Strengthening Institutions / Renewing Oneself

Dear All,

I had the great honor last weekend to be at the B’nai Jeshurun shul retreat at Isabella Freedman. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking experience.

In the last two decades a remarkable number of rabbis, rabbinical students and Jewish tourists have attended services at BJ, which has had a profound influence on non-orthodox shuls in this country (not to mention quite a few orthodox ones, too, and a growing number of kehillot in Israel.) But what struck me last weekend was an unseen aspect of BJ’s success. A shul can have great services and yet not be a community; to be a strong community one needs to put enormous thought and effort into thickening relationships.

BJ does this in two ways. First, through a web of weekly and daily interaction – learning and davening, committees, social justice, a hevra kadisha, a range of ways for someone to find a smaller space within the larger whole; a context in which to be seen, to connect and to make a difference. All the good shuls, in my experience, have this.

BJ has something in addition which I think is critical in this 24/7 world, and which is slightly rarer: an extensive mechanism for going on retreat together. The BJ Retreat last weekend was one of three that BJ is doing at Freedman alone this year, and one of a total of eight immersive experiences that are open to different members of the community this year. (I should add that this doesn’t, however, immunize you against all potential challenges: Jewish life nowadays is complex, and the larger the institution and the wider the range of views, the more complex.

But I’m struck that, no matter how powerful a shul’s services are, no matter how extensive any organization’s committee structure, there is no substitute for people being away together. This is the heart of the summer camp experience, which is persistent (ie one may do it in repeat years, not just once) and it is the heart of the success of Limmud. Key leaders at Federations built relationships by going to Israel and other parts of the Jewish world together.

And I would add: you can have a great shul or institution, and not do a retreat; and you can go on retreat without being part of a daily or weekly institution (like the JFN Conference or Hazon’s Food Conference.) But strongest is to go away as part of an institution. That’s why it is so gratifying for us to host the different BJ Retreats and it is why, in the coming years, we hope and intend to increase our capacity not only to host but also to support the programming of retreats for different institutions.

It was especially gratifying for me to hear BJ’s rabbis, who have been coming to Freedman since 1992, comment on how very different the place is today. All that was good then – a beautiful location, a sense of Jewish immersion – remains. Yet now there is also a working Jewish farm, and a superb farm tour led by Dr. Shamu Sadeh, Adamah’s director, plus goats and chickens, yurts, kids running around; a postmodern shtetl that integrates Jewish values and a profound sense of sustainability in a way that is literally impossible inside a city.

So: if you’re interested in coming on retreat with us, as an institution, in 2015 or 2016, speak to David Weisberg – Hazon’s CEO. (And there are maybe two slots left in 2014, also.

And if you’d like to come not as an institution, but simply with your family, please join us for an Adamah Family Farm Vacation -–whether you define your family as parents and kids, sisters and brothers, grown cousins, grandparents, and grandkids, a group of friends, etc. We’re running two sessions this year: July 21 – 25 and August 4 – 8. This is Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education (JOFEE) at its best:

It’s Jewish: We’re an inclusive Jewish community accessible to a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, and on a farm vacation, everyone gets to learn how Jewish values connect to food and environmental ethics.

It’s outdoors: Spend the afternoon strolling through our edible forest garden, boating, swimming, hiking, reading, or relaxing in the beauty of the Berkshires. Explore our trails with experienced nature experts.

It’s food: Enjoy delicious kosher farm-to-table meals each day and learn where your food comes from by lending a hand in the fields. Make your own cheese and pickles (one of the highlights of the BJ weekend).

It’s environmental and educational: Hands-on learning in the fields, the best of Teva educators, and evening classes that explore Jewish tradition, New England permaculture principles, and the new Jewish food ethic.

Finally: chodesh tov, and chag sameach. I hope that this period from Pesach to Shavuot has been rich and growthful. We have – mixing the multiple metaphors of this period of Jewish life – traveled in the wilderness, enjoyed our radical freedom, and seen the harvest grow. Shavuot is, famously, the time of the giving of the Torah, because we each of us choose individually whether and in what ways to receive it. That rabbinical insight has never been more true than in this post-postmodern world of ours. May we be blessed to use our freedom wisely.

Shabbat shalom,


PS: If you’re interested in joining us for an Adamah Farm Vacation, or for this year’s Teva Seminar, you can save $50 if you sign up by midnight this Sunday, June 1st, with the code JOFEE50.