By Rudy Malcom
Baltimore is poised to become a national leader in the Jewish outdoor food, farming and environmental education movement.
On July 8, the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center and outdoor education site in Reisterstown and agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, announced that it would be merging with Hazon, the country’s largest faith-based environmental organization.
The new national organization, known as Hazon, will be based at the Pearlstone campus, with offices in New York and hubs at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut and Hazon in Detroit. Though operational integration will start this summer, the process of legally merging will take until 2022.
Through strategic partnerships and its own immersive programming, the merged organization will work to weave justice and sustainability into the fabric of Jewish life on the local, national and global levels.
Pearlstone CEO Jakir Manela, set to become CEO of Hazon on Aug. 1, said the merger highlights how Baltimore “represents one of the great centers of Jewish life in the 21st century.”
The idea for the merger came about during a search to replace Nigel Savage, the outgoing Hazon CEO, who informed the Hazon board last summer that he would be stepping down by this August. Manela was identified during the search process, and so arose the idea to merge Pearlstone and Hazon into one entity.
In addition to Manela becoming CEO, Eve Wachhaus, who is currently Pearlstone’s deputy director, will become chief operating officer of Hazon in August. She will also manage operations for Pearlstone’s campus, which serves as a venue for professional conferences, spiritual retreats and a bevy of life-cycle events.
The combined organization will manage a $12-million budget and more than 200 staff and reach nearly 50,000 program participants annually.
Retreat centers nationwide were hit hard by COVID-19. Last year, Pearlstone experienced a 90% reduction in sales revenue, specifically regarding the revenue from retreats, and a 65% reduction in force in late June. Similarly, COVID-19 forced Hazon to close its retreat center and cancel a variety of programs. There was a loss in revenue, and many staff members had to be let go.
Despite that, the merger is not due to job losses at either Pearlstone or Hazon, according to Manela.
“Both organizations have been and continue to be financially stable,” Manela said. “Doing the due diligence to make sure that was the case was an important factor during negotiations. Nobody was in a financial crisis. [The merger] was more so motivated by a sense of huge opportunity, an alignment of values, goals and visions, and how much stronger we could be together.”
Hazon’s retreat center now is fully booked for the rest of the year, and the organization has “strong program momentum going forward,” Savage said.
In spite of COVID-19, Manela said, Pearlstone has managed to reinvent itself, thanks to the work of its staff and supporters as well as The Associated. Programs have included an outdoor farm and forest school and an in-person summer camp.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Pearlstone kitchen staff have provided about 100,000 meals to communities in need.
“Pearlstone has been able to adapt, pivot, show great resilience and, in some ways, grow our impact in a very different way,” Manela said.
Manela described the Jewish outdoor food, farming and environmental education movement — which seeks to promote health, equity, and sustainability — as “one of the most powerful forces in Jewish life.”
“It’s not structured like a denomination,” he said, “but it has a depth of spirit, potential and resonance across denominations and age groups that speaks so deeply to the moment that we’re in — this historical inflection point for the Jewish people, for all of humanity, and for all of creation.
“For Baltimore to be the capital of this movement is really tremendous,” he said. “It’s critical not just for our community but for communities everywhere.”
Savage said the merger reflects the commitment and investment of Pearlstone and The Associated, which owns the Pearlstone property and provides Pearlstone with an annual unrestricted grant. At the beginning of the pandemic, The Associated also helped the organization secure a large paycheck protection program loan.
Savage believes that it will benefit the Jewish community to have a national organization headquartered in Baltimore — and not in New York, Los Angeles, Boston or D.C.
“Not only am I excited for the merger, but I think it makes sense,” Savage said. “The two organizations are almost twins with each other. This is really, really good for Baltimore.”
More than two decades ago, Savage got the idea to found Hazon while hiking in Israel during a break from his career as a professional fund manager in London.
“I was starting to see that the Jewish tradition didn’t enter human history in synagogues, in faith schools or in a JCC,” he said. “We entered human history in relation to the natural world.”
Indeed, in Judaism, holidays, religious practices and the calendar overall are “all understood within the context of nature and health,” Manela said.
Increasingly aware that humans were destroying the planet, Savage kicked off Hazon during the summer of 2000 with a transcontinental bike ride to bring awareness of environmental issues to the Jewish community.
According to Savage, Hazon has helped the Jewish outdoor food, farming and environmental education movement blossom by connecting Jewish tradition to food, community and justice.
Some of Hazon’s achievements include farm vacations, adult summer camps and Jewish holiday experiences at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, located in the foothills of the southern Berkshires in Connecticut. Their Adamah Fellowship, a three-month social justice program for adults in their 20s and 30s, blends farm-to-table living and community building with Jewish learning and spiritual practice. Additionally, Hazon founded a Jewish Youth Climate Movement in 2019.
“In general, organized Jewish life tended to change quite slowly until recently,” Savage said. “Year after year, we’ve steadily been willing to try things and create an atmosphere that really encourages other people.”
One practice that Hazon has made “less obscure,” Savage said, is shmita, or the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle as required by the Torah.
During this period of rest for the land, agricultural and economic adjustments are made to promote health, equity and justice.
Keeping with shmita — which begins this Rosh Hashanah in September — is one reason that Savage told the Hazon board last summer that he wanted to step down as CEO by this August.
Starting in January 2022, Savage will continue in a part-time role with Hazon from Israel. This October, he plans to participate in Hazon’s Israel Ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, which benefits the work of Hazon and the Arava Institute, one of the Middle East’s leading environmental academic and research institutions.
In 2001, not long after Hazon launched, Pearlstone’s physical space opened. Initially, its campus was 7 acres. In 2006, Manela founded Pearlstone’s Kayam Farm, which offers hands-on education and aims to inspire social and environmental responsibility. When Pearlstone’s neighbor, Camp Milldale, closed in 2015, The Associated repurposed the land, expanding Pearlstone’s scope to 180 acres.
“We’ve watched Pearlstone go from an idea to a retreat center to a thriving institution that we have long believed has significance beyond the boundaries of the Baltimore Jewish community,” founders Richie Pearlstone and Josh Fidler, past board chair P.J. Pearlstone and Associated President Marc Terrill said in a joint statement. “We are thrilled that Pearlstone will now be the home of what we expect and intend will become one of the most exciting institutions in American Jewish life in the coming decade and beyond.”
Pearlstone participates in The Associated’s large-scale solar project, which intends to offset each of its agencies’ electricity use with solar energy by 50%. Manela hopes the merger will encourage other Jewish communities to commit to reducing their carbon footprints, which also saves millions of dollars.
“The Jewish community has a unique capacity — and, I would argue, a moral obligation — in this historic inflection point,” Manela said. “The climate crisis is real, and it threatens the future of our planet.”
Savage noted how, in the days surrounding the announcement of the merger, British Columbia and Death Valley both hit record-high temperatures.
“In the end, COVID is a kind of wake-up call to the American-Jewish community, and to the world, about the need to plan for potential disruptions to human civilization,” he said. “And as huge as COVID-19 has been, it still pales besides the changes that a changing climate will bring.
“So as we merge with Pearlstone,” Savage said, “there are lessons to be learned and much work for us all to do.”
Of course, Savage won’t be spearheading the future of Hazon. But Savage is confident in Manela, referring to him as a “superb leader.”
“There’s a lot of hope, excitement and understanding of the enormity of the challenges we face within the Jewish community and across the planet,” Manela said. “We’re ready to step in and seize the moment.”
Rudy Malcom is a freelance writer.