Seeds of Pluralism

Seeds of Pluralism: Sowing Community at Kayam Farm
by Jakir Manela, Jessy Gross and Rachel Berndtson

“An Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular-radical humanist Jew go hiking in the woods…”

Sound like a joke? Not at Kayam Farm, where summer program participants engaged daily with the challenges and opportunities of building a pluralist Jewish community. The setting was the beautiful rolling hills of Reisterstown, Maryland, where you can see at least seven different firework displays on the horizon on the Fourth of July and a glorious sunset every night of the summer. At any given time last summer, 10 to 20 Jews from a variety of observance levels and interests worked the land, learned eco-agricultural Torah, and lived together with both shared and competing values.

Shorter service-learning trips and other pluralist Jewish programs usually involve less than 10 days, participants spending only one Shabbat together. Often, difficult conversations are “resolved” through the understanding that the pluralist solutions are “just for one Shabbat.” At Kayam, in contrast, the pluralist community lasted for three months, dependent on honesty and compromise. Do we daven with a mechitza? Who leads Kiddush? Can I lead Shabbat services with a guitar? Should there be a modesty dress code? What if some people want to use a public space for praying early in the morning, while others want to use the same space for yoga?

We began our Kayam summer community together by embarking on a three-day, 40-mile Chesapeake Watershed Pilgrimage, traveling from the farm to the Chesapeake Bay. We waded through creeks, canoed through a reservoir, hiked through a state park, biked through urban neighborhoods, and sailed out into Baltimore’s harbor. We learned much about the watershed ecology and social history of the Chesapeake region. But more than that, we learned about each other – because less than 100 yards into the pilgrimage, the pluralist journey began.

An Orthodox male hesitated reaching out to help a female making her way across a slippery creek. He wanted to help, but was also shomer negiah (literally “guarding touch,” the practice of never making physical contact with the opposite sex). He reached out his hand, offering help to his female friend, and together they spent the next mile navigating the creek while talking about his decision and the tension therein.

Returning to the farm from the pilgrimage, a daily routine ensued. Farmers, ecologists, unaffiliated Jews, college students, and rabbis spent our mornings together in the field – planting, watering, weeding, composting, and harvesting 40 boxes of produce for our community supported agriculture (CSA). After enjoying a farm-fresh lunch, we gathered inside for our daily kollel learning, still muddy and sweaty from the morning. Each week, we learned about a different category of Jewish agricultural law.

Two rabbinic students helped lead the summer kollel: Gabriel Greenberg, a rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (Modern Orthodox); and Jessy Gross (also a co-author of this piece), a rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College (Reform). Initially the two rabbinic students found themselves in disagreement over how to organize chevrutot (learning partners). Greenberg believed that similarly-skilled learners should learn together, so that advanced learners could dig deeper into the text without having to teach a less knowledgeable partner. Gross preferred a model where participants with stronger skills were paired with those in need of extra help, so that everyone would cover the same material at a similar pace. In the end, a compromise was struck where chevrutot changed each week, so that some weeks participants learned with partners with similar skills, and others with people with very different experience levels.

This work is not easy. It is an intensely personal, communal, and ecological experience. As a result, those who lived at Kayam this summer emerged with new understandings of themselves as Jews and as human beings. Some secular Jews began to develop a regular Jewish practice, while more observant Jews pushed themselves to adapt their practice to be inclusive for more people.

Joel Mosbacher, a Reform rabbi from New Jersey, spent his sabbatical at Kayam, farming and learning. “I completely loved the experience of living in this diverse, complicated, intense, intentional community,” he said, “I loved working super-hard and studying with folks who knew much more than me – I loved being challenged to learn new farming skills as well as pushing my Hebrew skills.”

Can such an intergenerational, pluralistic, land-based Jewish community exist in the long-term? Such a vision exists, for Moshav Kayam. The hope is to attract Jews of all ages and backgrounds to live together, building a spiritually vibrant village dedicated to Torah values and sustainable community. There is a growing list of those excited by this vision and ready to move into the area.

“We dream about moving to this moshav and really planting our lives there… I think it would be the perfect place to start a family and it has so many business opportunities, i.e. wellness centers, senior centers, etc. When I finish [my] nursing degree, I would love to devote my professional abilities to our moshav,” Rachel Bender, a 20-something Jewish friend of Kayam, said.

In our efforts to create a more sustainable world where all life is guarded as sacred, surely we must also create a more inclusive Jewish community, where all kinds of Judaism are sacred. This experience in Jewish peoplehood strengthens the Jewish ecosystem through biological and cultural diversity.

Jessy Gross is a third-year rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Next year, she will be obtaining a master’s of Jewish education through the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC. She has lived in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Jerusalem and enjoys everything nature and culture.

Jakir Manela is the founder and director of Kayam Farm at Pearlstone. He manages a growing staff of Jewish farmer-educators, facilitates programs, and works on development.

Rachel Berndtson is a PhD student, undergraduate lecturer, and advisor in the Department of Geography at the University of Maryland. She was a Summer 2010 Fellow at Kayam Farm.

Kayam Farm is a program of the Pearlstone Conference & Retreat Center, which is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

image by Jessy Gross

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.