When it comes to Passover, the old joke of ‘two Jews, three synagogues’ no longer applies. A visit to a Judaica store or even Amazon will offer hundreds of Haggadahs [Haggadot], and Haggadah source materials, as many as there are grounds in a pound of Maxwell House OU-K for Passover coffee. Many Haggadot are filled with splendorous art, or connected to European towns, or have historical additions. There’s an IDF Haggadah, and there are others with political agendas such as the Labor Haggadah and the Feminist Haggadah; there is beauty in all of them.
Regardless of the variety, from traditional to non-traditional, and the attraction of Jews to one version or another, Jews still answer the call to this historical holiday, and observe in one way or another. In Israel, it is customary to hold or attend only one seder, and in the Diaspora, there are traditionally two seders; in Israel the holiday lasts for 7 days, though in the Diaspora it is an 8 day holiday.
This year, for various reasons, our family decided to make a change to observe the entire eight day holiday out of the house, at a kosher for Passover retreat. What this meant for us from the outset, was, that this year, I would not be doing or helping with any pre-Passover cleaning of the house, we would not be changing our pots and dishes, not transferring and shlepping cartons of dishes and pots from the garage to the kitchen, nor emptying the pantry shelves and then relining them and filling them with recently purchased Pesach food, stored until that moment in the living room in bags under the end tables, away from the kitchen until it was made ready.
This year I would not, then, be doing any Passover cooking, which generally took place for a few days and completed at a marathon rate. Though we did ‘sell our chametz’ this year, I would not be holding a lit candle and feather and checking for crumbs or any hidden chametz throughout our house, nor saying a blessing and burning the last vestiges of chametz on the morning before the holiday. I would not have to purchase the perfect chunk of horseradish so that it could be grated into ‘chrain’ by my husband, the master of the house, the ‘ba’al habayit.’ [the balabus,] nor joining our daughters in the making of charoset. No table settings or adding extra chairs this year; my only responsibility was to pack my clothes, enough for 9 days.
I was slightly uncomfortable.
I visited the ‘Passover aisle’ in my local supermarket three times during the week before Passover, checking to see if there was anything I was missing this year, new on the market for Passover. On one occasion I stopped to stare longingly into one woman’s overly filled enormous shopping cart. I told her we were going away. She was ecstatic for me; my mouth was downcast. My husband admitted to two pre-Passover visits to the supermarket also, just to check!
The drive up to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT was relaxing; our suitcases were tucked away in the trunk, the traffic was light, the view filled with spring, hopefulness, and Passover’s redemptive possibilities.
The Isabella Freedman Center has been in existence for many decades, and functions as a farm and Jewish retreat center year round. Originally incorporated in 1897 as the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society, in 1956, it moved to its current home in Falls Village. In the early 1990s Isabella Freedman opened its doors year-round, and it became the primary retreat center for the Jewish communities of New York and New England, and each year, more than 30 Jewish organizations, spanning the denominational spectrum, hold retreats at what is now called the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. In 1994, in partnership with Surprise Lake Camp, the Teva Learning Center was developed as an innovative experiential learning program for Jewish elementary school students that integrates ecology, Jewish spirituality, and environmental activism. Then, in 2003, in connection with the Teva Learning Center, Isabella Freedman developed a new program called, Adamah, [‘the land’] a leadership training program for young Jewish adults which teaches the vital connection between Jewish tradition and the environment. In addition to its many conferences year round, it sponsors the Passover retreat, where we were headed.
The description in the literature for the Passover Retreat states:
Once we were slaves in Egypt… and now we are free to celebrate Passover surrounded by the beautiful foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Celebrate your freedom by bringing your whole family to an enriching, relaxing, and fun-filled Kosher-for-Passover program in a beautiful rural setting.”
And this is exactly what took place…
Physically at the Isabella Friedman Retreat, there are acres of endless pine trees…
There is a huge farm with fruit trees, and crops.. and greenhouses…
A lake, with its reflections inviting the eye, vibrant with creatures and burbling sounds, is surrounded by wild grasses.
There are boats and a dock, paths to walk, slopes to climb, and cozy rustic cabins… Since the lake’s water is actively flowing, it can be used as a mikveh.
Serious composting occurs at the farm, with chickens enjoying the composting scraps!
The nature center [TEVA] provides varied activities for children.
Two buildings nestled among the cabins are two yurts — one for lectures and the other for yoga. The topsy-turvy bus sits nearby at the ready, waiting to be used for environmental education.
The beautiful wooden synagogue is windowed on two sides, from floor to ceiling, allowing the outdoors in. It is centrally located on the main path. Surrounding the curtained Aron Kodesh/Torah ark and its two Torahs, are these banners with quotes by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, are posted on the wall above.
The approximately 180 people who attended this Passover’s retreat came from all streams of Jewish life and from across the US and from Israel – from the unaffiliated to the ultra-religious. There were single people, couples, large and small families, some with young children; there were women dressed casually in jeans or pants, and others wore skirts. Some women’s heads were covered in sheitels/wigs, or ‘teichels’/headcoverings. Most men wore kippot, and a few wore black hats. For this moment in time, for those nine days, we truly were one Jewish family regardless of dress, as if we were ‘standing at Sinai,’ in place of our ancestors, the Jews who traveled for 40 years following Moses in the Sinai Desert seeking the promised land.
The two communal seders at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center were led this year by Rabbi Shmuel Braun, a young Orthodox rabbi, witty and comfortable speaking to people across the Jewish spectrum, drawing on biblical sources and intertwining them with ‘midrashim.’ Somehow, Rabbi Braun managed to entwine his presentation with mysticism and philosophy, include the story of Passover, tell it all with a twinkle in his eye while including references to pop culture… and have it all make sense, and be inspirational.
After two spirited seders which included commentary and songs along with reading of the Hagaddah, there were plenty of delicious meals all week, and much to keep us busy. The synagogue was filled each day with those who wished to attend services, though others walked or read, or chatted over a late breakfast. We ate our K for Passover meals, many each day — healthy with some ingredients from the farm itself. Then we ate some more!
We walked and took hikes, some went boating, others attended lectures, as many as we wished — ranging in topics from botany in the Bible, to the history of the first Temple period, lectures about redemption, about Passover and what inspiration this holiday can offer us now, in present times. They ranged from the ‘lighter’ to ‘more intense’ subjects, from historical material to more ‘feel good’ topics regarding relationships, to yoga and silk painting. Those giving lectures were knowledgeable and adept at weaving their topic into the story of Pesach — the story of Moses, and Miriam and Aaron — our mutual Jewish story of wandering in the desert for 40 years, and what it means to us today.
Among the speakers were: Rabbi Shmuel Braun and his wife Bailey Newman Braun, Rabbi Asher Crispe and his wife Sara Esther Crispe, Cantor Benjamin Houben, Gavriel Porten, Dr. Jon Greenberg, Yoga Instructor Rebecca Bloomfield, Eden Pearlstein, Rabbi Jeff Fox, Elizabeth Yaari, Educator Laura Evonne Steinman — Camp Teva Children’s Program Director. Their specialties can be viewed at this website.
Cantor Benjamin Houben was a special person, with a melodious voice during the seders and services, also knowledgeable about many diverse topics, from the construction and symbolism of ‘tefillin,’ [phylacteries] to the benefits of gluten free eating. I particularly enjoyed the series of lectures by Gavriel Porten, a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Jerusalem, who also teaches in NYC during the summer at Drisha. I could listen to his creative presentations on ancient Israeli history, geography, archeology, all day long!
I began my day with yoga in the brown yurt at 7:45 am, and the day continued with eating breakfast and lunch, interspersed with lectures; I walked the paths on this heavenly farm, heading from place to place, while the sounds of woodpeckers rat-tat-tatted overhead, all part of the Jewish retreat.
Close to the end of the week, while I attended a lecture about Joshua, and his [and therefore our] entrance into the Promised Land, my husband was busy attending a hands-on pickling workshop — furiously slicing, then creating pickled sauerkraut, and pickled radishes and beets. Now we have those full jars at home — a taste of our retreat with us at home for weeks to come.
One day after lunch we gathered outdoors and said a blessing over a peach tree, which we learned bears flowers first, before the leaves; this was God’s way of encouraging us to have faith.
When we first arrived at the retreat, we learned that there had been five pregnant goats, and one had given birth to triplets just days before.
These playful ‘three billy goats gruff’ were eagerly visited and watched by guests of all ages. As the week continued, we watched the babies grow bigger so fast and nurse while the mother munched on grass and hay. Who said females are not best at multi-tasking!
As the days passed and our connection to this bucolic scene grew, many expressed continued interest and wonder about which pregnant goat in the Isabella Freedman barnyard would give birth next!
We had our bets on the white goat! She was READY!
We were right, and she — delivered! Just a few hours after giving birth, she is guarding her one huge kid.
When the birth occurred, we were informed, and many walked over during the following day to ‘shep nachas.’ I found myself humming Chad Gadya each time I walked by the barnyard after this kid was born.
Before the end of our stay, there was yet another birth, this time two kids were born. The others were all male, but this time, one was male and the other, female.
Passover — a time when at home my family annually purchased five lbs of matzoh in square boxes, and one package of round shmura matzoh, for the seder. At the Isabella Freedman seders, and for the rest of the week, shmura matzoh was most readily available; if possible, it was flowing!
‘Shmura,’ which means ‘to guard,’ requires that the wheat for this special matzoh be carefully watched in the fields, then harvested, and then further watched so that it bakes for exactly the proscribed 18 minutes, suitable for Passover. At the Isabella Freedman Passover Retreat, the shmura matzoh came from organic wheat carefully grown, harvested and baked locally at the Yiddish Farm in Goshen, NY.
We enjoyed interacting with other guests at the retreat, and also the people who work and volunteer at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, the campsite and farm itself – from Adam Sher — Managing Director of Retreats, and the two mashgichim and their families, to the accommodating kitchen staff, to the chefs, cooks, and bakers, and those who truly care about being stewards of the land, the “ADAMAH.’ They care for the land, for its sustainability, for the importance of organic growing, for rotation of crops. They are committed and genuine people.
Nigel Savage is the CEO and President of Hazon connected to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Hazon plays a unique role in renewing American Jewish life and creating a healthier and more sustainable world for all. Nigel participated in the Passover retreat for part of the week. Because of this movement our food experiences here were so gratifying.
During our Passover experience, we sat among different guests at almost every meal; there was such a sense of community! There were doors on our cabins’ rooms, and locks we could close from the inside, but there were no keys; I don’t think I’ve ever lived and felt so free and safe in my life.
Besides the lectures and the food, the week included various tours of the farm and the barnyard, a giant bonfire for Havdalah on the first Sunday night, separating Yom Tov from the rest of the week. Gleefully, the youngest to the oldest found sticks and roasted marshmallows. Spirited singing followed under the dark, star studded sky.
Children were happily occupied all during the week by the many appropriate activities provided, all connecting to Passover and the land – from hikes to art projects; there was even a children’s talent show one evening, and both children and adults attended. The actual talent didn’t matter; what struck me, was the respect the children showed for each other, for each child’s performance or contribution.
For me, this nine-day Passover retreat was an opportunity to truly ‘retreat’ from the issues of our times — the pressing issues regarding the Jewish people and the land of Israel, the State of Israel. In our day to day lives, we are so concerned with the issues regarding BDS, the UN’s unfair and untenable decisions about Israel, the bizarre events regarding the upcoming US elections, the world’s misunderstanding of Israel’s place in it, the rising anti-Semitism, the sadness of the divisiveness among the Jewish people. These issues can hold us in their grip.
Just as in Judaism, we are encouraged to ‘retreat’ for just one day a week and enjoy the Sabbath and remove ourselves from work, from creating, from the everyday busyness and cares of our daily lives all year long. So too, Passover allowed me, gave me permission to take this time to live in the ‘now’ of that week- to live with ‘kavannah’/intention for each moment in time- for each morning, each meal, that hour, that lecture, that day. There existed the freedom and ease to walk in nature. As I gazed at the lake and the surrounding reeds, in my mind’s eye I could envision Miriam fashioning a basket and floating baby Moshe down the Nile.
With Internet sporadic at the retreat, absenting oneself from technology became a moot point, though I do admit to a bit of withdrawal — at first. Many psychologists are using the idea of Judaism’s “Sabbath,” of a cessation from the mundane for an entire day, to promote healthier living; interestingly enough, Jews realized the health benefits of the Sabbath long ago.
On Passover, as Jews, we gather around our tables, either with families or friends, and in this case, at a communal seder table, for the annual retelling of our people’s exodus to freedom in the promised land. At this retreat, we began as strangers, coming together for the week. Our journey to Connecticut was not perilous, as was the journey of our ancestors through the Sinai desert hoping only for manna and to reach their destination. Our togetherness at the Isabella Freedman Passover Retreat, gave us pause; it gave us hope for the future of the world and for redemption.