Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, "Sweet Earth". A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many also boast noteworthy eco-friendly features. In this series of stories, we'll visit North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Tennessee, and learn about their founders’ visions.

Eretz HaChaim, Sunderland, Massachusetts, May 2005

Eretz HaChaim (Hebrew for “the living land”) is a kosher, organic communal farm, founded in 2002 by Ultra-Orthodox Jews under the leadership of Rabbi Chaim Adelman. The commune, still in formation as of this writing, owns seventy acres of land.

Following an early Jewish rule that presages modern sustainable farming practice, every seventh year they will let their land lie fallow. In accordance with the Torah, the “corners” of their fields will be left to the poor—if no poor show up to glean, the produce from the corners will be donated to charity. As Orthodox Jews they cannot milk cows on Saturdays, so gentiles will perform the task on that day. Their kosher organic chickens will not be fed grain during Passover. The community plans to be self-sufficient, with a synagogue, schools, a ritual bath and a swimming pool (the Talmud, a body of Torah interpretation, says that children must be taught to swim).

Eretz HaChaim is part of a larger return to a Jewish farming tradition. Sweet Whisper Farm in Readsboro, Vermont, specializes in organic education and maple syrup harvested using horse-drawn wagons. Mitzva Farms in Waukon, Iowa, produces Yetta’s Chedda, A Bis’l Swiss’l and Mazel Rella.

This story originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

Slices of heaven: Massachusetts
Joel Sternfeld's photographs of American utopias.