Falls Village, Conn. — “Can all the ‘sours’ in the room raise their hands?” Jeffrey Yoskowitz asks the people seated in front of him at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. “Now all the ‘half-sours’?” He shakes his head, feigning dramatic disappointment at the hands raised for the latter. He’s referring to pickles of course — no doubt a contested topic in any environment but one Yoskowitz, who grew up in Summit and Basking Ridge, clearly relishes and that takes on extra heat in a room full of Ashkenazi Jews.
“The salt water pickle is just a better pickle,” he adds with amused finality when asked why he doesn’t put vinegar in his recipe.
Welcome to the Hazon Food Conference, a four-day retreat (August 14 to 18, 2019) at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It’s an annual event that brings folks from the foodie world — kosher and non-kosher observing — as well as restaurateurs, chefs, farmers, teachers and lay-people to this leafy corner of Connecticut to discuss food, culture and sustainability and how it intersects with Jewish heritage.
Over the last 14 years the conference has developed a reputation as a resource for Jewish foodies, but also for people that are simply looking for an all-inclusive vacation in this sprawling, peaceful setting along the Appalachian trail. Sustainability has always been a core part of Isabella Freedman’s mission but it took on more focus five years ago when it merged with Hazon, the 19-year-old Jewish sustainability organization, a natural marriage for the two organizations that preach sustainability alongside pluralistic Jewish values.
It’s here that Yoskowitz, now a food entrepreneur and co-founder of The Gefilteria company, first got a taste for pickling and fermenting when he was completing a three-month fellowship at the center’s Adamah farm in 2007 and later as a “pickle apprentice”.
Now, 12 years and a successful cookbook later, he is back at “Freedman” as its affectionately called by the guests that keep returning time and again to present on how old-world Jewish wisdom can offer a solution to limit food waste today.
“If food waste was a country it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world,” he said. “We need to curb that waste initially and it starts at the innovation stage.”
It was the evolution of the Jewish deli as Jews came from Eastern Europe that really became a symbol of Jewish immigrants’ abundance and prosperity in America. “I mean just look at the size of this thing,” he exclaims, gesturing at the oversized pastrami on rye on the Powerpoint slide behind him, layers of cured meat tumbling out. The Jewish deli, he claims, marked the defined change from a shtetl mentality and the shame associated with food scarcity to one of abundance, and with it, over-consumption.
“How do we reintroduce the shtetl mindset now?” He asked, “But in a positive way. Sucking the last bit of value out of everything and letting nothing go to waste.”
A good place to start, he suggests, is to look at old-world Jewish foods like schmaltz (goose is the best, he vehemently argues) and matzah balls, which make use of excess animal fat and bread respectively, as well as the pickling and fermenting culture that was popular back then. (“Anything can be pickled,” he claims, suggesting watermelon and crab apples as a creative alternative to just cucumbers.)
“We need to start thinking about the process of food, the history and heritage which can help reframe our thinking around food,“ he said. “How do we reintroduce the mindset of food scarcity while in a time of unprecedented abundance?”
This theme thread its way into the workshops, cooking demonstrations, panel discussions and dinner table conversations during the conference: How do we use our Jewish values and heritage to find solutions for food waste and climate change? It’s an issue that’s taken on more urgency as the climate crisis deepens, and one that Jews, reportedly, care about. The 2013 Pew Survey found that nearly 70 percent of Jews felt that leading an ethical and moral life was a core part of their Jewish identity, and 14 percent said eating traditional Jewish foods was crucial to their Jewishness.
It’s at this intersection that the food conference meets people, values Hazon has been preaching since its founding in 2000 but that’s become a core mission focus as of late.
“Were shifting as an organization given the urgency of the situation, we’re shifting to say ‘action.’” said Becky O’Brien, director of Hazon’s chapter in Boulder, Colo., who will be stepping into her new role as Director of Food and Climate in the next few months. “Whereas it used to be education for education’s sake, now it’s education for action’s sake.”
Part of that strategic shift is the establishment of her role, which is a new one for the organization, as well as the heightened focus on these issues at the food conference. The organization is also looking at other ways to organize and equip rabbis and community leaders, particularly in the lead up to the High Holidays.
One such initiative is the Hazon seal of sustainability which gives Jewish communities a LEED-like certification, but for sustainability.
Unlike LEED, however, the sustainability seal does not have uniform benchmarks specifically to make it more accessible and easier for communities to join.
“A community in Woodstock might have solar panels and want to learn more about what they can do, and a community somewhere else might still be using excessive styrofoam. It’s about meeting the community where they are at and dealing with the low hanging fruit first, and then building up from that,” Merav Cohen, manager of the Hazon Seal of Sustainability program, said during a panel.
This all starts with people’s food choices, of course, so one of Hazon’s chief goals is to demystify some of the confusion around how food impacts climate change as well as to give people tips on how to make practical lifestyle changes. Though some of it might feel like preaching to the choir, people attending—after all—must be somewhat invested in the issue, the hope is that attendees bring back the information they learn to their communities back home. “We come here to get our tanks filled. We’re saying to people, ‘Now that you’ve heard about this, what might you like to do? And here’s the resources we have to help you,’” O’Brien said.
And if it’s any indication, people seem receptive. The sold out conference brought in over 250 attendees, spanning the ages from nonagenarian to baby, from as close as the tristate area and as far as British Columbia, New Mexico and New Orleans.
One couple came in from St. Louis, their four sons who are spread around the East Coast met them there for a family vacation with a side of sustainability.
“It keeps me up to date,” the mother, Jan Wallach, an artist, told me. “I come here and I get in touch with what’s happening now… It reassures you that you can make a difference. Sometimes you think, ‘Oh I’m just one person,’ but it was a nice reminder.”
And aside from the easy, intergenerational banter over a leisurely shabbat and between the breakout sessions, it was the welcoming nature of the place that ensured a melange of religious practice and denominations.
“It brings different cultures of Judaism together,” Wallach, who is modern Orthodox, told me. “We need more of that.”
Incidentally, it’s this “magic of Isabella” as people repeatedly told me, that made the conference not just about food and sustainability, but about community, a place that’s come to inform people’s sense of Jewish identity, at this retreat and the many others it hosts throughout the year.
To Janet Abrams from Santa Fe, it’s a combination of the “somewhat rickety and shabby” environment, being surrounded by tranquil nature, and the loose structure of the program that makes it such a welcoming place, especially when compared to other professional conferences at convention centers.“The place doesn’t make any judgements about what version of Judaism or Jewish practice you adhere to,” the former journalist and academic, now artist, in her 60s told me. “The extreme welcome to non-binary-gender-conforming individuals also meant that there were men in dresses and frum women in long clothes.”
“It’s a lab for self-exploration under a Jewish mantle,” she said.
The rarity of finding an egalitarian minyan praying in the room next door to an Orthodox service is not lost on anyone. And though minutes earlier people are separated in different rooms for prayer, around the Shabbat table everyone sits together. Same at the campfire, where under a rising full moon slowly peeking its way up from behind the tree tops, everyone sings together. You can bet its the same on the scuffed dance-floor on Saturday night, where young and old break it down on floors worn down, no doubt, by many nights that end in impromptu dance parties like this.
At a tisch, an informal gathering over whisky and snacks in the library on Friday night, a young woman echoed Abrams’ sentiment, telling us how working on the farm and living at Freedman over the previous three months had inspired her sense of Jewish identity and belonging for the first time in her life. A picture of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, smiled from a frame on the bookshelves behind her.
And though it hasn’t made a believer out of her, Abrams said being there encouraged her to continue to explore her Jewish identity further.
“Above all, it’s just the range of people it attracts. Within a couple of days, you stand in the dining tent and you look around and instead of it being a sea of strangers, you recognize and you’ve talked to at least a couple of people on every table,” Abrams said. “That feeling of being inside a community that’s only just sort of formed because everyone has a connection to Judaism at some level —that’s a pretty rare experience.”
Back in a room overlooking Lake Miriam (unrelated to the author), Liz Reuven, who runs the popular food blog “Kosher Like Me” gave a food demo on no-waste cooking. She prepared a recipe for mini baguette toasts with ricotta and broccoli (using all three parts: stem, leaves and florets) as well as aquafaba, a vegan substitute for mayonnaise made from chickpea liquid, something most of us mindlessly pour down the sink.
“Handling waste begins in your own home and it starts before you hit the compost or recycling bin,” she told me after the demo. “It really happens in the kitchen before you’re cooking, thinking about what ingredients you are using and seeing to it that you use as many parts as possible.”
The amount of waste we have accumulated is at an emergency level in the United States, she said, and like Yoskowitz, it’s made her reflect back on how her grandparents who came to the United States from Eastern Europe used to cook. “They surely cooked seasonally and they surely used every single scrap and every single bone.” For a conscientious cook, she adds, this shouldn’t be a difficult method to adopt because everything— all the bones, peels, stems and scraps—act as building blocks of flavor and only serve to enhance the dish.
“We can look back to previous generations and see what they did because there was food scarcity. Now we have a different motivation, we want to put less in the landfill, less in the compost pile, and build more flavor at the same time using layers and layers of ingredients that have been carefully grown and sourced,” she said, “My interest in that is no longer rooted in poverty, thank God, but it’s rooted in a desire to treat my ingredients with the respect they deserve.”
Other workshops provided a framework for debate over climate action solutions, tips on how to get started with permaculture (even in an urban environment!), how to reduce meat consumption and how Jewish texts speak to many of these issues.
And if the programming wasn’t enough, it was the food — tasty, organic and sustainably sourced — that served as a subtle yet convincing nudge to embrace a plant-based diet.
(Aside from a BBQ on Thursday, the menu was entirely vegetarian, and mostly plant-based, including on Shabbat.)
Hazon hopes Isabella Freedman acts as a good model as to how to live a sustainable lifestyle, especially at such a large scale. Over the last few years they have moved to exclusively reusable or compostable products for their meals, all of which is composted on site and used to fertilize their farm. The farm in turn provides much of the produce and eggs used during meals, a closed loop that ensures less environmental impact. Extra signage was added this year around the campus to let visitors know about the newly compostable products.
“We want to show people it’s not hard,” Chaya Itzkowitz, the retreat coordinator said, “We want people to see how easy it is and get those small messages and hopefully take it back with them and make changes in small ways.
It’s this judgement-free, welcoming environment that Joy Finkel of Yardley Pa., said resonates with people. “Being at Isabella, a place that’s trying to model a lifestyle and seeing how they do it, it’s something you can really take back,” she told me as we stood at the end of a trail overlooking the Catskills, hawks circling the sky above us. “They’re serving us a really good model for the Jewish community. They’re not hitting us over the head or guilting us, they’re just being an example.”
In an environment so often mired by division, perhaps it’s this approach, holding steadfast to committed values but built on layers of acceptance and inclusivity, that makes the Freedman experience not just a model for environmental sustainability but also for a sustainable Jewish community.
And therein lies the “magic of Isabella…”