Five years ago today I left for my first visit to Elat Chayyim. That's on the Gregorian (secular) calendar, of course; on the Jewish calendar that was the 27th of Av, and today is the 21st of Av, so we're off by about a week. Still, though -- by one reckoning, today marks five years since I first set foot on the Elat Chayyim campus.
That was the old Elat Chayyim, housed in a former Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. I remember parking my car, walking slowly and a little bit uncertainly to the main building to check in, and wondering what exactly I had gotten myself in for and whether the place could or would fulfill any of the dreams and expectations I couldn't help having.
That was before this blog began, so there's no record of my first Elat Chayyim week here in these pages. I spent mornings in R' Jeff Roth's Jewish meditation workshop, and afternoons studying tikkun olam with R' Arthur Waskow. I had my first taste of weekday shacharit in many years -- this time, davening in a yurt, seated cross-legged on meditation cushions, learning chants that matched each of the basic morning prayers. (We had the option of choosing "traditional" or "interpretive" morning prayer. Today I enjoy both; but oh, I'm glad I chose the interpretive davenen then!) For the first time, I saw women laying tefillin, which was awesome and attractive and a little bit overwhelming.
I had a lot of firsts that week. My first "mishpacha group" (a kind of ad-hoc family, a group with whom one processes the emotional roller-coaster of any week-long retreat), my first real conversation with God (walking in the fields and speaking quietly aloud, after the practice of Reb Nachman of Breslov), my first mikvah, my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat. I felt increasingly comfortable, at-home, luminous as the week went on. By the end of that week I knew that I had found my Jewish tribe, and that someday when I felt ready to work formally toward becoming a rabbi I wanted to do it with this community, because the rabbis who had led our learning and davenen all week were the kind of rabbi I aspired to be.
Five years: that's all. On the calendar, it's a nothing, an eyeblink. And honestly, in lived time it doesn't feel like it's been that long.
And yet. Tomorrow I'll head back to Elat Chayyim -- in its new home at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center -- for the third week of DLTI, the two-year davenen leadership training program run by ALEPH. I've long since lost count of how many times I've been to Elat Chayyim; it is home for me now. And so is Jewish Renewal. I'm an ALEPH rabbinic student. Many of the teachers who first awed me during that first Elat Chayyim week are now beloved colleagues and, I hope, friends. I am -- baruch Hashem! -- on my way, learning how to live up to their example.
When I stop to think about how my life has been changed by that first week at Elat Chayyim, it takes my breath away. I'm overwhelmingly grateful to that place, and to the people who enliven it -- hell, to Rodger Kamenetz for writing The Jew in the Lotus which sent me looking for Reb Zalman which brought me to Elat Chayyim which led me right to where I am. So thanks, everyone. It's been an incredible first five years. I can't wait to see what the next five will bring.