• Keith Michalak is grateful for the lessons he brought back from Israel to his farm in northern California

    Nathan Roi
Experience Israel

Wildfires won’t stop him

After learning organic farming in Israel on The Jewish Agency’s Masa program, Keith Michalak returned to the USA to farm in northern California. And though his farm was damaged in the wildfires last month, his passion for the environment continues. He is grateful for the lessons he brought back from Israel.

Last month, wildfires spread across northern California, destroying more than 245,000 acres of land, killing 43 people and injuring scores more. The fires also destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. Michigan native Keith Michalak’s farm did not escape the damage.

Two years ago, Michalak arrived in Israel for Masa’s Eco-Israel program – five months of living, working, and studying permaculture on a farm in Modiin. Today, he continues his journey, now on a farm in northern California.

An alum of the Masa-affiliated Eco-Israel program, today Keith Michalak spends his days learning and farming on an organic farm in northern California. Last month, that farm was evacuated as one of the wildfires approached. Keith and his friends and loved ones are safe, but the farm suffered significant damage.

Keith recently spoke with The Jewish Agency after returning to the farm, telling us about his experience during and after the fire. He also described the journey that led him from an ecologically focused Masa program to practicing permaculture and sustainable living in California.

“During the fires I found myself a little farther north, helping out my former farm, Live Power Community Farm,” he recalled, adding that the distance kept him safe from the fire, although even that farm was touched by the smoke. “I was just about to plant some lettuce when I noticed it was very smoky. It was so smoky you could look at the sun and not be affected. The internet and phones went down, so I knew something was wrong. I went on transplanting, although knowing something was off.”

With limited communication, Keith was left with little information about the condition of his home, his crops, and his friends and loved ones. “For one week, I stayed at Live Power, receiving updates via radio and praying that the fires were not burning down my current home and gardens,” he explained. “I was grateful to finally hear from my friends and partner that they were OK.”

After a week, the evacuation order was lifted, and Keith was able to return to his home. When he did, he found that while the people in his life were safe, the farm had been damaged and the air was still unsafe. “We returned to a smoky mountain, wearing breathing masks for the next couple of days,” he said. “Usually you can see the horizon, but now it is just all smoke. The fire is nearly contained now, but we still have not returned to the garden due to the smoke. The cats on the property seemed startled but are now happy we are back.”

From Masa to California

A native of White Lake, Michigan, Keith learned much of what he knows about sustainable agriculture while living in Israel. He first visited Israel on a Taglit-Birthright trip – a short experience that happened to introduce him to an ecological side of Israel. Inspired by that encounter, he decided to return to Israel for a longer period, this time to participate in the five-month Eco-Israel program on the Hava & Adam Eco-Educational Farm in Modiin. After five months of living, working, and studying permaculture as a participant in the Masa-sponsored program, he stayed on to serve as a counselor for the next cohort.

And since then?

“Since I left Hava & Adam, I have been determined to master the art of growing food and living harmoniously with the land. I have traveled to different parts of the United States including Michigan, Colorado, and California to apprentice under numerous farmers and learn different techniques,” he explained to The Jewish Agency. “I have most recently found a home in Mendocino County in northern California. After a season at the Oak Granary, I have decided to start a new endeavor with my friend Joshua and partner Jes. We are a part of the School of Adaptive Agriculture, and we will be starting an integrated farm business that includes livestock, a one-acre vegetable garden, and growing grains.”

Today, Keith looks back fondly on the time he spent at Hava & Adam, describing it as a formative experience.

 “I miss all my friends from the Hava so dearly. I have so much respect for the Hava and all the people who put their love and energy into making that place work. I am so grateful for my time there and all the things that I learned,” he told us. “The point of the Hava is to grow people. I can truly say I grew a lot during my time there.”

The most important lesson Keith has brought with him from Israel to California?

“I think what is helping me the most now is learning that many hands make light work,” he concluded. “I learned that in community you can accomplish tasks that when alone would seem rather enormous.”


This article was originally reported by Nathan Roi for The Jewish Agency for Israel

15 Nov 2017 / 26 Heshvan 5778 0
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