| Follow Us:


Ancient Lessons: Sustainable Agriculture Takes Root at Kayam Farm

Jakir Manela, Founding Director, of the Kayam Farm at Pearlstone
Jakir Manela, Founding Director, of the Kayam Farm at Pearlstone
Kayam Farm sits on a tract of semi-rural Baltimore County land that could be just about anywhere. For the purposes of founding director Jakir Manela, it could be ancient Israel, Babylonia, Eastern Europe, or any of the other places where Jews have lived as agriculturalists over their millennia-long journey.

Manela and his colleagues at Kayam -- a Hebrew word which can be translated as both "enduring" and "sustainable" -- aim to shine a light on large portions of Jewish agricultural practice that are often obscured in suburban or urban life, while providing produce for the Baltimore community through its own community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Kayam Farm is located on the grounds of the Pearlstone Center, a Reisterstown property purchased in 1964 by the Baltimore Jewish community to create a summer day camp for area Jewish youth. In 2001 Pearlstone became a conference and retreat center, and now it is the site of one of the most successful Jewish agricultural endeavors in the United States and even around the world.

Manela's colleague Josh Rosenstein, Kayam's Animals and Added Value Specialist, also known around the farm as "The Pickler," gives some background: "Judaism has a tremendous wealth of laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and all sorts of things having to do with what ethical or holy food production looks like, and Jews in tradition have been pretty into food, whether it's grandma's chicken soup or something else." Rosenstein is a past fellow of the Adamah ("earth") program in Connecticut, and Jakir is a graduate of the Teva Learning Center in New York. Both men see Jews as part of an interdenominational rekindling of interest in where food comes from. In the Baltimore Jewish community, Jakir says the response to Kayam has been very positive.

"Whether it's parents who want to raise their children on food that's good for them and good for the planet, or seniors who remember as children actually killing and plucking a chicken and what that felt like, or kids who have never been away from a computer or outside of a classroom or seen what it actually feels like to care for an animal or pick a vegetable or to see how a tomato actually grows... these are the building blocks of a meaningful and healthy life, and Judaism has always been a system for life."

Though an online, inside existence can lead to isolation from nature when taken to the extreme, Manela says that exposure to informative media is largely responsible for the current prominence of environmental issues. "It's turning from a marginal understanding to a mainstream one where everybody gets that we have to do something." He also raises the issue of social justice in food production, which came to the attention of many observant Jews after several hundred individuals were arrested in an immigration raid at the world's largest strictly kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa in 2008.  
"How did the way this food was grown affect the workers that grew it? How did it affect the people who live near the farm? It's a broad and deep concern in American society that includes Jews, and Jews have historically had their antennae up, very sensitive and very acutely aware of those trends even before they become major things in the rest of society."

Parts of Jewish farm tradition survive in the popular consciousness, like the Sabbatical when every seven years the earth is allowed to rest and crops remain unharvested (now usually referring to a break for academic professionals to pursue individual goals). Other aspects such as leaving the corners of each field for foreigners, orphans, and widows are seen in the uncut peyot (sidelocks) on Jewish boys and men, and run in modified forms throughout Judeo-Christian practice as tithing or even the American springtime tradition of tax deductions for charitable giving.

Nevertheless, Jewish religious law and post-Biblical commentary have very specific points to make about agriculture. Manela elaborates: "It's not just that as Jews we should buy local and organic because that's the good and healthy thing... It's also that in Leviticus and throughout the Torah, there is a whole Jewish food system of how to grow, distribute, and consume food in a just, equitable, and sustainable way. What we do here with Kosher slaughter but more so on the farm is putting that system into practice and showing people what it looks like to establish parts of that Jewish food system."

In modeling ancient methods, Manela and others at Kayam are driving a deeper understanding that may lead to the incorporation of forgotten practices into the modern farm-to-table framework. Kayam will host a Beit Midrash (loosely, "study conference") in March to explore the ins and outs of Jewish agricultural tradition and their implications for 21st century life. Jakir will also lead a journey this summer from Kayam down to the Chesapeake Bay along the streams and rivers that make up the east coast's largest watershed.

As much as Kayam represents a reinvigoration of Jewish agricultural folkways and an illumination of large parts of Jewish law and scholarship that may seem archaic without proper land-based reference, it is also a point of outreach. Nearly every religious school in Greater Baltimore's Jewish community of over 90,000 brings trips to Kayam, and it has become a popular destination for families of all faiths that home-school their children.

Kayam Farm's 27-week produce subscription community-supported agriculture program is now in its fourth year, and runs from May to October. Kayam's CSA is one of dozens of Jewish-run CSAs sprouting around the United States. "It's the next step beyond buying organic," Manela says. "To be in a CSA, you actually understand, 'What is this earth I live on-within half an hour of my house-capable of producing right now?'"

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

Sam Hopkins is publisher of Bmore.

Comments? Questions? Find us on Twitter, Facebook, or send us an email.

Learn more about Bmore and sign up to receive a new issue every week via email

Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- Jakir Manela, Founding Director of the Kayam Farm at Pearlstone
- Lettuce grown in the Rose Winder Greenhouse on the Kayam Farm at Pearlstone
- A Jewish Calendar garden
- Rosemary grown in the Rose Winder Greenhouse
- Chickens on the Kayam Farm
- The Rose Winder Greenhouse
- Decor in the Rose Winder Greenhouse
- Arugula in the Rose Winder Greenhouse
- Jakir Manela, Founding Director of the Kayam Farm at Pearlstone
Signup for Email Alerts
Share this page
Signup for Email Alerts