Chesapeake Retreat

I spent this Shabbat at the National Havurah Committee Chesapeake Retreat outside of Baltimore.  I’ve been hearing about NHC for years from many different people in my life, but this was the first time that I’ve directly been part of this community myself.  I’m really glad I went and was really impressed with lots of things about the experience.  I also will readily admit that I’m in an interesting place to be thinking about how I fit into new communities, so I perhaps was not engaged as I might have been at other points in my life.  All that being said, better jump in.

Since, at least in theory, this blog is about food, it’s convenient that the theme of the weekend was food ethics and eco-kashrut, especially because the food we actually ate isn’t so noteworthy to write about in and of itself.    Because Pearlstone Conference Center is attached to Kayam Farm, they compost food waste after the meals, or at least they did Friday night.  Pearlstone also has a Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal.  Those two things, along with the incredibly strict kashrut standards of the retreat center (and hanging out with a bunch of Jews over Shabbat), mean that food can never be too far from your mind while you’re there.

The best thing I ate this weekend was the gefilte fish on Friday night, and I was also delighted to have a piece of rainbow cake, a dessert that I associate so strongly with Baltimore that I couldn’t possibly have spent a weekend there without eating some.  I didn’t take this picture (it’s from usa.kosher.com), but I need a visual aid in case you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

Yum.

On Saturday, I went to two workshops dealing with food.  The first was about the sacrifices in this week’s Torah portion, relating those animal sacrifices to how we eat and how other cultures offer sacrifices of food.  I was amazed by how many people described the sacrifices as a “holy barbecue,” since I’ve always pictured them as a mess of blood and gore and bad smells not at all related to something anyone would want to eat.  I’ve also struggled with understanding the anthropomorphism of God as a deity that requires “a pleasing odor,” from the burning meat.  I heard a great point at this session, though, which is that the idea of a pleasing odor was a step less anthropomorphized than the idea of a deity eating food sacrifices, so it actually made the Hebrew God less human than other gods at the time.

The second workshop was about eco-kashrut, the idea that laws regarding what is and is not acceptable for Jews to eat extends beyond Torah and rabbinic law in order to incorporate modern sensibilities about taking care of the earth.  For example, some people, including the presenter, say that eating certified kosher food on disposable plates might not really be “kosher.”  The discussion forced me to think about the amount of waste that my job produces.  I am so glad to be able to provide Shabbat meals for so many people on such a regular basis, but I really do wish there were a way to do it without disposables, with more organic and local produce, and with more sustainably produced animal products.

A few more random thoughts about my NHC experience:

  • This community exists completely independently of me!  I had a wonderful time sitting back, letting other people facilitate, and watching a fully functioning community do its thing without any input from me.   Even though I knew a lot of people there, I felt anonymous in a spiritually liberating kind of way.
  • I spend too much time with people my own age.  Spending Shabbat with an intergenerational community was a refreshing reminder that 20s and 30s are just a slice of the Jewish demographic and there are places where Jewish continuity is already tangible.
  • I graduated from college a really long time ago.  The first time I went to Pearlstone was for a Goucher Hillel retreat in, oh, say, 2001.  Then again, I spent some time this morning talking to a man about his college experiences in the ’50s, so all things are relative.
  • Being alone is an important skill to cultivate.  I say this not only because I went away for the weekend without Marc, but also because I spent a good deal of time Saturday night wandering around the grounds by myself and thinking “This is what it’s like to be a loner.  How interesting!”
  • The people I encountered this weekend were remarkably less likely to comment on my belly than the people I see in my everyday life.  I realized that at the same time that I often resent the comments and the second glances, I have also come to rely on them to some degree, and just being a person rather than “the pregnant person,” positively impacted the way I saw myself in this weekend’s context.
  • My priorities lie in building communities where I live.  Maybe I’m too impatient to invest in a community whose continuity I could see in 20 years after having long-lasting relationships with people I would see twice a year.  Or maybe it’s a need for rootedness: needing to have community that’s tied to my home and the people I see every day.  I think both formats need to exist and both nourish different needs in different people.  I’m glad to have a taste of this variety, and I’m glad that there are places for me to fit in here and there.
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