By Sharon Rosen Leib
Lee and Toni Leichtag were the embodiment of the American Dream. Both hailed from economically challenged backgrounds and grew to amass great wealth in their lives together, yet neither would ever forget where they came from.
“[They] viewed their wealth as a community resource,” Jim Farley, president and chief executive officer of the Leichtag Foundation says.
Upon their deaths, the Leichtags left 98 percent of their assets to the foundation bearing their name. Today, with its acquisition and repurposing of the 67-acre Ranch on Saxony Road in Encinitas (where Ecke poinsettias once grew), the Leichtag Foundation is carrying out the values its founders reflected throughout their lives.
“The Leichtags realized their early poverty made them vulnerable, which motivated them to help those most vulnerable – the very young and the very old,” Charlene Seidle, the Foundation’s executive vice president, says. “They were also entrepreneurs who embraced experimentation, investing in talent and risk taking. Their entrepreneurial spirit is manifested in what we’re doing here at the Ranch.”
The Leichtags lived and worked in North County and envisioned the area’s growing Jewish population as fertile ground for developing new forms of Jewish communal engagement. And, since the Foundation purchased the Ranch in December 2012, its activities have already attracted widespread attention.
The property has hummed with the energy of a new, young generation of Jewish leaders. Intent on reaching out and reigniting Jewish connection through issues that speak to their generation: the environment, sustainability, food justice and social action; Ranch leaders welcomed more than 1,000 participants at a September 2013 community-wide Sukkot celebration.
Shortly after moving onto the property, the Foundation launched the Jewish Food Justice Fellowship, a pilot professional development program. Defining food justice as “access to fresh, healthy, affordable and appropriate food for all,” the Fellowship’s goals include combating poverty by increasing food access and self-sufficiency and supporting a vibrant Jewish North County coastal community.
Rabbi Andy Kastner serves as the program’s director. He oversees the work of seven 20-somethings handpicked by the Leichtag Foundation to be the program’s first fellows.
“The Fellowship arose from our desire to build talent here from the ground up,” Seidle says. “We found the most creative people from this country and Israel. The fellows’ resumes demonstrate they are indeed the best and the brightest, including alums from Ivy League colleges and veterans of the most cutting-edge, global Jewish food programs, such as Urban Adamah in Berkeley, Calif. and the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens in Israel.”
This first Fellowship cohort began in September 2013 and will complete its service in December 2014. The Leichtag Foundation provides the fellows with housing on the Ranch property and a stipend. Each fellow works offsite three days a week pursuing food justice at a local non profit. Placements include Community Garden Support at the Community HousingWorks, an organization that encourages home ownership in underserved neighborhoods; and the North County Food Policy Council at North County Community Services, a non profit providing both a food bank and child development services to low-income families. One Fellow worked helping Oceanside preschoolers grow fruits and vegetables in raised beds on their playground. The preschoolers enjoy the healthy fruits of their labor at snack time.
The remaining two days a week, the Fellows work at the Ranch innovating new programs.
“We consider them a brain trust working in their respective specializations to further the Ranch’s development,” Rabbi Kastner says. “Most recently, they’ve been busy conceptualizing and planting a two-acre vineyard on Ranch property. Combining their mission of implementing and educating, the Fellows enlisted the help of community volunteers to build trellises and plant grapevines.”
In a barn on the Ranch, the Leichtag Foundation has built a wired, technologically advanced hotbed for Jewish social entrepreneurship. The Ranch’s North County Jewish Hub is a co-working space shared by 12 national and international organizations expanding their services and programs to North County. Each organization has its own small, contained office with large windows and a door opening up to large, airy, high-ceilinged meeting spaces. These spaces – furnished with bright orange plastic chairs, comfy wicker globe seating, retro Danish modern couches and ergonomic balance ball seats – serve as informal meeting areas designed to inspire collaboration and innovation.
“I feel like I’m sitting in a Jewish Community think tank,” Jessica Kronis, director of Hillel-San Diego, North County, says. “If I have a question about something going on, all I have to do is walk two steps out of my office and get answers.”
Kronis oversees Hillel programming at Cal State University San Marcos and Palomar and Mira Costa Colleges. Hillel groups from these colleges participated in the Ranch’s Sukkot kickoff and have hosted Shabbat dinners at the Ranch House adjacent to the Hub. The Ranch House, designed by famed architect Lillian Rice in 1935, was home to three generations of the Ecke family. The Leichtag Foundation beautifully restored and updated it to serve as a gathering place for its Hub partner organizations.
“It’s a joy to work with such a special, dynamic, collaborative group of individuals,” Naomi Rabkin, the Foundation’s director of strategic initiatives for North County Jewish life says of the Hub’s members.
Waters of Eden, San Diego’s Community Mikvah and Education Center, is a Hub organization led by Executive Director Rabbi Lenore Bohm. Waters of Eden has offered yoga classes at the Ranch and will be hosting a contemplative Shabbat retreat there in May.
Moishe House, the world’s largest organization serving post-college Jewish young adults aged 22-32, relocated its headquarters from Oakland, Calif., to the Ranch Hub in November 2013. The new location serves as a nerve center for Moishe House’s 25-person global staff, located in offices from London to Philadelphia. In existence for just 7 ½ years, Moishe House has built a network of 61 homes around the globe (including Sydney and Shanghai) that provide subsidized housing and community programming for young Jews seeking connection.
“We are like a research and development lab for different programs,” Moishe House’s Chief Program Officer Jordan Fruchtman says. “We have seven staff members here at the Ranch and are planning on adding a couple more by the end of 2014 so we can further our mission of reaching out and engaging young adult Jews in programming created by and for them.”
Fruchtman’s fast-talking, earnest enthusiasm makes it easy to understand why Moishe House events have attracted more than 80,000 attendees in less than eight years. Like many Hub members, he represents the go-getting, community-building spirit Lee and Toni Leichtag embodied.
Hazon, the nation’s largest Jewish environmental organization is the Hub’s newest addition. Since its founding in 2000, Hazon has engaged Jews in hands-on approaches to Jewish values via Jewish outdoor, farming, food and environmental education (encapsulated by the acronym JOFFEE). Hazon’s mission dovetails with the type of Jewish engagement the Leichtag Foundation is pursuing via the development of the Ranch’s Jewish Community Farm and other future projects.
Last month, Hazon released a study called “Seeds of Opportunity,” finding that JOFFEE experiences have a positive influence on participants’ Jewish attitudes and behavior, particularly those in the 18- to 39-year-old age range. The Leichtag Foundation co-funded this study and Seidle and Rabkin served on its advisory board.
“The study results align with what we learned from a series of focus groups we conducted in North County,” Seidle says. “People care about their health, the environment and social justice as meaningful ways to connect with other Jews and the community.”
The study also demonstrates that younger, unaffiliated participants appreciate the more open-minded and inclusive Jewish community JOFEE experiences provide.
“We want to collaborate with communities, funders and leaders to create more JOFEE experiences; to offer more Jewish people a chance to opt-in to Jewish life; and to enable the community to make a difference in the world,” Hazon’s founder and President Nigel Savage says.
Savage hopes the study, by providing tangible information about the outcomes of JOFFEE experiences, will inspire continued expansion of environmentally oriented programming.
“This report and its findings will be extremely valuable as we embark upon the development of Southern California’s first Jewish Community Farm here at the Ranch,” Seidle says.
“We envision the farm being a resource for the entire region. We’ll connect with the local food system including food banks and our neighbors – the San Diego Botanic Garden, YMCA, the Encinitas Union School District, Seacrest Village and the San Dieguito Heritage Museum – who will have the opportunity to learn about Jewish values on the Farm.”
The Foundation plans to break ground on the Farm this fall.
“We hope the Farm will be a model for other communities to impart Jewish values relating to the food system, the creation of self sufficiency and workforce and early childhood development,” Farley says.
He believes the Farm will be the “kind of space and integrated social enterprise people want to be in together.”
With all this development, the Ranch’s influence is poised to go global. Dr. Jeffrey Solomon, President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (innovators of the wildly successful international outreach program Birthright: Israel, amongst other successful endeavors), joined the Leichtag Foundation’s Board of Directors in December 2013.
“Dr. Solomon is considered the ‘Dean’ of Jewish philanthropies. He views the Ranch as a dynamic lab and demonstration ground of what the Jewish community will be like 20 years from now – how Jews can forge their identities through a spectrum of opportunities to connect in ways that are most meaningful to them,” Seidle says.
“The Ranch is a place where people are living Jewish values and practicing a Judaism infused with joy, celebration and gathering.”
Ultimately, the Leichtag Foundation’s greatest commitment is to building the next generation of Jewish leaders and philanthropists. The Ranch furthers the Leichtag legacy by nurturing and supporting young and innovative leaders to ensure a tangible, flexible and everlasting Jewish bond from generation to generation. Life on the Ranch, and by extension the Jewish future, has rarely looked better or been so full of promise.
The Ranch is located at 441 Saxony Road in Encinitas. To learn more, visit leichtag.org.