I felt a pang when I saw the Jewish Week article Retreat And Advance: As funky Elat Chayyim closes its doors, some wonder if it will be replaced by a more upscale Jewish retreat center. The piece describes how at the end of this summer Elat Chayyim will move in with The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. "Removing the Torah will be the final act by Elat Chayyim’s leaders before they close the retreat center’s doors, bringing to an end a grand experiment in the spiritual renewal of Judaism," Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes.
Bringing to an end? It's true that the Freedman Center has historically been more
mainstream in its programming than Elat Chayyim. The two centers
have different stories of how they
came into being; they've served different segments of the Jewish community. But I don't think they're necessarily dissimilar, at least not as they move forward. In 2003 the Freedman Center started the
Adamah Fellowship, an internship that blends organic farming
with Jewish contemplative practice -- a program that could have come right out of the Elat Chayyim catalogue.
I think Ms. Nussbaum Cohen's article overstates the situation when it paints Elat Chayyim's move as an end to Elat Chayyim. Indeed, the marriage could do both organizations good. Having two Jewish retreat centers within a couple hours of each other seems like a division of both community and resource; this might enable both to flourish more than either one could have done alone. I attended a terrific Yom Kippur retreat cosponsored by the two retreat centers last fall, which gives me confidence that the two organizations work well together. I see this change as a merge, not a closing; a new chapter, not an end.
Perhaps I see the situation through the rose-colored glasses of my deep desire for this match to work. I can't speak highly enough of Elat Chayyim. My adult Jewish life was sparked there and has been nourished every time I've returned. Elat Chayyim taught me how to davven, opened my heart to deep experiences of holiness, brought me into community, and set me on the path toward the Aleph rabbinic program. So obviously I'm biased. But I also think, and hope, that this shift will be a source of blessing.
If you want to experience a retreat at the funky old Elat Chayyim site, this summer's your last chance; browse the calendar and see what appeals. (I'll be there July 17-23 for the start of the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute.) Do come this summer; it's going to be tremendous! But I think the program will be tremendous when it becomes the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at Isabella Freedman, too. Change doesn't have to be scary. As Rabbi Jeff Roth, co-founder of Elat Chayyim, taught a few years ago during an erev Shabbat service:
Once there were a big wave and a little wave in the middle of the ocean. The big wave was crying, and the little wave asked why. "If you could see what I can see," the big wave said, "You'd know that ahead of us are rocks. We're going to crash on the rocks and die!" The little wave offered to teach the big wave something that would remove his fear, and first the big wave asked if it would cost anything, or if he would be required to chant a bunch of mantras and stand on his head, but the little wave said no and that in fact it was only six words. So the big wave said, "Sure, teach me." And the little wave said: you're not a wave, you're water.