Beyond the go-karts, sports fields and zip-lines at Camp Airy sits the Nature Lodge, the Thurmont camp’s headquarters for hiking, creatures and stargazing. The Nature Lodge is also home to a garden of herbs and vegetables, and something new this year, with flowing water, plants and plastic tubing.
The Hamama — which means greenhouse in Hebrew — has generated interest as this year’s new addition to Airy and its sister camp, Louise in nearby Cascade. Luke Hutkin runs the open greenhouse, which combines ecology, politics and art to teach campers about the environment in Israel and how natural resources are utilized and used creatively to compensate for what might be lacking.
“It gets kids thinking about the world,” he says.
One component is hydroponics, a water-reprocessing system made from recycled materials that feeds about 30 flowering plants and vines through continuously cycled water using very little soil. With hydroponics, plants can grow in rocky terrain and spots with little space.
There’s also a green wall that uses tubing to feed about 10 plants lined vertically. As a plant becomes saturated, it drains water to the plant below and the excess from the bottom plant is filtered and feeds through to the top plant to begin the cycle again.
Campers delight in what Hutkin calls the “algae bubbler,” which creates a nutritious “super food” using spirulina, an edible, blue-green algae. Campers design their own algae experiments adding to the algae to help it grow. At the end of the several-week session, they will find their algae thriving.
Another project of the Hamama enables campers to create their own essential oils from plants. They mix mint and lavender grown at camp with peppermint and coconut oils and aloe vera to create their own sunburn cream and lip balm.
Molly Applefeld, 10, attended the activity with her Louise bunkmates, and made her own sunburn cream and used it to soothe her skin. She was impressed as she observed the hydroponics.
“I never saw anything like this before,” she says. “It was very cool to see the cycling water that got cleaned and you could drink it.” The incoming fifth grader learned about recycling water in an effort to not waste the natural resource.
Oren Wortman, 8, enjoyed making sunburn cream and mint oil. He also enjoyed hiking into the woods to catch crayfish from a stream. The fish were added to a mini habitat – a plastic pool – stocked with plants for camper observation.
“I didn’t know that crayfish lived under rocks,” adds Ian Wells, 9.
The open greenhouse project’s inception dates back 40 years when Israeli artist Avital Geva created an ecological greenhouse at Kibbutz Ein Shemer in northern Israel. The work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1993 and is permanently housed at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, where more than 800 Arab and Jewish, secular and religious, high school students visit regularly to experience the Hamama.
The program at Airy and Louise marks the first time an American summer camp has welcomed the project to promote sustainability, high-tech food production, water purification and climate change in an open and immersive setting. It’s a partnership that not only introduces an educational component that relates to Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics, but also enables campers to witness ways to experience growth through creativity and innovation.
Essential elements of Judaism are also related, including tikkun olam (repairing the world), which is “almost an English word,” according to Rabbi Shimon Felix, a veteran Israel educator who helped conceptualize and create the open greenhouses at Airy and Louise.
“It’s about social justice, making the world a better place and the environment,” he says. “It also relates to the creation of the world and Adam and Eve being put there to take care of it. That notion is presented in the greenhouse.”
Campers learn about the Jewish people’s responsibility to work the land and “protect it to make sure it’s there for future generations,” adds Joe Perlov, who traveled from Israel to launch the project at both camps.
The program also expands upon the camps’ already successful connection to Israel through the contingent of Israeli shlichim that work with the campers each summer.
According to Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of Airy and Louise, the program supports the values already in place at both camps.
“It complements our connection to Israel and Israeli innovation, society, and the Jewish people,” he says. “It connects campers to our Jewish roots and the land and being responsible to the environment.”
Also see: Postcards from Camp: Ian W., Camp Airy
Linda Esterson is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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