On a recent Sunday afternoon, six young adults discussed which homemade mezuzah should hang on the doors to their new rooms. But these were no store-bought mezuzahs — the bright-colored covers were made from recycled materials.
And this is no ordinary home. The “high-efficiency, four-season cabin,” as its designer and builder described it, married sustainability with conventional building techniques. Although the roof is metal, the walls are made of clay plaster, the windows are reused, and a lot of other building materials were locally sourced.
“People are coming here to live healthy lives and participate in healthy living, and we wanted to create a home for them to do that work,” said Aitan Mizrahi, who designed and built the cabin at the Pearlstone Center.
For the next eight months, the cabin will house eight farm apprentices. Six of them moved in on March 12, and two more will join in the spring.
The apprentices will work on the farm, which includes gardens, annual and perennial crops, goats and hens, all farmed using sustainable, environmentally friendly methods. These practices are also Torah-based, said organizers, with specific agricultural skills based in ancient Jewish wisdom and social justice concepts infused in the program. Some of the food produced on the farm will be donated to area food banks and shelters.
“The major thing is just to show how relevant and how alive Torah truly is to things we care so much about here,” said apprenticeship coordinator Regina Mosenkis.
Former apprentice Elisheva Stark is now Pearlstone’s community garden coordinator.
“The apprenticeship strengthened my ideas of Judaism in this regard in terms of sustainability and agriculture,” she said. “I really enjoy those connections, and it’s a connection I really want to help others see.”
The apprentices are not only working on the farm, but also engaging in Jewish spiritual practice each morning, as well as teaching and learning environmental practices as part of the apprenticeship, Pearlstone director Jakir Manela said.
“To have a space that so embodies what the program is all about is really exciting,” said Manela. “There is no Jewish farm apprenticeship that has such a special space associated with it. It’s a living building.”
With a green builder now on staff at Pearlstone, lessons learned from the cabin will be applied to future green building.
The building was the first project of its kind for Mizrahi, 36. From 2004 to 2012, he worked at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, where he launched a goat dairy, managed a barnyard and worked on other agricultural projects. Manela met Mizrahi there and would later tap him for this project.
“He knew that I was studying natural building and design, and it’s something that’s pretty fundamental to the values here, and [I could] integrate sustainable building practices into their structure,” Mizrahi said.
He moved to Reisterstown in December 2012 to begin the design process and broke ground on the building in August 2013.
He considers the building a hybrid of natural and conventional building techniques. A lot of materials came from local sources and were not highly processed, including clay from Perryville and straw and manure from Reisterstown. The building has a tight assembly so heat won’t escape, but baseboard oil-filled heaters were placed in the bedrooms so people could stay in the cabin during the winter months.
Apprentice Adam Gillman said the new space is comfortable and inviting, and he likes knowing it was made from elements of the earth.
“We have a special opportunity to make an impact,” he said, “and this place certainly gives us the space to do that.”