Cultivating Our Roots
Cultivating Our Roots at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center
My local farmers ’ market at South Farms has an exceptionally diverse selection of fresh produce and locally made goods. This is where I met a group participating in the Adamah Fellowship who were offering kimchi, pickles, green tomatoes, sauerkraut, other lacto-fermented goods (a pickling method that only uses salt), jams, and syrup. Their enthusiasm for their products was infectious, their positivity was radiant. While completing my pickle purchase (because there is nothing better than a fantastic pickle), I asked them where they were from, and they said in unison, “Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village.” They went on to explain that they were working on a 10-acre certified organic farm, planting, tending, harvesting, and preparing the products they were selling.
Naturally, I had to learn more, as this sounded simply fascinating.
As the daughter of a Polish Jewish mother and a Sicilian Catholic father, I was exposed to fragments of both religions. Our religious observance represented a superficial intermingling: we would light a menorah beside a Christmas tree. I had matzo brei and potato latkes on Easter Sunday. My mother faithfully lit Yahrzeit candles to memorialize her parents’ deaths. As a child, I delighted in my equal opportunity position; I received Chanukah gelt AND Christmas presents. As an adult, I continue to observe a bit of both religions, but ultimately, I consider myself an agnostic Jew. I have always been curious about Judaism and find the faith’s traditions extremely authentic and meaningful, but WWII decimated nearly half of my family tree. Seeking information outside my family seems very intimidating— so who could I turn to and not humiliate myself with painfully obvious ignorance?
I set up my meeting with the staff at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center for this article. In preparation, I wore my Star of David necklace as a less-than stealth gesture of camaraderie. I was immediately disarmed and greeted with warmth and genuine hospitality by Jess Berlin, Director of Retreats. As I fumbled through pronunciations and asked for assistance, no one made me feel anything other than embraced. In fact, their modus operandi heavily focuses on pluralism, welcoming “participants of all religious backgrounds and none,” so regardless of how deep your devotion to Jewish observance, you will be supported and accommodated.
...regardless of how deep your devotion to Jewish observance, you will be supported and accommodated.
... possibly one of the most pastoral and pin-drop-quiet places I've ever been.
Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center occupies 400 acres in the Berkshires of Northwest Connecticut—possibly one of the most pastoral and pin-drop-quiet places I’ve ever been. There are many buildings, including guest accommodations, staff housing, a barnyard of goats, a chicken coop, a synagogue, a dining hall, a bookstore, a library, two yurts, and the aforementioned 10-acre organic farm. There is even a pool and a lake to cool off during summer’s heat.
Originally incorporated in 1893, Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center was known as the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society. It served as a subsidized rural summer retreat for New York City garment workers who lived and worked in deplorable conditions. By 1917, they were assisting more than 800 women annually, providing much deserved rest and recuperation in the healthful out-of-doors. Jess told me some of their historic records charted how much weight their vacationing ladies gained, which was considered a great accomplishment given their poor condition upon arrival. In 1956, they adopted the name of Isabella Freedman, to honor one of their philanthropic board members, and relocated to Falls Village. Since then, programs and events have multiplied and transformed to serve men, women and children.
While on my tour of the property, we were joined by Rebecca Bloomfield (Director of Adamah), Janna Siller (the Adamah Farm Director), and Janna’s adorable daughter. They all function under the umbrella of Hazon. Confused yet? I was. Here is how I tried to make sense of it.
Based in lower Manhattan, Hazon (“vision” in Hebrew) is the Jewish lab for sustainability - a nonprofit organization that promotes creating a healthy, sustainable Jewish community through food, the outdoors, and the environment. With 80 employees, Hazon operates five locations nationwide, including Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, which hosts from 5,000 to 6,000 people annually on its own.
The retreat opportunities at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center seem countless. Their calendar is chock-full of diverse options, such as a two-week retreat for active adults 55 and older, a six-day emersion in Torah Yoga (combining the study of the Torah and the practice of Yoga), a weekend of Jewish song sharing and learning, and the annual New York Ride & Retreat, where bicyclists of all abilities are invited to ride between 30 to 160 miles over Labor Day weekend.
Also hosted at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is the Annual Food Conference (August 1-5, 2018). Now in its 13th year, upwards of 250 guests partake in over 90 workshops and hands-on demonstrations from chefs, farmers, activists, artists, and community leaders. This year Michael Twitty is a guest, just off his win of the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Book of the Year Award for his book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. It is worth mentioning that Michael is AfricanAmerican, Jewish, and gay, which I believe earns this organization super high marks for placing acceptance and inclusion over religious dogma.
“....fully immerse yourself in farm-to-table living, Jewish learning, community building, social justice, and spiritual practice.”
In addition to their yearround retreat schedule, Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is home to the previously mentioned Adamah Fellowship, which has been in existence since 2003. The fellowship currently offers three programs annually, inviting adults ages 20 to 35 to live on property for eight to 13 weeks in order to fully immerse themselves in farmto-table living, Jewish learning, community building, social justice, and spiritual practice. This program offers a sliding scale fee, so no one is turned away for lack of funds. Adamah is able to subsidize their rates thanks to generous benefactors and revenue earned by the products they grow and sell. In addition to lactofermented goods, they also offer a CSA in Falls Village (there are remaining shares for 2018) or in West Hartford (sold out for 2018), selling a variety of organic produce from lettuces, onions, herbs, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, and many other items. This program is also offered on a sliding scale for people experiencing financial hardships. See their website for details.
More than 30 organizations and business have sprung from Adamah Fellowship alumni, such as Shoresh and Linke Fligl.
Shoresh (“root” in Hebrew) was started by alumna Risa Alyson Cooper, as well as alumna Sabrina Malach, their Director of Engagement. Shoresh serves the Greater Toronto Area and works to connect people, land, and Jewish tradition. They work with community organizations to promote nature-based Jewish education. They also grow organic produce, plant trees for reforesting, have a four-acre bee sanctuary, and provide training for at-risk community members, enabling them to be food secure and healthy.
Linke Fligl (“left wing” in Yiddish) is a queer Jewish Chicken Farm in Millerton, New York, started by Adamah alumni Margot Seigle and Adin Zuckerman. They are of Ashkenazi descent (as am I), welcoming Jews of all lineages and traditions. In addition to raising heritage-breed chickens, they host land-based gatherings for Jewish holidays and have a homesteading garden where they host community work days and grow organic heirloom vegetables for preservation and programs.
All of the chickens at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center are heritage birds from Linke Fligl. Heritage breeding guarantees that the birds are naturally mating, have long productive outdoor lifespans, have slow natural growth rates, and that their genetic line can be traced back multiple generations, as documented and approved by the American Poultry Association (APA).
As if that isn’t enough, Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center also allows organizations and individuals the ability to rent the property for their own retreats, events, celebrations, and weddings. Packages can include a variety of options, such as renting buildings, rooms, and sleeping accommodations, as well as onsite catering with property-sourced produce, supplemented by locally sourced produce and proteins. They also serve up a tried-and-true list of local vendors to fulfill your every need. In fact, Jess is getting married on the property this September.
At the end of my visit meaningful hugs were shared. Then Jess offered me the opportunity to be her guest at the retreat center for an upcoming event… and I feel this is just the open the door I need in order to embrace and learn more about my Jewish heritage, as well as learn how food and sustainability can play a role in my life and culture. I’m really looking forward to this experience.
One of the recipes the Adamah fellows make during their weekly homesteading session (where they learn skills to preserve the harvest and process whatever is in abundance on the farm) is Freezer Jam. Freezer Jam requires less time, less sugar, and produces jam that tastes closer to the original fruit than cooked jam. Be aware, Freezer Jam is runnier than jam you’re used to and it needs to stay refrigerated. But you can keep it in any container you already own and don’t have to worry about the complexities of water bath canning used for cooked jam.
Strawberry Freezer Jam
• 1 pound fresh strawberries
• 1 ¼ cups sugar
• Juice of ½ lemon
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1. Clean, slice, and mash strawberries.
2. In a sauce pot, combine mashed strawberries, lemon juice, mint, and sugar on medium heat. Bring to a boil, and continue at a low boil, stirring often, until it thickens (about 30 minutes). Transfer jam to a clean container and let it cool before storing it in the fridge or freezer. Makes a great spread for challah toast!