In Conversation with Adam Segulah Sher, Program Manager:
Deep in the wooded countryside of Falls Village, Connecticut, the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is a place of gathering where views all along the rich spectrum of belief converge for engaged dialogue and deep reflection. This “400-acre sanctuary in the Berkshires” hosts a dynamic set of activities that spark journeys for mind and spirit alike. Throughout its multiple incarnations, the center has been host to an impressive array of programs that connect participants to the environment, their own spirituality, and their roles in social justice.
A primary focus of their transformational work addresses issues of Jewish diversity within the community through educational and communal experiences. People arrive at the retreat center from all walks of life and participate in conversations and activities while removed from the hassles and trappings of modernity. An intrinsic element of the retreat experience at Isabella Freedman is the long-standing commitment to environmental awareness and preservation. Who could help but to be in awe of nature’s humbling beauty in such an idyllic setting? Environmental work within the broader community through the Adamah program includes, among other projects: farm education, farm to table food work, connecting people with the larger food movement and the Jewish food movement, Jewish environmental fellowships, donating food to people in need, and cultivating questions around the spirituality and ethics of the food movement that faith traditions can inform.
Even the simple, often taken for granted and hurried act of consuming food is subject to measured reflection and meditative awareness in a communal setting. At mealtime, blessings are given before and after eating, and spiritual practices surrounding food and eating are discussed. Participants are equally invested in their intent and desire to connect as deeply as possible to the spiritual and general experiences of eating in a context rooted in community that has an ample supply of tradition, teachings, and practices surrounding food consumption and sharing. Blessings and song sheets are made accessible so that, after every meal, the gathered group sings a song and issues thanks to the source of food, life, and community. This practice is not constrained by any strict traditional protocol but is more of an adaptation that gives people an opening to an alien or unknown experience that can then become their own.
Part of the core structure that underlies everything is a unique sense of community in which people evolve through sharing experiences rather than through specific, regimented ideas and practices. Isabella Freedman affords its participants the chance to initiate conversations amongst individuals who arrive at the retreat center from so many different walks of life, with varying levels of exposure to Jewish texts and teachings, and such diverse backgrounds in the faith. As with an interfaith experience, the convergence of divergent perspectives creates experiences that enrich and transform everyone involved. Among their emerging formal interfaith programs, Isabella Freedman recently hosted an Interfaith Educators Conference, featuring 90 representatives of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. Among the questions brought to the table were: What are we going to teach our children about each other? In religious schools, what kind of interfaith work is happening? How do we coordinate ways of teaching children about other religions and people? This conference set out to begin the discussion around an unaddressed niche within interfaith conversations.
The retreat center is not specific to one stream of Judaism, or religion in general; it’s an “all-stream organization.” The annual celebration of Sukkot Harvest Festival, also called Sukkahfest, is a radiant example of this inclusive approach to gathering. Here, all-stream Judaism is understood as the next level of pluralism, a term that connotes a move beyond pluralism to a place in which people move beyond learning to trying different things. The larger contextual framework at play is understanding cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity through an ecological lens. Isabella Freedman doesn’t just view diversity as a good thing; they believe it’s really what’s necessary for the rising of our ecosystem. In same way that niches in the ecosystem mutually support each other, this is a positive, necessary, and beneficial part of community, not a problem or something that needs to be resolved. Numerous other retreat offerings are available year-round--including site rentals for organizational retreats, weddings, and family gatherings--and the center sponsors financial aid programs for participants with diverse economic profiles. Non-Jews are welcome to attend retreats.
Isabella Freedman is a unique sanctuary where people can meet over common passions and interests, as showcased by some upcoming themes: “Judaism and Baseball,” "Blues for Challah" (Grateful Dead Weekend), “Torah Yoga,” and “LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton.” The two-year institutes promote professional and leadership development for emerging and established leaders of all ages. These offerings train everyone from priestesses, to spiritual directors, to prayer leaders, to yoga instructors in the Jewish Tradition. The ripples that spread from the transcendent eco-spiritual experiences shared at the center will continue to reach far beyond its bountiful acres.
Selected press links:
“Is the Jew Still in the Lotus?” [article on “Zen and Zohar on Repairing the World,” a retreat at Isabella Freedman in Huffington Post]
“Holy Chevre” [article on Adamah at Isabella Freedman and eco-friendly goat cheese, complete with recipes]
Isabella Freedman, in the words of past participants:
Above all else, Isabella Freedman has helped me to stop theorizing a kind of Judaism that doesn't make sense to me and start practicing a kind of Judaism that does. It has evolved my awareness and responsibility for environmental and social issues; it has taught me to grow and process my own food; it has provided me with richer communication skills; and it has introduced me to forms of Jewish prayer, study, and ritual which continue to lead me to a deeper integration of body, mind, and spirit.
—Jordan Schuster, Adamah Alum and Retreat Participant
The weekend was magical and transformative. Not only did we have an amazing time, but the retreat had a real and lasting impact on how the students thought about themselves, spirituality, and their relationship to Judaism.
—Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Tufts University Hillel
Isabella Freedman is a place where all people, including Orthodox Jews, can feel at home and part of an intentional community. I have witnessed participants feel—and have felt myself—transformed by the spirituality that is so much a part of Isabella Freedman’s mission.
—Rabbi Naftali Citron, The Carlebach Shul
The DivInnovations series represents an exciting new collaboration that State of Formation and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue are embarking upon in an effort to capture dynamic research, initiatives, partnerships, and projects (particularly interfaith in nature) at seminaries, divinity schools, and graduate theological settings in general across the nation. We will be posting profiles of institutions both on the State of Formation blog through this account and in each issue of the Journal. We invite you to be in touch about nominating your institution for a profile by emailing our JIRD liaison and profile developer, Sophia Khan.