Greetings from camp! I’m here at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, home of Hazon, in Falls Village, Conn., in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains.
It was such a great idea for Cousin Avery to have his bar mitzvah here with dozens of our relatives and a hundred fellow campers. We have the whole place to ourselves, but individuals, families, colleagues and communities can also come for theme weeks and retreats for most of the year.
While I was checking in on Friday afternoon, I found out what the nonprofit Hazon is and does. As some of the provided pamphlets state: “Through food, the outdoors, and the environment, we frame and renew Jewish life; we inspire those who are already Jewishly involved and bring new people through the door. …”
Hazon works to create a “healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all.” And that mission became pretty clear to me as I toured the grounds and saw the working organic farm – with goats! – and its expansive gardens of veggies, fruits and herbs. I even learned a new acronym: JOFEE, which stands for Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming and Environmental Education. Sounds great! Sign me up. Oh wait, you already did. Yep, I’m a happy camper.
After check-in, we were treated to an arrival snack along with a pickling activity! Anyone interested got to pickle fresh produce directly from the farm – including radishes and cucumbers. I never knew I was related to such a bunch of pickle fanatics until this weekend.
Later, we kicked it poolside until it was time for the minchah. I took the opportunity to get the lay of the land. My bunk in Pine cabin was much less rustic than you would think. I’m not exactly roughing it here – believe me. Pine is directly across from Lake Miriam, which is outfitted with canoes and kayaks and a floating dock you can swim to.
After Friday night dinner, which included so many excellent Israeli-style salads (have I mentioned the hummus, yet?), about 30 of us went on a guided night walk on one of the facility’s hiking trails. The leader should probably have referred to it as a trust exercise or a team-building challenge. Oh, don’t worry! We were safe the entire time, but it was pitch black in the forest. All we could see were the fireflies and – if we squinted and concentrated – the wire of the eruv above us. It took all of us about two hours to complete that hike, which was funny because Cousin Gail and I went back the next day and it took us about 15 minutes in the daylight. And the treacherous bridge we thought we risked life and limb to cross was barely a raised platform a few feet long.
Before you ask, I did a tick check. All clear. The mosquitos, though, that’s an entirely different story. I’m going to need more bug spray.
After Saturday’s Kiddush and d’var Torah and watching Avery nail his Torah portion (there is a synagogue on the premises), we were all left to our own device-free devices. Being outside in nature without the constant buzz of cell phone conversations was probably one of my favorite parts of the weekend. Teenagers (and everyone else) were having face-to-face interactions, playing lawn games, reading in hammocks or just lounging poolside.
It was pretty hot out on Saturday, so I spent some time kayaking with Cousin Daniel and I took another hike – this one was labeled moderate but it had a surprisingly strenuous incline.
For the seudah shlishit, the traditional third meal, we had a pretty casual picnic-style dinner at the patio by the lake. All the feasts are starting to run together, but I remember at some point there was brisket and lamb and people were queuing up for seconds of both. In case you’re worried I’m not getting enough to eat, I promise that’s not the case. The cucumber salad! The couscous! It’s all so good! No need to send a care package – they essentially feed us fresh, farm-to-table meals every few hours. Even the maple syrup comes from nearby. It’s also all glatt kosher.
Saturday night, we did Havdalah at the campfire with s’mores and glow sticks. Guess what happened after Shabbos? My family surprised me with an enormous chocolate birthday cake, and the entire camp sang “Happy Birthday” to me! It was very cool.
Oh, I should probably mention Sunday brunch, too. There were real New York-style bagels with cream cheese and really good lox. There was also a bowl of fresh-picked raspberries that I wanted to stick my entire face in, but had to share with all the people I’m related to.
I’ve been too busy to write until now because there’s way too much to do here. In addition to the hiking trails, lake activities and swimming pool, there’s also a yurt that serves as a yoga studio, tennis and basketball courts and a gift shop/book store. And, if I get really bored, Canaan, Conn., is the closest town but Stockbridge and Great Barrington, Mass., are also within driving distance.
Best of all, of course, was the time I spent bonding with my family in such a gorgeous setting with such a positive mission. Mazel Tov, Avery!
Did you know that Isabella Freedman also offers Jewish summer camp for active adults 55 and over for two weeks a year? We should send the aunts and uncles next summer. There’s also a full calendar of retreats that take place throughout the year, including Torah yoga (July 23-29), a New York Ride + Retreat (Aug. 31-Sept. 3) and Sukkahfest (Sept. 23-Oct. 3). But what I really want to come back for is the Hazon Food Conference (Aug. 1-5), where I would learn about wood-fire roasting, beekeeping and food justice projects.
I didn’t get homesick at all, so I think you should consider sending me back to camp next year!
Hugs and kisses,
For more information and to register for upcoming retreats, go to hazon.org/isabellafreedman