Many of us raising families and managing full time jobs have ideals about family time, environmental responsibility and Jewish engagement. These are things we know are really important both for the cohesion of our families and for the long term viability of our communities. Truly though, in trying to get it all done, these values get pushed aside as we attend to the immediate needs of scheduling and then living the rat race that we so carefully planned for ourselves. I know that we need more down time, that we need to cherish food and family, and work towards meaningful spiritual engagement, but I have difficulty making those ideals fit into the teetering Jenga structure that is my work / life / family / community balance.
Enter Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and you get to peek into a community that operates the way life would be lived, if our values and priorities matched up.
It is a vacation from the hectic chaos of our lives- but not in a cheesy, 24 hour tea room, “rah rah” activities director, not a care in world, tune out life and be on vacation kind of way. The daily operations at Isabella Freedman allow you to explore and partake in a farm to table life and explore Judaism and its influence on agriculture. You can watch your children explore God’s bounty and fully understand how blessed we are to have it, and our responsibility to sustain it.
My family spent a week in the beautiful hills of Falls Village, CT hiking, boating, wild berry picking, flower wreath making, harvesting, composting and learning at Isabella Freedman. We woke up early to milk goats and then made “capriccinos”. We collected eggs from the chickens, which my children were surprised to learn come out in different colors; not like at the supermarket where they are all uniformly shaped. We harvested vegetables that made their way into our soups and salads. We learned about permaculture, and create an environment to feed the pollinators and what could happen if God forbid, these pollinators ceased their vital work. Entering under a sign that says “V’yaar Elohim Ki Tov” and “and God saw that it was good” (highlighting the pleasure that God felt on third day having created grass, herb yielding seed, and tree bearing fruit, forests and vegetation) we explored a food forest with its 60 different plant varieties and snacked on berries and tomatoes we picked. We learned the medicinal properties of the wild herbs and tasted freshly foraged plants.
Shamu Sadeh, the Director of Adamah explained to us how maple syrup is made, and when my son asked about a hole in the Maple tree, I shared what Shamu taught – how it takes 40 gallons of carefully collected sap, boiled down to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. He understood why drowning his plate in syrup and then throwing most of it out was disrespectful to the tapped tree and the people involved in preparing it.
Separating our compostables at meal times, and then bringing the dining halls food scraps to the compost piles, watching the chickens pick through and aerate the piles and then rubbing our fingers through the (surprisingly) deliciously clean smelling dirt that were stinky compost piles a few months ago, helped us understand the cyclical, self healing properties of God’s incredible earth.
We understood why God gave Adam the responsibility of tilling the soil, the gift its bounty as payment for his labor. Shmita is something I’ve learned about as a distant concept, something done in another place by other people. At Isabella Freedman we had the chance to explore the implications of over farming, and look carefully at our buying and consuming practices.
One of the women had her mikvah night scheduled during our stay at the retreat. At first she considered driving to the nearest synogogue, but when she learned that beautiful Lake Miriam which the cabins encircle is also a body of flowing water, and a halachically permissible mikvah, she asked if I would watch her toivel (purify). And so, in the blackness of the night we went to the lake. As she undressed and submerged in the placid water, under the stars, in the quiet space, secluded by the towering trees, I felt more connected to this rejuvenating monthly practice than I had ever been. How viscerally bound I felt to the generations of women before me, who quietly walked to the nearest body of water with a friend or spiritual mentor to purify themselves in the healing bodies of flowing water.
During that week many of the spiritual and religious practices that I had taken for granted had become so meaningful to me. It wasn’t just that my family enjoyed a remarkable week removed from our normal reality. Spending a week at Isabella Freedman gave us the opportunity to live and explore something so intuitive and remarkable.
We reveled in the carefree, nature filled environment, but also began to understand how as Jews, our relationship with the earth and our relationship with God are intertwined. So many of our Halachic and Biblical guidelines pertain to farming and tilling the earth – because the way we inhabit and manage the earth reflects our respect to its creator. To view Godliness without exploring the intricacies of nature’s cycles is to be missing a significant piece of spirituality. The week as Isabella Freedman was not just a vacation / retreat- it was space and experience that helped us redefine our values as Jews and hopefully incorporate some of these practices in our lives.