A new report says immersive programs in Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environment Education (JOFEE) are providing an increasingly popular path back to Judaism for many unobservant Jews. The study offers hope and rare evidence of growth among numerous statistics showing a decline in Jewish life in the US.
The term JOFEE was coined by Hazon, an environmental group. Hazon conducted the recent study in conjunction with several other groups. According to JNS, the study found “2,405 people who participated in 41 different JOFEE programs in 2012, up from 197 participants across six JOFEE programs in 2000.” And that’s only counting “immersive” programs, which lasted four days or longer.
Two-thirds of those participants came to their JOFEE program feeling “disconnected” with Judaism. Ninety-five percent of those found a way to reconnect after the program.
The study also found that 32 percent of participants who had disconnected from the Jewish community and then reconnected attributed it largely to their JOFEE experience. The programs were also found to lend a much greater sense of Jewish identity and leadership after completion.
The results stand in stark contrast to a recent Pew survey, which found more secular Jews and fewer “Jews by religion” than ever, continuing trends evident for generations. The rates of religious non-affiliation are similar to those found in the general US population.
Many of the JOFEE programs combine food and environmentalism, as environmental sustainability and a resurgence of Jewish farmers are platforms of the food movement. Examples include Adamah, the Jewish Farm School, the Amir Project, and Eden Village Camp.
“We need to create new pathways to Jewish life, and I really feel that Jewish life comes alive outdoors in a way that it doesn’t in a Jewish synagogue or at the JCC — even though I personally like Jewish synagogues and JCCs very much,” said Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon.