Beekeeping a sweet hobby for Baltimore rabbi at Rosh Hashana

With the nation’s honeybee population still in decline, as it has been for more than a dozen years, something of a resistance movement has come to life in the humblest of places: America’s backyards.

The number of Americans raising bees on their own property has doubled over the past 10 years, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. The growth rate has been similar in Maryland, where about 2,000 people have become hobbyists. More than 70 are in Baltimore.

With her single hive of 20,000 Western honeybees, Rabbi Kelley Gludt is far from the biggest player on Baltimore’s backyard beekeeping scene. But this time of year, she might be the most devoted.

Rosh Hashana, the two-day Jewish New Year, begins at sundown Sunday. When it does, Jews around the world will dig into a variety of sweet-tasting traditional foods, and honey will play the same central role in those customs it has for thousands of years.

Gludt and her husband, Rob, began harvesting the honey from the hive in their Mount Washington yard this week as they do shortly before Rosh Hashana every year, and the process of reaching inside and removing just enough of the sweet stuff — and no more — reminded her, as usual, of how profoundly the hobby reflects the meaning of the holiday, one of the most important on the Jewish calendar.

“Jews all know the tradition of dipping apples in honey [for Rosh Hashana] and how it represents the hoped-for ‘sweetness’ of the new year,” said Gludt, the director of educational programming at Beth Am Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Reservoir Hill. “But honey from bees also carries that sting of God’s judgment as well as the sweetness of God’s mercy.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about [beekeeping] at Rosh Hashana. These are exactly the things we embrace during the High Holy Days.”

Gludt, a self-described “hippie mom” who also raises chickens and vegetables when she’s not in the office at Beth Am, is a rare breed: If there’s another beekeeping rabbi in central Maryland, leaders in the beekeeping community are unaware of it.

“I suppose it’s possible; I work with a lot of beekeepers, and I don’t always know what they do, but I’ve certainly never heard of one,” said Beth Sherring, president of the Baltimore Backyard Beekeepers Network, a group that promotes local urban beekeeping.

But Gludt, a graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, is far from alone in understanding the importance of honey in Jewish religious tradition. The sweet, sticky stuff seems to show up everywhere.

An early appearance is in the Book of Exodus, when God is described as promising Moses he’ll one day bring the Israelites to “a land flowing with milk and honey” — metaphors, most agree, for a place of prosperity, ease and abundance. The only female judge mentioned in the Bible was Deborah, whose name in Hebrew, “Devorah,” means “bee.”

And bee honey figured centrally in the Old Testament story of Samson, who is said to have found a beehive and honey in the skeleton of a lion he’d killed with his bare hands, a discovery central to the riddle he posed to the Philistines.

The sweet stuff became central to Jewish cuisine over the millennia, especially on Rosh Hashana, a holiday that also marks the start of the High Holy Days, or Days of Awe.

During that 10-day span, observant Jews reflect on past misdeeds, ponder the implications of their errors, make atonement through prayer and fasting, and hope for the clean slate and clear mind that come with divine forgiveness.

Most famously, the central home ritual of Rosh Hashana involves dipping apple slices in honey, a custom traditionally carried out during the recitation of a special prayer for Shana Tova U'metukaa good and sweet year.”

Ashkenazi Jews have long made lekach, or honey cake, a sweet staple of the holiday as well, and boil teiglach — small knotted traditional pastries — in a honeyed syrup. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews dip challah, the traditional braided bread, in honey at meals throughout Rosh Hashana.

Truth be told, scholars say, most mentions of honey in the Old Testament refer not to the variety made by bees but to a kind derived from dates. Somewhere along the line, though, bee honey emerged as the holiday staple.

Gludt says it’s unclear why and when that happened, but she sees the change as fitting.

Taking part in the hobby, she points out, has its painful elements. Startup costs can run between a few hundred dollars for hive structures and bees, and a few thousand, depending on the equipment one chooses. And the learning curve can be steep. Most newbies either take classes, as Rob did at the Maryland Agricultural Center, or study plenty of books, as Gludt continues to do.

She’d have taken the classes too, she said, but they were offered only on Sunday mornings, when she’s busy at the synagogue.

She has never been stung — one avoids that fate by staying out of the bees’ flight paths, she says — but she frets endlessly over the well-being of the insects she calls “my girls.” Her major worry is colony collapse disorder, the still poorly understood condition many blame for the steep drop in honeybee numbers since about 2005.

Winter, the harshest season of the apiary year, always brings population loss, but the setbacks are ideally offset as the weather warms. The winter of 2005-2006 spelled crisis, though, as some beekeepers reported plunges of between 50 and 90 percent. Overwinter losses have eased since then, settling in at an average of about 28.6 percent annually, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a national nonprofit. But that’s still dangerously higher than the maximum healthy threshold of 15 percent.

If the slide continues, Gludt says, it would threaten both the species’ survival and the food supply; fully one third of all Americans’ diet consists of products pollinated by bees.

Like many new beekeepers, the Gludts took up the hobby as a means of pushing back

“My son, Romi, is 10, and I worry that he won’t be able to buy a zucchini when he’s 30. That’s how serious this is,” the rabbi says. “I think everyone who’s able to have a hive should have a hive.”

It was three years ago that Gludt, already raising her chickens and vegetables, learned that a fellow Beth Am congregant, Lindsay Feldman, was a beekeeper who kept hives for students at her workplace, Independence School Local I in Hampden.

When Feldman’s hives swarmed three springs ago, she put 6,000 bees in a wooden box and brought them to the Gludts’. The colony has grown every year, and a single-level hive has expanded to four levels, or “supers.”

On Thursday, it was Rob Gludt who donned the protective hood and removed and inspected the honey-bearing “frames.” One had enough honey to process. The Gludts planned to try again before the holiday, and expected, as usual, to harvest just enough to share with a few close friends and family members — and to fill their own jar for the year.

To the rabbi, the whole process — like the holiday itself — offers a rejuvenating glimpse of the eternal.

Sometimes, she says, when everyday stresses mount, she simply heads to her back deck and watches the bees, each one somehow knowing its role in a larger effort to thrive.

“The world can seem like such a mess that you end up feeling nothing miraculous can really happen,” she says. “Then I watch the bees fly, and I see how they know their place in their community, and it’s just so hopeful. It’s the miracle of creation, and it’s right there in my backyard.”

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