Amid a challenging year for staff and revenue, Pearlstone adopts new programs

Jesse Berman | Baltimore Jewish Times

In a normal year, Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center in Reisterstown, has a $6 million budget and more than 120 staff members, with around 45 of them full time, said CEO Jakir Manela.

And over the years, Pearlstone has received awards, held festivals and put together ambitious plans to receive 100% of their energy needs from renewable sources.

“We were really booming,” Manela said. “Our retreat business was burgeoning. [There were] record-breaking sales and volume of participation from all walks of life across the Baltimore area.”

Then, of course, came COVID, grinding the world to a screeching halt and Pearlstone with it. During 2020, Pearlstone experienced a 90% reduction in sales revenue, specifically regarding the revenue from retreats, and experienced a 65% reduction in force in late June, according to Manela. Pearlstone’s budget currently stands at under $3 million, with approximately 40 total staff, around 10 of whom are full time.

The pandemic dealt a major blow to their finances and stability, Manela said, as well as to the communities that Pearlstone serves.

“We were stopped in our tracks,” he said. “Our retreat business, which is really the lifeblood, the engine of our budget, went off a cliff overnight.”

To help deal with the difficulties, Pearlstone received support from organizations like The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, Manela said, who helped them secure a paycheck protection program loan of around $580,000 in April that lasted until June. This delayed their force reduction by a few months. Additional support came from groups such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.

With that extra time, Manela said, the Pearlstone team was able to come together to reimagine what the organization could and needed to be during the pandemic, and they began to pivot to a number of new objectives and programs.

Filling bellies

The first of these was to help communities in crisis through Pearlstone’s emergency food response efforts, Manela said.

Pearlstone launched its kitchen meal delivery service at the start of the pandemic and has provided about 30,000 meals, including to Baltimore city school students and individual families in both the city and county. These meals are made by the Pearlstone kitchen staff, including Executive Chef Rebecca Pauvert and Sous Chef Edwin Gonzales.

During 2020, Pearlstone harvested and contributed more than 6,000 pounds of organic produce to Baltimore County’s emergency food efforts, which was sent to distribution centers run by the Baltimore County government, said Greg Strella, Pearlstone’s director of stewardship. Some of this produce has included tomatoes, peppers, kale and leafy greens, which were sent along distribution channels developed alongside Pearlstone partners like the Baltimore Gift Economy and Jewish Community Services, Strella said.

Pearlstone has also worked with CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. and JCS to supply low-income seniors with food boxes that include both prepared meals and organic produce grown at Pearlstone, Manela said.

Hosting gatherings and activities

With limits on in-person gatherings, many have found themselves having to postpone, adapt or cancel their lifecycle celebrations. But Pearlstone has been able to host a number of these events outdoors.

“We are so excited to be able to use Pearlstone’s campus, 180 acres of campus, to provide tranquil backdrops for lots of lifecycle events,” said Eve Wachhaus, Pearlstone’s deputy director, “for beautiful weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, family reunions, birthdays and other simchas that people were worried how they were going to celebrate.”

For these open-air events, Wachhaus said, Pearlstone is able to provide catering that is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, though clients are also able to bring in their own caterers. Additionally, she noted, their onsite pavilions make for excellent wedding venues.

Pearlstone offers outdoor programming for children

Pearlstone uses specific COVID-19 procedures to help ensure participants’ safety. If guests are sleeping over, Wachhaus said, they look for ways to create physical distance between different familial groups. There are also daily health screenings, including temperature checks, that everyone must go through to access the campus, and arrival times are scheduled to facilitate social distancing. When Pearlstone’s catering services are involved, staff work to “make sure that all the food is served with the utmost care for COVID.”

Other pandemic-era Pearlstone programs have included an in-person summer day camp and an outdoor Farm and Forest School, Manela said. This latter program grew significantly this fall.

“[A]midst a time [of] social isolation, the Farm and Forest School emerged as a safe outdoor space for kids to learn wilderness and farm skills with their peers,” Clara Feigelson, a Pearlstone educator who staffed the program in the summer and fall, said in an email. “It began as a small weekly program but soon became our main focus, serving about 100 students every week.”

Pearlstone has also hosted a Campus Club, Manela said, which lets members explore the retreat center’s hiking trails, while some of their virtual programming has included the opportunity to Skype with their local goat herd.

Making it possible

Earlier this year, there was a real possibility that Pearlstone would have to reduce its work force by as much as 90%, Manela said, noting that there are other retreat centers that have had to shut down completely this year.

But due to the dedication and creativity of the Pearlstone staff during the spring, along with the PPP loan and the support from national funders, they were able to avoid that, he said.

After its significant job losses this year, Pearlstone has been able to make some incremental additions to its staff, Manela said. He hopes that, by the spring or summer of next year, they are able to return to their pre-pandemic state.

“I’m so proud of Pearlstone’s ability to reinvent themselves in response to the significant challenges they face while continuing to embrace their mission of inspiring growth and renewal,” said Beth H. Goldsmith, chair of The Associated, in an email.

Similarly, Emile Bendit, president of the Pearlstone board, said in an email that the “pandemic has severely challenged the Pearlstone business model, but our core principles — sustainability, resilience, and Jewish wisdom — have provided guidance.”

The sentiment was echoed by Manela. Through it all, he said, Pearlstone chose to remain

“true to our core values of living Judaism, living our values, living the tradition, connecting with people of all walks of life and showing love to people, no matter where they come from.”

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