Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
Each year Pearlstone inspires over 20,000 young Jewish adults, families, interfaith/intermarried Jews, and others by embodying environmental and agricultural wisdom of our ancient, rich Jewish tradition. Rooted in Torah and embracing all people and all life, we harvest according to Torah food justice laws, we plant according to laws of forbidden mixtures, and we model our Hebrew calendar’s sacred sustainable rhythms of rest—Shabbat, Chaggim, Shmita, and Yovel. Jewish agricultural wisdom has so much to teach us! Pearlstone brings this Torah to life, and 21st century American Jewry is finding great resonance in this authentic, earthy Jewishness
Three fundamental pillars of Jewish wisdom animate our agricultural and educational activities most strongly:
1. Our commitment to justice is constant, ongoing, multifaceted, and practiced in deep integration with land stewardship and sustainability.
2. We strive to balance integrity with diversity, creating distinction and clarity between ourselves and others, plants and animals, wool and linen.
3. Sacred sustainable rhythms of rest are fundamentally important to our physical, spiritual, and financial well-being.
Ma’aser–‘tithing’– is the tradition of separating 1/10 of the harvest for the priests, levites, and/or the poor. Bamidbar (Numbers) 18:21: And unto the children of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they serve, even the service of the tent of meeting.
Leket –‘gleaning’–is the dropped harvest left for the poor to gather.
Pe’ah—the corners of the field left for the needy to harvest.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:9-10 And when you reap the harvest of your land, do not wholly reap the corner of your field, and do not gather the gleaning of your harvest. And do not glean your vineyard, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; rather, leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.
Mishna Pe’ah 1:1-2 These things have no measure: the corner [of the field], the first fruits, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, deeds of loving-kindness, and the study of Torah. One should not give pe’ah less than one-sixtieth [of the field], and even though they said pe’ah has no measure, everything depends on the size of the field, the number of the poor, and according to the extent of the crop
Mishnah Peah 4:4 Pe’ah they do not reap with sickles; they do not uproot with spades, lest they strike one another.
2. Integrity & Diversity
One of the most famous lines in all of Jewish tradition is Leviticus 19:18, “Love your fellow as yourself.”
We rarely observe or reflect upon the fact that this universalistic mandate is followed by a verse focused on separation and distinction:
Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:18-19 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD. You shall keep my statutes. Do not interbreed your cattle; do not sow your field with two kinds of seed; and do not wear a garment made of two kinds of material mixed together.
Rambam, Mishneh Torah Kilayim 1:3 A Jew is permitted to sow mixed species of seeds [even by hand] in the
These holy words charge us both to embrace the other and to maintain distinctions. We draw upon this wisdom in farm design and education, highlighting the need for both unity and integrity, diversity and commonality on the land and in community. This wisdom and tension is very live and relevant in American Jewish life today, where in the diaspora we are allowed to plant mixtures that would be forbidden in the land of Israel. What does that teach us about this tension both within and outside of Israel?
Shabbat, Chaggim, Shmita, and Yovel are all powerful, restorative notes in the octave of the Jewish calendar. Pearlstone operates on Jewish time, inviting participants into a sense of rhythm and rest that is sacred and sustainable, and badly needed in our 24/7 media culture. By immersing ourselves in a organizational, communal, and agricultural landscape aligned with Jewish time—especially Shmita— participants feel the sacred and sustainable rhythms of rest and feel called to integrate them into their lives as well.
Exodus, 23:10-11 Six years you will sow your land and gather your produce. And the seventh you will release and forswear, and the poor of your people will eat and their remainder the animal of the field will eat. So you will do to your vineyard and olive orchard.
Leviticus 25:1-7 And the Lord spoke to Moshe on the mountain of Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall rest and keep a shabbat of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in its yield. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a shabbat of complete rest, a shabbat of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; It shall be a shabbat of complete rest for the land. Whatever the land yields will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you As well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.
Leviticus 25.18-21 You shall observe my laws and faithfully keep my rules, that you may dwell securely upon the land. The land will give its fruit and you will eat to satisfaction; and you will dwell securely upon it. And should you ask: What will we eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops? I will ordain my blessings for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for three years.
Participants harvest according to the Torah’s social just laws: ma’aser (tithing), leket (gleaning), pe’ah (unharvested corners) and shichecha (forgotten crops). This gives participants first-hand appreciation of theJ centrality of social justice in Jewish agriculture and how we might use our understanding of the Torah’s harvesting laws in order to create a Jewish approach to food justice issues today. Exploring and practicing justice on the farm cultivates a holistic Jewish sense of sustainability, incorporating both environmental stewardship and social justice into a Torah land ethic caring for both the land and those in need.
Participants harvest according to the laws of ma’aser, tithing 10% for those less fortunate and then donate the food themselves after the program. Often groups feel that 10% is not enough and want to give more, which is a teachable moment—10% is the minimum and we are allowed to give more, but Rambam teaches that we should not give so much that we ourselves become dependent on tzedaka, and we might think differently if we looked at this harvest as our subsistence diet for the week rather than a hypothetical educational exercise.
Participants participate in “the Jewish farming Olympics” through an event called the Leket Harvest Challenge, where one participant carries the harvest through an obstacle course of his/her peers who through various means distract the harvest-carrier, and part of the harvest falls to the ground as a result. The group identifies this fallen harvest as leket and adds it to the ma’aser as another part of our tzedaka harvest.
Then participants are taken to a field and hear the verse, “do not wholly reap the corner of your field”. A timed group challenge is given for the group to mark pe’ah as they see fit, through which small groups mark the corners in creative ways with varying rationales, after which they explain to the rest of the group how/why they marked pe’ah in their own way. Some are larger than others, some are different shapes, etc. Then we discover how helpful the Mishnah is in adding practical understanding to the Torah: Using this verse, we revisit the question of how big our pe’ah should be, addressing real life issues of abundance, scarcity, and poverty in our contemporary situation.
Thousands of participants have explored Jewish social justice harvesting laws at Pearlstone, more than any other lesson over the ten years of our farm and program history, establishing the following core concepts:
1. Jewish law dictates that we tithe (give ma’aser) at least 10% of our harvest/income to the poor.
2. Jewish law requires us to leave dropped harvest (leket) for those in need.
3. Jewish law commands us to leave pe’ah—a corner—unharvested for those in need
4. We need the Mishnah (Talmud) to clarify how to apply these laws in specific situations
5. Jewish farms donate their harvest in multiple ways throughout the agricultural cycle, not just at one moment. Jewish agriculture contains a constant, cumulative emphasis on justice.
6. Jewish agriculture practices environmentalism and social justice together, simultaneously.
7. The deep, strong Jewish practice of tzedakah (justice or charity) comes from ancient agrarian origins.
8. In ancient Israel everyone lived closer to farms and everybody knew when it was harvest time. Today is spread out—most people live in the cities while most food is grown out in the countryside. We’re too disconnected from the land to fulfill these righteous commandments! What might we do about that? Emerging trends such as development-supported agriculture, agri-hoods, urban farms, and community gardens are all possible bridges between ancient Torah and contemporary life.
Integrity & Diversity
Participants encounter a sweat lodge, wigwam, teepee, or other element of indigenous civilization, sparking comparison and contrast between indigenous cultures and Judaism. The group then heads to the farm where they meet a Hebrew-speaking farmer, who helps them plant speaking only Hebrew while using ancient Hebrew body measurements for spacing between plants. Eventually the Jewish farmer speaks English and engages the participants in exploring Kilayim through Hebrew body-measurements throughout the farm/garden, getting everyone to use their goof—body—to measure. The experience culminates by transplanting an ancient Jewish agricultural tradition, kilayim, from the written page into the living soil, and exploring the tension between our need for distinction and integrity vs the societal need—especially in America—for pluralism, diversity, and tolerance.
This experience—encountering indigenous American Indian tradition, reflecting on our history as wandering Jews, then speaking Hebrew and planting using Hebrew measurements—cultivates a deep sense of connection and pride in who we are as Jews in relation to land and agriculture, and kilayim seems to teach us that there is great merit and importance in maintaining integrity and distinction between different living things. The laws of kashrut seem to more explicitly encourage separation between Jews and non-Jews. How do we feel about that tension, both in Jewish tradition and in our own lives? The Torah and Mishnah taught farmers not to avoid diverse plantings, but to do so with intention and order. How might we follow that example in our own lives?
The Jewish calendar sanctifies rhythms of rest and rejuvenation in cycles of seven: just as the seventh day (Shabbat) is a day of rest, the seventh year is a year of rest called Shmita. According to the Torah, we should allow the land of Israel to lie fallow and release all debts. We also let down our fences and share our harvests with each other. Inspired by the wisdom and values of the Shmita tradition, Pearlstone be honored the last Shmita year in a variety of powerful ways that were felt by staff, participants, guests, and our broader community:
• All our farm land was taken out of production and nourished instead through cover crops that restored soil health and fertility. We also sold some of our animals, took a hiatus from our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program, weekly deliveries of farm fresh produce to members picking up in the JCC lobbies), and underwent staff transitions as well.
• We took a step back from production in order to formulate a new farm business plan for the next seven year cycle. It took most of the year to conduct this deep-dive strategic planning process for the farm, reformulate appropriate financial and educational goals and expectations, and set priorities moving forward.
• Coming out of the Shmita year, the farm is now twice as productive, better organized and managed, and with a much healthier and more confident staff. We also now have a strong financial plan for the farm and an incredibly inspiring Pearlstone Campus Master Plan as well, which will take an entire Shmita cycle to implement.
• We also worked hard to figure out a way to embody Shmita values of rest and rejuvenation as an organization, enabling and encouraging Pearlstone employees to use special "Shmita Days" during the year for both personal growth and community service. Each staff member received seven additional paid days off during the Shmita year, including one vacation day and six days for community service. This was such a success that we are continuing Shmita Days even now that Shmita is over, with three days of community service available for each employee every year. Several staff have shared wonderful stories and pictures with us, and we now have a Pearlstone Staff Shmita Journal for all our guests and constituents to see and hopefully be inspired by to do make Shmita come alive in their own way as well.
• Our educational programs were still fully active throughout the Shmita year, and over 20,000 guests were exposed to the wisdom of the Shmita¬-sabbatical year by encountering our fallow fields and explanations of what we were doing and why.
In the fall of 2012, wanting to understand the impact of Jewish outdoor education on Jewish identity and engagement, a leadership community of Jewish funders including Jim Joseph Foundation, Leichtag Foundation, The Morningstar Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Schusterman Foundation, and UJA Federation of New York, collaborated with Hazon to conduct an initial national research study on experiences that integrate Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education (JOFEE), focusing on immersive programs of four days or more. Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE), was released in March of 2014, and the Pearlstone Center received data to indicate the impact of its programs, and it is described below:
PEARLSTONE PARTICIPANT DATA FROM THE 2013 JOFEE REPORT
1) Has there ever Been a Period in your life when you have felt
disengaged from or not connected to Judaism or Jewish Life?
ANSWER: • PEARLSTONE 75% • AGGREGATE 63%
2) My motivation to make the world a better place is driven by
Jewish values and traditions:
THOSE WHO AGREE: • PEARLSTONE 91% • AGGREGATE 90%
JOFEE INFLUENCE: • PEARLSTONE 85% • AGGREGATE 77%
3) Judaism/Jewish Traditions add meaning to my life:
THOSE WHO AGREE: • PEARLSTONE 99% • AGGREGATE 97%
JOFEE INFLUENCE: • PEARLSTONE 87% • AGGREGATE 76%
4) I feel a connection to Jewish traditions and customs:
THOSE WHO AGREE: • PEARLSTONE 100% • AGGREGATE 98%
JOFEE INFLUENCE: • PEARLSTONE 85% • AGGREGATE 70%
5) I consider myself a leader in my Jewish community:
THOSE WHO AGREE: • PEARLSTONE 88% • AGGREGATE 73%
JOFEE INFLUENCE: • PEARLSTONE 82% • AGGREGATE 67%
From the beginning of the farm here, the opportunity to apply Torah agriculture has been of paramount importance and inspiration. Physically, the farm was designed in order to maximize demonstrations of Jewish agricultural laws, traditions, and wisdom: social justice laws, forbidden mixtures, shmita, and orlah (not harvesting from fruit trees for the first three years). So every farm visitor has an experience of applied Jewish wisdom simply by walking the land here.
Intellectually and programmatically, this foundational commitment has spawned many years of deep learning and engagement with text, teachers, and the land—establishing our annual Beit Midrash shabbaton (now a Shavuot celebration) whose original purpose was to strengthen our understanding and relationship to primary Jewish sources on land, agriculture, and sustainability, and how we can apply those teachings today. The Beit Midrash took on contemporary issues through the lens of applied Torah—the controversy of GMO’s through the lens of forbidden mixtures, urban food deserts through the lens of pe’ah, federal food and agricultural policy (the Farm Bill) through the lens of shmita, and more. It became a very successful event that attracted partnerships from America’s top rabbinical schools and a beautifully diverse Jewish constituency, from secular progressive to very orthodox. Out of the Beit Midrash grew our Summer Kollel program, again attracting a very diverse group of young adults who immerse themselves in Jewish agriculture through hands-on farming and daily intensive study of Seder Zera’im, the Talmudic tractates focusing on agriculture in detail. Beyond these signature programs, the lessons of justice, integrity-diversity, and rest all featured above are embedded throughout the year in all our farm programs—Hebrew School on the Farm, Family Farm Camp, and even our teaching with Baltimore City Schools (in a more secular format).
Spiritually and communally, our foundational and ongoing commitment to apply Torah on the land here and throughout our programming has been a wellspring of inspiration, innovation, and momentum. It has given us an anchor to our educational planning and curriculum development, catalyzed partnerships and respect across the Baltimore community, and opened doors to truly groundbreaking Jewish thought with partners and teachers at JTS, Hebrew College, Pardes, Hadar, YCT, and more.
Our journey in applied Jewish wisdom has been central to who we are and what we do. Without it, our project would be fundamentally different in character and focus, and almost certainly less successful (and perhaps nonexistent) as a result. For American Jewish life to thrive in the years ahead, relevant and compelling applications of Jewish wisdom must be multiplied in accessible, fun, and inspiring ways. Pearlstone is proud to be at the forefront of that movement, and looks forward to a bright Jewish future.
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