How Retreats Changed My Life, and How They Are Changing Judaism Today

In the summer of 2006 I was teaching eighth grade social studies in a Seattle public school. I was 26 years old, on a career path, in a long-term relationship and a new home owner. Life was good, and it was time for a summer vacation. So I signed up for a week-long retreat at the Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center in Accord, N.Y.

I thought I was getting away after a busy school year, going on vacation, learning a little, but basically relaxing and rejuvenating. All of that happened. But while I was getting away, I was getting into new possibilities for my work, my ideas, my spirituality, my social connections and my life.

Fast forward seven years, and I've dedicated my work and life to the power and potential of Jewish retreats. I've connected with a sense of purpose within the Jewish community and the wider world that places the model of retreat -- the temporary autonomous zone designed for transformation -- at the center of a vision for how religion and society are evolving today.

Retreats -- the practice of leaving the day-to-day world, and immersing oneself in a 360-degree environment that is intentionally designed to further spiritual growth, deepen communal engagement, and develop new skills and perspectives -- are as old as religion itself. Today, this age-old activity has been replaced by the vacation, with little time left for the benefits that the retreat model offers. More than ever, we all need to get away. But we also need to get into what's most important in life at the same time. How to do it?

When I went on my first retreat, I had to make a shift from "getting away" to "getting into." I was drawn to a particular retreat that spoke to a specific interest of mine -- and that was a doorway to encounter a much deeper transformative process. There is a wide variety of retreats for people to get more deeply into what they're passionate about. But always, retreats are transformative. Transformation is learning that goes beyond adding new information to old -- it's the kind of learning that reorganizes our concepts of who we are, what is possible, where we're going and why we should care.

So why Jewish retreats? Well, they don't have to be Jewish at all. There are myriad examples of retreats across the religious and secular spectrum. But as a case study in how retreats can revitalize individuals and renew communities, Jewish retreats make an excellent story. Ten years ago there was hardly such a thing in the Jewish world. But in the hamlet of Accord, N.Y., something was already brewing. Inspired by Christian, Buddhist, Yogic and New Age models of retreat -- combined with new access to rich Jewish wisdom as offered by teachers such as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi -- Elat Chayyim Retreat Center was becoming renowned for offering retreats to folks yearning for a transformative experience, while at the same time having a vacation that would rejuvenate the body and soul.

Today, Jewish retreats have turned into a remarkable and successful example of cultural innovation and revival. Retreats have transformed the lives of tens of thousands of people. And they are a powerful example of social enterprise that sustain and embody the missions of non-profit organizations that are changing the landscape of Jewish life in North America and around the world.

Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality resides now at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, which is also the home of the Adamah Farm and Fellowship, and the Teva Learning Alliance. Elat Chayyim opens doorways to renew Jewish spirituality, as people's particular interests transform into entry points to a diverse and eco-conscious Jewish community. Whether one's interest is in yoga, meditation, prayer, text study, art, relationships, farming, baseball or the Grateful Dead, Elat Chayyim has a retreat geared to that passion.

In recent years a plethora of Jewish organizations have evolved and engaged the retreat model Inspired by Elat Chayyim's innovative adaptation of transformative retreat experiences for the Jewish world:

  • Hazon runs Bike Ride and Food Conference retreats that have cultivated a Jewish environmental movement, the influence of which is now felt in nearly every synagogue and Jewish community center across the country.
  • Wilderness Torah has created an innovative model of "villages" in the great outdoors where Jewish ritual and holiday celebrations exist in an awe-inspiring and deeply communal context.
  • The Pearlstone center hosts retreats year-round, providing this now-essential community service to the greater Washington, D.C. area.
  • Many synagogues have started to offer retreats to their congregations, as ways to deepen social bonds, make affiliation more meaningful and diversify their offerings. Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, Congregation Beth Elohim and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah are just a few of the groups that run their retreats at Isabella Freedman.
  • Alumni networks of Jewish organizations find retreats the ideal way to convene and engage the leaders that emerge from their programs. Avodah and Dorot are just two examples of organizations that use retreats to further their alumni relations.
  • Retreats can also help to ground and lay foundation for transformative work in the larger world. For one example, Nehirim uses retreats to build community that advocates for and positively represents Jewish LBGT people year-round.

This may only be a taste of what's to come. People and communities are transformed by retreats: We come to realize that our spirituality, our culture, our identity -- Jewish and beyond -- isn't just tied to our local day-to-day world, our family traditions, our personal habits. Our identities are fluid and can evolve, inspired by exposure to a world more expansive that we could imagine. This shift is crucial to address the challenges we all face today.

This is a particular Jewish microcosm of the general retreat phenomenon that's been responsible for personal revitalization and cultural renewal for centuries, if not millennia. In the living laboratory of the retreat, intensive cultural innovation and personal growth occurs. What's new is that today's retreat center combines the age-old practice of retreat with the modern need for vacation. And in the Jewish world, the effects are being felt far and wide.

When our desire to get away from the stress of the everyday meets our desire to get into the possibility of tomorrow, amazing things can happen. What if your vacation for be a force for transformation?

Turns out, it can.