Farm in Reisterstown seeks to make connection with faith's agricultural roots and traditions

The Baltimore Sun

In a Reisterstown field, a circular garden connects nature with the months of the Jewish calendar and ties agriculture to Jewish heritage.

The Gan Luach Zman, or calendar garden, is one example of how a Jewish retreat center in Baltimore County is marrying sustainable farming principles with the traditional practices described in Jewish texts to teach children and adults about Jewish culture and the environment.

The Kayam farm at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown strives to reunite Jews with their agrarian roots while drawing connections between people and the planet, social justice and stewardship. Kayam means "firmly established," or "rooted."

"We felt like we had such a wonderful opportunity in this setting to try to recapture some of those links and try to illustrate [them] to all the different kinds of groups that come here," says Carol Pristoop, Pearlstone's executive director.

In recent years, a growing number of Jewish groups are focusing attention not just on whether meals are fit for consumption under the traditional dietary laws, but also expanding the definition to include the sustainability of the food source, a concept some are calling "eco-kosher."

For example, Jewish community-supported agriculture programs have been organized in 10 locations, including Israel, says Judith Belasco of Hazon, a New York-based Jewish environmental organization. A Washington group has begun the first such kosher meat program, she says.

"What we eat and the choices we make about food are very influenced by our Judaism as well," Belasco says.

During a recent visit to Pearlstone, children attending Camp Milldale planted cayenne pepper plants in the calendar garden, which is divided into 12 sections representing the months of the Jewish year. The peppers are a reminder of the pain of Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Not far away, five small wooden boxes represent different expressions of rules governing the mixing of crops as spelled out in the first book of Mishna, part of the Talmud, a compilation of interpretations of Jewish scripture written thousands of years ago.

"It feels like a lab, sort of," says Gabriel Greenberg, a farm educator. "We're reading this really obscure text and trying to put it in the ground."

Aaron Shamberg, a landscape designer who studied Jewish farming in Israel and Baltimore, is leading the Mishna Gan sessions on Sundays.

"The goal is to learn these laws through experience as opposed to just reading the ancient text," he says. "For me it's about integrating a sense of Jewish history with land. We've lost touch with a lot of these principles and concepts."

Connecting seasons

Jonathan Helfand, a professor in the Jewish studies department at the City University of New York, says the yearly cycle of ritual and Jewish law forces a connection with the seasons.

"You cannot really be a conscious Jew without being conscious of the environment," he says. "Any faith that has the biblical tradition has to have a touch with nature."

From studying the texts, it's possible to see "how 2,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago, Jewish thinkers recognized how important stewardship of the earth is," Pristoop says. "There is so much material written in the Talmud about how you approach the land and what kind of crops you grow in proximity to each other."

Many of the rules govern responsibility to the underprivileged. For example, crops from the corners of fields are reserved for the poor, strangers and widows. Produce that falls to the ground is also the property of the poor.

The laws make people "not just conscious about agriculture and the environment but really conscious of who it belongs to," Helfand says.

"It means they have rights on the land just as you have," he says. "It's not charity. It goes beyond social justice. It's the rights of the poor."

At the Kayam farm in Reisterstown, that practice has been adapted for modern times. The farm has given about 10 percent of its yield to groups such as the Ahavas Yisrael charity fund, which provides food discreetly to needy families, and the Hannah More Shelter in Reisterstown.

"We're trying to embody the biblical agricultural heritage, but in a modern context it takes some adaptation to do that," says Jakir Manela, the farm's director.

Some laws are universally followed, such as not benefiting from the yield of fruit trees for three years after they are planted. Others, such as the principle of letting fields go fallow every seven years, apply only in Israel.

"I don't think there's a clearer way of teaching farmers at least that the land is really not theirs in greater perpetuity," Helfand says. "The law conveys this message of proprietorship of the land not really being in man's hands."

Dick Goldman, Pearlstone general manager, agrees.

'Caretakers'

"This is the premise on which the entire Jewish environmental movement is built: We are caretakers; we are responsible for taking care of it," he says.

The farm uses a drip irrigation system, developed in Israel, that delivers water to the base of each plant, Manela says. It also relies on contour plowing - following the hillside - to prevent soil erosion.

Pearlstone serves kosher food to its guests under the supervision of Star-K, including produce from the farm that makes its way to the retreat's kitchen. For example, inspectors apply tests to ensure that fruits and vegetables are free of insects, including holding some leaves of lettuce against a light box to check for camouflaged bugs.

To meet the standards, the center has recently purchased an ordinary clothes-washing machine that will be sterilized and prepared to wash lettuce from the farm, to remove any insects.

A few cash crops

The farm leaders plan to grow a few cash crops such as culinary herbs and tomatoes and peppers to remain financially solvent, says Manela.

They have collected more than 2,000 pounds of produce, some of which is used in Pearlstone's kitchen. The rest is sold at farmers' markets and the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.

In addition to an insectarium, grapevines and vegetable crops, the Kayam staff planted several gardens to draw a relationship between Jewish principles and the land.

The Gan Adam, or the person garden, is shaped like a human form. In the feet the children planted beets, a root crop. They put carrots in the area for the eyes because they improve vision, and red tomatoes at the heart.

During a recent visit, children from Camp Milldale planted pepper plants in the circular Gan Luach Zman.

Farm educator Rebecca Lemus told them about tefachim, a unit of measure described in the Torah as the length of one's fist. "When you're going to plant, you're going to plant three tefach" between plants, she said.

"There's a Jewish legend that says that there's an angel above every blade of grass whispering. 'Grow, grow,'" Lemus told the campers. "You have an opportunity after you plant to say something to your plant, a wish for your plant."

Manela says he hopes that the program will prompt dialogue about issues such as food security and safety and the moral elements of those issues.

"You practice compassion and giving toward your neighbors through the way you treat the ground," Manela says. "It's a mutual relationship: As you feed the earth and the earth feeds you, so your community health reflects that."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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