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.
My family gets together regularly with a group of dedicated carnivore friends for a feast including some combination of roast beef, schnitzel, sausages, and sometimes a roast goose. My contributions tend toward accessories like wine, vegetables and desserts, important but less glamorous. So I was excited when friends at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center recently offered me a quarter of a sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered goat: rib cage and a foreleg, in two large, bony pieces - a new food for me, and an adventure in ambitious meat eating.
Friends who had acquired goat quarters in earlier years had told me heroic tales of three-hour struggles to butcher and bone their prizes. This was out of the question for me. I didn’t mind long periods of unattended marinating or baking, but I couldn’t commit that much active time to a single one of the many tasty things I was going to serve that shabbat. But that struggle also seemed completely unnecessary. I own an awesome meat cleaver and I know how to use it. But I also knew that my oven would make even the toughest meat come off those bones all on its own – and put the goodness of the bones into my finished dish at the same time. So from the first I planned an on-the-bone oven braise.
I don’t often get the opportunity to read books about people I know in real life. Something about the written word is a distant and surreal fantasy world sandwiched between two hard covers. Even if I was reading about real characters, they were never real to me.
However, in reading Fred Bahnson’s newest book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, I had the thrilling opportunity to read about people I really know and work with regularly (yes, Fred Bahnson, hirsute is exactly the right word to describe that man, and yes, he is like a benevolent king). Knowing that the people that Bahnson describes in his spiritually uplifting memoir really exist, made the book all the more incredible. It reminded me of my favorite Margaret Meade line “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.
In this memoir, Bahnson recounts four life changing experiences that led him to become the founding director at Anathoth community garden, and current director of the Food, Faith & Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. His stories are rich, passionate, and honest. They are chronicles of thoughtful, committed individuals working to change the world. Here are just some of passages that made me wonder how I can change the world too:
Hazon’s mission is a lofty one.
It’s so big that I set out to see if all that talk was for real at the Hazon Food Conference, the eighth gathering of the New Jewish Food Movement. With 260 participants gathered at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center over Shabbat Hanukkah we set out to learn about social justice, food ethics, Jewish values and much more, I figured I would get a real sense of the authenticity of Hazon’s ambitious mission by spending four days “talking” food and learning more about Hazon’s focus on creating healthier and more sustainable communities.
This year it seemed that even the Sugar Maple Trees at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT celebrated Purim. We’ve been tapping about 30 trees over the last three weeks, during this short late-winter maple syrup tapping season. On the day before Purim, unlike any other day until now, some of the buckets were bone dry. Maybe the trees were reminding me to fast? Purim night, conditions were terrible for sap flow; the temperature stayed above freezing all night and by nine in the morning it was already over fifty degrees. The trees flow best when it dips below freezing at night and reaches forty degrees during the day, so I would never have predicted that by eleven o’clock on Thursday morning most of the buckets would be full to the brim with cool sweet sap.
Appropriately, on the night of Purim the trees couldn’t tell the difference between good conditions and bad conditions. Thursday morning, I did a mad dash to collect all the sap before the buckets overflowed.
We’re a few weeks in to the New Year, and for those of us who have sworn off (again) from eating that second piece of cake, and resolved to take the stairs and park an block away, the novelty may be wearing off. Losing weight is the most common New Year’s Resolution according to the New York Times, and one of the toughest. It involves exercise, diet and a willingness to adjust your routine; in some cases, the third is the hardest part of all.
The Times health section the first week of January had a large (no pun intended) feature on weight loss camps, many of them in the southwest, where you can pay upwards of $2,500 - $5,000 for a week of exercise, carefully balanced meals, and a luxury atmosphere that not only feels like a treat, it takes you enough out of your daily routine to make new habits possible.
Sounds great. But oy, such a cost. And what to do if you keep kosher!?
Sukkot is the holiday that celebrates the autumn harvest. The last of the three annual pilgrimage festivals on the Jewish calendar (if we’re counting from Pesach), these were the days in ancient times when our ancestors would gather the best of their seasonal produce and travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks as a community. In modern times, the communal table often takes the place of the Temple, bringing people together to give thanks for the abundance of the harvest. At the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s Sukkahfest more than a hundred people from all denominations of Judaism come together to celebrate and give thanks for the fruits of the season. Participants are able to see firsthand the source of their sustenance, with opportunities to visit our farm, orchard, and barnyard. Another way to show gratitude for the abundance of the harvest, and to continue to feed oneself with locally grown produce through the colder months, is preservation.
At Isabella Freedman we make every effort to utilize our farm’s produce when it is a fresh as possible — when it tastes the best and has the most nutritional value. Much of the produce grown on the Adamah farm is made into live cultured, lacto fermented pickled products. After the first frost in the fall, cabbages are harvested, chopped, salted, and made into sauerkraut. Scallions, daikon radishes, carrots, Napa cabbage, and hot peppers are mixed together to create our spicy kim chi. The last of the season’s hot peppers are mixed with sugar and cooked down to produce Bomb Jelly. After the jelly is finished cooking, it is poured into sterilized jars and canned, making a shelf stable product that can be stored anywhere in the kitchen. Lacto fermentation and canning are two time-tested preservation methods. One can imagine our ancestors marveling at their harvest of cucumbers, cabbages, or beets and covering the abundance in a brine of salted water to keep for the coming seasons.
Many people believe that there is no place better to live than a big city, but Adam Berman, Executive Director of Urban Adamah in Berkeley, California, thinks so for different reasons than most. Following his dream to take Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship “to the next level,” Berman has gathered a dozen like-minded young fellows to help him get the first independent Jewish community urban farm off the ground — literally.
Berman, who founded Adamah in 2003, during his seven years directing the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, felt it was important to establish a farming and social justice fellowship in an inner-city setting, where more people would have access to the farm’s produce and programs. The fellows, too, would have greater and more direct access to social justice initiatives addressing what Berman refers to as the “dysfunctional ago-economic system” and related issues of poverty and food security.
(Watch the video below, in which Urban Adamah fellows show how to grow food in an urban area.)
“Goats are the Jews of the animal kingdom,” Aitan Mizrahi told a group at the Hazon Food Conference on Friday morning. The workshop participants, gathered in the warm, cream-scented air of a small industrial kitchen at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, immediately picked up on the tongue-in-cheek theme: They wander, they are intelligent, and they are stiff-necked, they said. And, Mizrahi pointed out, “They enjoy to be in a minyan and they also enjoy to go off on their own and shmooze.”
So the gentle and friendly milk-producers make a perfect fit for Freedman, an eco-conscious retreat space in the Berkshires.
During the session, Mizrahi described how the annex of the center’s staff housing where farming fellows make fermented delicacies, called the Cultural Center, turns goat milk into cheese and “goatgurt.” offering samples and sprinkling his presentation with biblical references. He and Adamah fellows Mònica Gomeryand Rachel Freyja Bedick also explained how the participants could turn their own kitchens into cultural hot spots.