I just spent a magical Shabbat with 120 Jewish idealists, land-bound millenarians you might call them; spiritual, hopeful, cultural game-changers, seeking questions, answers and each other at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center. They came wanting to plant their feet and hands firmly in the soil with their hearts and spirits reaching for the heavens. They were mainly 20 and 30 somethings, along with a handful of their joyful children, who came to learn more about the modern application of ancient Jewish agricultural laws, the growing Jewish farm movement in America, how they can be a part of it and in the process, how they can help tranform this world.
They gathered here from around the country, called by Baltimore’s own Jakir Manela, the pied piper of Kayam, an organic, teaching farm at Pearlstone that seeks to give modern interpretation to ancient Jewish farming practices. Jakir, along with his educational director, Casey Yurow, and a handful of dedicated co-conspirators, are molding Kayam into a nationally recognized Jewish agricultural, educational center, and a model that communities around the country are looking to emulate.
Since its founding just three years ago, Kayam has hosted over 9,000 visitors of all ages, and many backgrounds, introducing them to the sacred, spiritual core of Jewish farming.
This gathering was nothing less than historic. I felt as if I were in the presence of the spirit of the moment that gave rise to the back-to-the-land movements that founded the kibbutzim in Israel, or the Am Olam (eternal people or people of the world) farm movement in America in the late 19th century.
Beersheva, Moses Montefiore, Lasker, Hebron, Gilead, Touro and Leeser are names of seven agricultural colonies founded in Kansas in the 1880’s and funded by German Jewish philanthropists. In 1903, we had a similar effort right here in Maryland, Yaazor, the Hebrew Colonial Society, a 351-acre commune that was on the border of Baltimore and Howard counties. (You can read more about it at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2008-03-30/news/0803300241_1_commune-colonial-society-shtetl)
Baltimore is once again quickly becoming a gathering point for dynamic, young, hands-on, hard-working, fun-loving, text-studying, land-enchanted idealistic Jews, a handful of whom also have in mind just maybe beginning a moshav of sorts, a collective gathering of like-minded, land-engaged families right here in Baltimore County. How wonderful for us would that be!
Others who were gathered at Pearlstone read like a who’s who in this still-marginal but emerging movement: the heads of Teva Learning Center, America’s foremost Jewish environmental educational organization (tevalearningcenter.org); The Jewish Farm School (whose mission is to practice and promote sustainable agriculture and to support food systems rooted in justice and Jewish traditions (http://www.jewishfarmschool.org); Eden Village camp, whose inaugural summer will launch this June (whose stated mission is to be an: environmental overnight camp for 3rd – 12th graders, supporting each camper in developing outdoor and leadership skills, exploring new interests and awakening a sense of positive Jewish identity, purpose, and joy); pioneering Jewish organic farmers and folks who are working hard to decipher the arcane rabbinic texts that detail the ancient laws.
The young people gathered this weekend are not alone. While they may be the most fabrent, the most passionate and committed to exploring this new way of life, they should also be seen as the leading edge of a generational wave of Jews blending food concerns, sustainability, earth care, social justice and Jewish values in a wholistic, vibrant, energetic life.
I hope to do more reading on the early American Jewish agricultural efforts and report back some of what I find.
Meanwhile, Baltimore should be proud of its home-grown pioneering effort that one day will be written in the annals of our history. We should all do our share to assist them - to build these lessons into our synagogue and day school curricula; to devote rabbinical school courses to the exploration and unpacking of such ancient texts; to train teachers who can carry this message to the entire community; to create institutions that offer hands-on opportunities to grow produce guided by Jewish law; to operate our Jewish institutions, our catering facilities, our simchas and our homes according to these fundamental values. And we should hope and pray that these pioneers meet with hatzlahah, grand success. For then we will all be winners.