Reflections on an innovation retreat
February 07, 2019
This week I participated in a rabbinic retreat focusing on innovation, and it was honestly one of the best retreat experiences I've ever had. The planning committee consisted of seven Rabbis Without Borders fellows who spent the last several months putting the retreat together (though our participant pool broadened beyond that group). We began the retreat with getting to know each other more deeply, creating a container for our time together, agreeing to kavanot (intentions) and processes.
One night Rabbi Mike Moskowitz taught us texts of chiddushim, innovations or new ideas. He began with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun ("ah, but over the sun, that might be another matter!") and brought us to the idea that each of us contains a part of the divine Soul and therefore each of us has unique Torah to uncover in partnership with the Holy. Another night, for Rosh Chodesh Adar, he taught texts about gender and clothing and what it means to reveal who we truly are.
One day Naomi Less from Lab/Shul led a stunning morning service that pushed some of our boundaries (in good ways), and brought some of us to tears (in good ways) and introduced us to Josh Warshawsky's gorgeous Ha-Meirah. It inspired really good conversations afterwards. Naomi also taught two fantastic sessions on Storahtelling and on innovation writ large, including some great text study that took us deep into the history and purpose and possibility of reading Torah aloud in community.
A propos of Naomi's beautiful shacharit -- and the retreat writ large -- I was reminded again that there is almost nothing in the world that brings me more joy than singing prayer in harmony with people whom I know and care for, and who care about our tradition's words and their meanings as much as I do. It is much of what I love about singing, much of what I love about prayer, and much of what I love about togetherness all in one. I know I've said that here before. I suspect that it will always be true.
Steve Silbert taught a session on the spiritual art of sketchnoting, gently and skillfully bringing us into his Visual Torah work and his practice of using images to learn and to teach. I came away with a new tool in my rabbinic toolbox, and also with ideas for how to incorporate his Visual Torah methods and practices into my teaching and my rabbinate. He brought wisdom to all of our sessions, too -- in his professional life he does facilitation work that overlaps a lot with some of the spiritual work that we do.
We held a related pair of sessions on innovation. In one we explored ritual innovations that we've tried, and why we've tried them, and how we brought them into being, and what kinds of responses arose from those whom we serve. In the other we explored what works, how we measure what works, what it means for a spiritual innovation to "work" anyway, how we balance qualitative and quantitative analysis, the appropriate role of entrepreneurial language in spiritual life, and more.
At our closing session we talked about what we're taking away from this retreat, teachings and melodies and grounding and connections. And we talked about next time, assuming that there is a next time -- and we all agreed that we want this to be a beginning, not a one-off. We brainstormed about what made this retreat so sweet, and how to replicate its sweetness, and what kinds of things we want to do together in days and months and years to come, and where we might go from here.
The conversations around all of these subjects continued on into meals and downtimes. One night we sang the whole Grace After Meals with gusto. One night we played a special edition of Rabbi Pictionary, created just for us! Those who were with us as teachers and "presenters" were also present with us during the retreat as friends and colleagues, which feels significant. In the closing session several people talked about the gift of experiencing a genuine absence of hierarchy, and posturing, and ego.
And that was all the more special because we consciously didn't erase our differences. Our group of participants came from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, ultra-Orthodox, and trans-denominational settings. Our approaches to halakha, to prayer, and to practice are as diverse as that set of labels would imply. There was a genuine sense that we were all there to learn from and with each other, a pluralism that was both real and deep. Everything we did together felt both real and deep.
And that's the ineffable thing I can't quite describe. It's like singing with friends in really great harmony. Though harmonies at least can be recorded. Listening to them afterwards isn't the same as singing them in the moment, but it gives a sense of the beauty. This kind of real friendship, collegiality, and connection can't be put into words in a way that doesn't sound corny. So I guess I'll accept sounding corny. It's a small price to pay for a really terrific few days, and the promise of more to come.
This is the work for which we received funding from the Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation. I'm grateful to the Katz family for their fiscal support and to Bayit for providing the fiscal container within which the retreat could unfold.