At first glance, HBO’s dark satire White Lotus does not share much in common with a Jewish summer camp & retreat center located on 185 acres in Clayton, Georgia, called Ramah Darom. However, they meet at one central point; they are about redefinition. Where HBO has brought a new sharp edge to the typical Cabo San Lucas week-trip, the bright minds at Ramah Darom have strived to redefine the idea of immersive Jewish experiences. While they’ve been offering Jewish retreats for years, their newest retreat, which will take place over President’s Day Weekend, February 17-20th, will be unlike anything offered before. Lasting four action-packed days, taking full advantage of all the facilities that Ramah Darom has to offer, from kitchens to outdoor pavilions, craft centers and many other unique spaces, B’teavon will be Ramah Darom’s debut into the growing world of Jewish food education, as is reflected by the array of prominent chefs who will be hosting panels and events. Everything that can be planned has been, down to the Airstream mobile bar and the dining room centerpieces.
The name of the game is diversity, as the director of the Kaplan Mitchell Retreat Center, Eliana Leader, told me. “There is so much diversity in the Jewish story in general, and food is a reflection of that diversity. Ramah Darom seeks to serve every demographic, every interest area, topically on someone’s Jewish journey.” To represent the infinite facets of the Jewish story, B’teavon has brought together chefs from many different hotspots of evolving Jewish cuisine. From Brooklyn, the specialists in reimagining Ashkenazi cuisine and bringing back Eastern-European Jewish cultural traditions are Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz of the Gefilteria, who have also been mentors to the design of the program. Adeena Sussman, author of Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen (flying in from Israel) and Susan Barocas (head of SaVOR and the White House chef for three of President Obama’s Seders) will be among the headliners, representing, respectfully, the transnational side of Jewish food with local cuisine and food inspired by Jewish stories and presenting Sephardi, no-waste cooking styles. B’teavon will also feature James Beard award-winning author Michael W. Twitty, whose culinary journey has been defined by exploring African food and the fusion of aspects of his identity through his food, as is explored in his new book, Koshersoul. Two-time James Beard Foundation Semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast Todd Ginsberg, who has multiple restaurants in Atlanta, will be the Southeast Spotlight chef at this retreat. Jewish stories are integral to his creations, as is evidenced by the name of his first restaurant, The General Muir, after the transport boat that brought immigrants and displaced persons to the United States from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Last but not least, representing an essential component of Jewish food and community, Tova du Plessis, four-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee and owner of Essen Bakery in South Philadelphia, will teach us the art and history of Jewish baking, which goes well beyond challah.
If it sounds like a lot, it is designed to be. Ramah Darom is redefining-nay, treading new ground when it comes to how retreats are run, how they are experienced and how we commit to them. One of the biggest priorities for Leader, who I interviewed to get the full scope of the beauty and intentionality of B’teavon, is maintaining the intimacy and holisticness that makes Ramah Darom retreats as fulfilling and educational as they are. “If we are doing a good job, our retreat portfolio is varied enough to where every retreat is not for everyone, but everyone has a couple of retreats each year that speak deeply to their needs and interests.” That being said, B’teavon is a retreat that, like the center itself, is designed to warmly welcome anyone who wants to attend. The inspiration and heart behind B’teavon is clear; if you are telling a Jewish story, presenting and adapting Jewish culture, it simply cannot be done without Jewish food. The 4-day retreat, named B’teavon after the Hebrew word for bon appetit, will be capped at 200 people in this inaugural year and will provide accommodations for all kinds of dietary restrictions, with all food being kosher and events timed to respect Shabbat observance. Rather than viewing kosher and Sabbath practices as a hindrance to a successful retreat, Leader views these commitments as a way to make Jewish spaces accessible and inclusive to a diverse Jewish community. “If our catering is kosher certified, everyone can eat it. If it isn’t, we can’t authentically serve a diverse Jewish community. In order to contain multitudes, we have opted to design our schedule to accommodate a variety of observance levels. For example, there are traditional Egalitarian prayer services and alternative gratitude sessions for those who prefer non-traditional spiritual spaces. We do not use screens and amplified sound in communal spaces and activities on Shabbat, but comfortably accommodate guest arrivals after sundown on Friday as needed. It’s a Jewish experience that probably does not reflect any one guests’ home practices, but that’s the beauty of serving a diverse group of Jews and their loved ones who are coming together in a shared space.”
In short, all you need to do is come prepared to learn new things, try new foods and be inspired, and Leader is certain that you will. “Retreat participants I’ve spoken with are excited about the quality and expertise of the presenters, and they know us and trust our excellence in hospitality and immersive Jewish experiences. We want to get it right the first time because our participants are putting a lot of faith in us…my hope is that the reputation of this retreat will grow.” B’teavon is a Jewish experience, aiming to bring people closer to their Jewish identities and their culture, no matter who they are. As many chefs can attest, very few things are as personal, as intimate, as the act of eating. It is because of this intimacy that food throughout the ages has become a medium for art, for culture, for all different shades of being who you are. As Ramah Darom has shown us time and time again, and as they will show us in February, all aspects of Jewish culture can be unlocked and made accessible; and they can teach us, if we want to listen, how we can continue our traditions while adding our own experiences to the mix. To quote Leader: “Jewish food culture goes beyond just eating; the heart of our modern table is informed by bountiful stories and connections from a lived experience of the past to the present. At B’teavon, old traditions will be made new again by integrating Jewish food culture into every part of our modern table.”
Learn more about this new culinary exploration of all things Jewish food at ramahdarom.org/bteavon.
About the Author:
Elliot Cohen is a Communications graduate of Oglethorpe University who enjoys writing, doing research and learning, and looks forward to writing more about the nuances of the Jewish communities in Georgia.
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