Israeli greenhouse project reaches Camps Airy and Louise

Campers make sunburn cream using lavender and peppermint.
Photos by Shana Medel

Camp goers kicked off their July 26 afternoon at the Open Greenhouse by catching three crayfish, which they released into the Camp Airy aquaponics pond.

The 8- and 9-year-olds then huddled around counselor Luke Hutkin, 23, as he instructed them on how to make sunburn cream using vegetable glycerin, aloe vera and essential oils, including peppermint, lavender and coconut.

“They love it,” Hutkin said. “They get to show it to their parents. They get to brag to their friends. They made this stuff by themselves out of all-natural product materials. And it also teaches kids to think about the environment — think about where their products are coming from, think about the bad side effects of using chemicals over plants.”

Nestled in the wooded hills of Western Maryland, Camps Airy and Louise have become hubs for environmental education since the launch of the Israeli-inspired greenhouse.

The initiative, founded by kibbutznik Avital Geva in 1977, intertwines experimentation and creativity to teach youth how to protect the natural world. The nearly 100-year-old camps are the first and only of their kind to schlep the project from Israel to the U.S. this summer. But hopefully, they won’t be the last.

“It gives the Israeli connection, and that’s our number one thing,” said Hutkin, who helped spearhead the initiative at both overnight camps. “We want to expand to as many Jewish camps in the area as we can. It’s about fostering a passion for the environment.”

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2016, the New Mexico native packed his belongings and temporarily moved to Kibbutz Ein Shemer, where the Open Greenhouse is permanently housed.

Hutkin and his Ein Shemer friends, who wanted to bring the project overseas for some time, began connecting with others who were also passionate about the idea, including Shimon Felix.

The Israeli educator said the Open Greenhouse, also known as the Ecological Greenhouse, serves a dual purpose: teaching campers to respect the environment while bringing a piece of Israel to Diaspora communities.

“Hebrew words are taught. Hebrew names for plants and processes are used. Shlichim from Israel do the educational activities in the greenhouse, providing for a kesher, or connection, to the land, people and innovative spirit of Israel,” Felix said in an email.

A camper explores the new aquaponics pond.

Introducing the greenhouse to Jewish-American youth didn’t seem like a far-fetched dream to Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of Camps Airy and Louise. After visiting the kibbutz in April, he and his team got the ball rolling.

In conjunction with Israeli farmers, educators, rabbis and artists, the camps’ staff helped open the innovative greenhouse — complete with a drip wall and hydroponics pond — at Camp Louise in late June. Just one month later, the project made its way to Camp Airy.

In addition to learning about climate change, diminishing resources and water purification, campers can take part in a variety of physical activities, which include growing vegetables and algae, making creams from essential oils, maintaining the hydroponic system and more.

“When campers come down to the Open Greenhouse, they are often skeptical, thinking it will be very school-like,” said Alicia Berlin, director of Camp Louise.

But that’s not the case. The project encourages curious minds to ask questions about Israel’s environment and resources.

“Just three days in at camp this session, it’s been a major attraction,” said Marty Rochlin, director of Camp Airy. “We’re excited how it can make our campers’ experience with nature be that much more exciting.”

The Open Greenhouse will make a second appearance at Airy and Louise next summer and will be operational from beginning to end of the camp session.

Shana Medel is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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