A JOFEE Journey

Pearlstone Family Farm Day; photo courtesy
Pearlstone Family Farm Day; photo courtesy

by Jakir Manela

I hated Hebrew School. Organized Jewish life was irrelevant to me growing up; after my Bar Mitzvah I considered myself free from synagogue beyond the annual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur torture. As the grandson of survivors, my family was strong in our Jewish identity; I just had no interest in affiliation. No Jewish camp, youth group, or confirmation. But then I went to Israel, and those four weeks changed my life. I felt Jewish in a different way there, experienced a pulsing connection to the land and people of Israel, felt self-aware in new, profound ways.

A year later, I entered college ready for exploration and discovery. As a freshman I attended a conference where I encountered Teva, the seed of a movement that has grown into JOFEE – Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education. In discovering Teva and JOFEE, I found a Jewish identity that was inspiring and relevant: combining Jewish wisdom, experiential education, and a clear moral response to critical sustainability issues facing us all. Akin to Israel’s spark, JOFEE transformed my Jewish journey; it was my doorway back in.

Fast-forward 13 years, and I am now Executive Director of the Pearlstone Center, a dynamic Jewish educational farm and retreat center located just outside of Baltimore, and national JOFEE hotspot inspiring vibrant Jewish life. During my seven years working at Pearlstone, I have seen every denomination and age group of the Jewish community ignited by our work – from orthodox to reconstructionist, early childhood to senior citizens. And so I feel great pride in seeing the recently published report – “Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education” – illuminating a blossoming field of Jewish life which we call home.

The report identifies a generation of young Jewish adults like myself – with some Jewish background but minimal interest in mainstream Jewish life – discovering JOFEE as a pathway to vibrant Jewish identity, community, and empowerment. The report shows JOFEE participants hold a great hope for the Jewish people and the Jewish future. Like Israel or summer camp, JOFEE triggers Jewish journeys, cultivating vibrant Jewish life grounded in our calendar, our seasons, our tradition.

My personal path has unfolded within JOFEE’s growth as a whole. My wife and I met after college at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut – she was farming in the Adamah program while I worked for Teva as a Jewish environmental outdoor educator. It was like camp, but better. We are one of many couples sparked amidst such immersive JOFEE experiences.

We left Freedman seeking more Jewish inspiration, unsure where to find it. I explored Taoism, practiced tai chi and meditation. We connected with many like-minded Jews, but most Jewish organizations failed to resonate with us, certainly not like Teva or Isabella Freedman. Then Pearlstone offered us an opportunity to start something similar at their Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. We moved in January 2007, aiming to establish the second Jewish educational farm in North America, after Adamah at Isabella Freedman.

Seven years later, we’re still here, and JOFEE has spread all across the country. Pearlstone impacts over 17,000 participants annually, with an amazing staff of 35 talented professionals and a budget of $3 million. We host retreats, run JOFEE programs – from field trips to apprenticeships, conferences to community gardening – and manage a six-acre sustainable farm including vegetables, orchards, vineyards, greenhouses, pregnant goats, laying hens, and baby chicks hatching in our lobby. Jews of all ages and backgrounds come to Pearlstone – both locals and from across the country – and many non-Jews are drawn to our work as well. We have a wonderful, engaged board, and the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore is a critical and supportive partner, invested in our success. Along with other JOFEE organizations, Pearlstone is listed annually in Slingshot as one of the top 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America.

Soon, our kids will be old enough to attend Hebrew School. My wife and I want part of their Jewish education to be outside the box, on the land. We want them to feel inspired by Living Judaism: an organic experience of text and tradition, farm and forest, sunsets and song. As long as JOFEE continues to bloom, we have faith that they will.

Jakir Manela is Executive Director of the Pearlstone Center, Hazon board member, and former Teva educator. Jakir is the 2013 recipient of The Jewish Communal Service Association’s Young Professional Award.