In the 15 years of its existence on the unlikely outskirts of a major metropolis such as Baltimore, the 165-acre verdant rolling hills and seemingly endless vista of lush organic farmland known as the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center has had its fair share of eclectic visitors.
“Beyond the Jewish community, we’ve hosted Christian groups, Muslim groups, universities, government groups, birthday parties, corporate groups, as well as many others,” said 34-year-old Jakir Manela, who has been integral to Pearlstone’s development for the past decade and its executive director for nearly five years.
Originally from Montgomery County, Manela focused on Hebrew, Jewish and global environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 2004.
Manela became a Jewish environmental educator at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, where he met future Pearlstone program director Casey Yurow and Yurow’s wife, who was a young Jewish farmer at the time.
“We were inspired by that experience, and Pearlstone saw what was going on up there, then reached out to us in 2005 or 2006 to start something similar here,” Manela said. “So we did.”
With Yurow following shortly after, Manela was on his way, arriving at the center that was “already well-established and running; what we brought was the Jewish educational farm experience, which has really blossomed over the last 10 years.”
Pearlstone has become a major part of Manela’s life; he lives “just down the road” from the center located in the hinterlands of Reisterstown with his three sons and wife, who is a child birth educator and student midwife.
“It’s a big, beautiful campus,” marveled Manela, “and we are excited to expand our cultural component, spending a lot of time and energy on our ecosystem restoration work, as well as continued improvements to our biodiversity and environmental health.”
Though Pearlstone marked its 15th anniversary on Sept. 12, the facility held a large-scale community outreach event during the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 19, granting tours of its oceanic property and previewing plans for precipitous expansion of the grounds, including the bolstering of its baseball field and the development of a new amphitheater, vineyard and a “U-pick” or “pick-your-own” organic garden area.
Patrons will be able to stop into Pearlstone and gather their own blueberries, strawberries and pumpkins, with Pearlstone planning specialized festivals for the harvests to come.
“People will be able to pick all sorts of things, even flowers,” Manela said, adding that the unique farming enclave of the center should be ready for visitors around May/June 2018.
“It’ll all be available in one location, one that is near and dear to the Jewish community,” Manela said.
An agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which is also the owner of the grounds, Pearlstone’s outreach event invited business and nonprofit leaders from across the spectrum, including BGE CEO Calvin Butler, who spoke toward the end of the proceedings, haloed by a spectacular, fiery sunset backdrop.
“Calvin Butler is a great human being,” Manela said. “I have had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with him on a number of occasions; he’s a good listener.”
Pearlstone has been the recipient of BGE grants for environmental projects on the campus.
Pearlstone is a place where they can come with their kids, connect and feel inspired by this beautiful place.
— Jakir Manela, executive director of Pearlstone Center
“I thought one of the lines that he said at our event which resonated for me very deeply was something about being very humbled and honored finding himself as the leader of a major, 200-year-old corporation and waking up every day thinking about how he can use that platform for good.”
Manela was inspired by these words of Butler’s spoken for the audience of apt listeners, stomachs filled with all manner of delicious farm-to-table food that was being offered — including the likes of golden spaghetti squash au gratin and crumbly apple cobbler, all served with apropos bamboo wooden utensils.
Those not blithely under the influence of the halcyon, temperate weather or splendid, natural atmosphere of the farmland glowing with a pink radiance from the magnificent sunset may have been besotted by unique beverages served including an emerald sangria and fruit smoothies that visitors could blend themselves via an odd biking mechanism powered by pedaling.
“We aspire to the same approach as Calvin Butler’s,” Manela said. “How do we use our platform for good, for the benefit of the entire community?”
Manela clarified that though the Baltimore Jewish community is Pearlstone’s core and foundation, “we really are trying to reach out to those who may not otherwise engage with Jewish organizations and Jewish life, those for whom religion in general and Jewish life specifically may not resonate, even if they connect with the cultural aspects.”
“Jewish food, ethics, spirituality, sustainability, environmental ethics really do resonate with a broad swathe of the American public, including Jews, intermarried Jews and non-Jews,” Manela said. “Pearlstone is a place where they can come with their kids, connect and feel inspired by this beautiful place.”
The outreach event was something new for Pearlstone in scope and a larger attempt at “getting on the corporate radar and reaching out to the nonprofit community in a big way.”
Manela said this “new experiment for us” was therefore a terrific success, proclaiming, “I think we knocked their socks off.”