article first appeared on Alma.

After being sent home from school, a life of relative COVID-ignorant bliss, I arrived in the ravaging chaos of the pandemic. My mother — the head of infection control and epidemiology for the largest public hospital in Chicago — was working all hours of the day. Whether it was one of her HIV patients or a hospital administrator, her phone was inundated with calls. She seemed to juggle patients, infection control and the hospital’s ever-shifting pandemic plan seamlessly; I could not understand how she persisted.

Meanwhile, wildfires tore through the West Coast. Countless other alarm bells of the climate catastrophe rang. Along with being physically disconnected from my climate activist community on campus, I felt climate grief sinking in deeper than ever. While recognizing my position of privilege and feeling immensely grateful for my relative safety during these crises, I could not help but feel lost in a sea of hopelessness. It was despair on multiple fronts.

Somehow, amid all the tumult, my mother never lost hope. She would say, “You can choose fear, or you can choose hope.” Her words and her unwavering sureness were familiar. They came from the eternal light of hope her parents — my grandparents — had ignited in both of us. My grandparents, taken to concentration camps at the ages of 12 and 14, did not view hope as an option. It was hope or death.

As the pandemic raged, my twin sister and I were faced with the same daunting decision as so many other college students: return to virtual learning or put our formal education on hold and follow other pursuits.

We chose the latter.

While I am a second-generation American descended from Holocaust survivors on my mother’s side, I am a sixth-generation Midwestern farmer on my father’s. Growing up in Chicago, car rides and grocery runs were filled with stories of the farm he grew up on and the transition he witnessed from small-scale diversified farming to industrial monoculture agriculture. He would tell me how he dreamed of returning the land to its roots as a perennial farm. Despite his passion, he put his lofty dreams on hold to raise my sisters and myself.

Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and my twin happened to be conducting research on two carbon-sequestering strategies. Biochar, which is largely overlooked by Western science, is an indigenous land stewardship practice that stores carbon for thousands of years and regenerates the soil. Basalt, a type of rock, actively captures carbon from the atmosphere and likewise benefits the soil. One day, as the two of us strolled through our neighborhood, anxious to make decisions and grateful that we had choices, we realized what we had to do: We were going to move to the farm where our father grew up in Sheldon, Illinois, and turn his 40-year-old vision of creating a perennial farm into a reality.

Equipped with the undying hope from our mother and her parents that we could change the world, and the knowledge and connection to the land instilled in us by our father, we were ready to unite the two halves of our identities and make real change happen.

We were going to create an intentional living community compelled by Jewish values and guided by a shared passion for social justice and equitable food systems, contribute to climate change research while actively sequestering carbon ourselves, and honor indigenous farming practices of agroforestry and biochar. We were going to demonstrate what regenerative agriculture can look like in the Midwest, teach emerging young farmers and local students, and strive to revitalize the local community. Even though we were two 20-year-olds with minimal agricultural experience, we were ready. We were ready to meet failures and setbacks. We were ready to ask questions to anyone who might have answers. And we were ready to make this collective dream come to fruition.

As wild as our plans sounded and despite the skepticism we met, we made it happen.

Remi Welbel and friends plant elderberries on Zumwalt Acres. (Brendan Campbell)

All summer, we commuted back and forth from Chicago to clean and renovate the farmhouse where our father grew up. In September, we arrived at the farm with seven other eager college students prepared to transform endless rows of corn and soy into a biodiverse, thriving ecosystem that captures carbon and produces delicious food.

We were incredibly fortunate to have access to a house we could live in and land we could farm, most of which was owned by our grandmother at the time. Because we needed funding to purchase everything from tools and building materials to seeds and bare root trees, we spent a great deal of time in the fall searching for and applying for grants. Receiving several of the grants we applied for allowed us to launch Zumwalt Acres, and grant funding and fundraising continues to be instrumental to our organization today. We are still navigating what long-term financial sustainability looks like for our organization, but we plan for the farm itself to be supported by the profits from the crops and value-added products we sell, while grant funding will be applied to the educational, community outreach and research work we do.

Digging into the ground and rapidly growing dreams into reality, I could feel a renewed sense of hope rushing through me. I felt the agrarian roots of Judaism connecting me to the land and environment in ways I have never experienced before. The deeply instilled Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, felt visceral as I planted apple trees, burned biochar and built an organization dedicated to revitalizing agriculture in the Midwest. Through our tireless efforts, it felt like we could seed hope, uproot broken systems and grow meaningful change.

A year after the start of the pandemic, here I am planting trees and growing vegetables with a new cohort of exceptional apprentices. Being back at the farm feels like coming home. It feels like the place where all my roots and all my identities converge.

Here I am overcome with hope, gratitude and joy. Here I have a place where I can grow my relationship with nature and the land. Here I have a community where I can be my uncontainably Jewish self. Here I have the opportunity to contribute to climate change research and actively combat the climate crisis. Here I have an emerging organization that embodies the Jewish values I hold so dearly. Here I have finally seen my disparate family roots intertwine and grow in common, fueled by a shared belief that hope is our most essential asset in striving to repair the world.

While my twin sister and I do plan on returning to school in the fall, we will remain integrally involved in running the farm and organization. Along with our first cohorts of apprentices, we feel like we are laying the groundwork for a community that with our continual support and guidance will be self-sustaining and thrive.

Zumwalt Acres is located on the traditional unceded homelands of Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Peoria, Kaskaskia, Bodéwadmiakiwen (Potawatomi), Myaamia and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples.

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