Fresh mountain air, sublime prayer services, world-class speakers, and the best food I have ever eaten on Pesach. These were the highlights of my Pesach at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.
Isabella Freedman is nestled in the Berkshire Mountains and was established in 1897 as a summer retreat for Jewish women working in New York factories. It became a summer retreat for Jewish seniors in 1957, and since 1990, it has been open year-round with programming for people of all ages and backgrounds.
In 1994, Isabella Freedman introduced the Teva program, where elementary school students visit for four days to learn about Judaism and ecology. In 2003, they created the Adamah fellowship program, where Jewish young adults complete a two to three-month apprenticeship working on Isabella Freedman’s organic farm. Isabella Freedman is now owned by Hazon, a larger nonprofit dedicated to making environmental sustainability part of Jewish life.
The Isabella Freedman campus is rustic, beautiful, and versatile. Departing from the great dining hall down the pine needle-strewn path, one passes the arts and crafts building on the left and the cozy synagogue (with a capacity of 100) on the right. After that, one arrives at several weathered dormitories and a lakeside dock (which doubles as a mikvah). This five-minute walk ends at the goat barn, where five to seven goats (plus several newborn kids during the spring) can be visited by excited children … and adults. Hiking the mountain trails, boating on the lake, and swinging in hammocks on the lakeside are just a few ways we relaxed and rejuvenated over Pesach.
The Camp Teva program kept the children occupied while we attended the adult programs. There were several daily fixtures, such as morning yoga, meditation, and cantor-led Carlebach davening. Every day there were also five or more unique seminars and conversations on a broad range of topics, including archaeology, Jewish history, the challenges facing modern Jewry, improvisation games, and new takes on the Pesach story. Isabella Freedman brought more than two dozen presenters with diverse backgrounds to ensure the programs had something for everyone.
Accommodating each person’s interests and needs was a clear priority for the Isabella Freedman staff. In our first year at Isabella Freedman, there was a daily “musical hallel” program, where kids and adults could pick from many musical instruments and sing the daily hallel service together. When we learned that musical hallel was not on the agenda this year, we approached Isabella Freedman General Manager Adam Sher, and for the rest of Pesach it was back on the schedule.
At meals (under the supervision of the Orthodox Hartford Kashrut Commission), the chefs always included delicious options for vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free (gebrokts) entrees. Additionally, each dish on the buffet table was labeled with a list of allergens.
On the topic of food, Isabella Freedman’s meals are all organic and prepared from scratch in their on-site kitchen. Kiddush with fish, more than five types of cheese, homemade veggie spreads, and open bar? Check. Breakfasts with matzah brie, cheese, yogurt, cut fruit, and quinoa granola? Check. Dinners with beef/chicken, salad, a different soup every night, and honest-to-goodness blintzes? Check.
The meals often included ingredients from the Isabella Freedman farm, and all food waste was heaped daily onto one of four huge compost piles on the farm.
These compost piles, which literally plow the meals back into the field where they originated, are a fine metaphor for the overall experience at Isabella Freedman. By harnessing nature to build enthusiasm for Judaism, and drawing upon Jewish ideas to build enthusiasm for nature, Hazon helps make both more sustainable. And enjoyable.
By Gabe Aaronson