A match made in heaven?

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.


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Heading out for the holiday

Last year I celebrated Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim for the first time, and had an amazing and transformative holiday experience. This year, the retreat is a collaboration between Elat Chayyim and the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and I'm looking really, really forward to it! I'm heading out shortly.

The retreat has four leaders. Two of them I know: Rabbi David Ingber (the rabbi-in-residence at Elat Chayyim, who I met this summer and who I like a lot) and Rabbi Jeff Roth (who taught my first meditation workshop there, and who co-led the Yom Kippur retreat there last year). The other two are new to me. I'm looking really forward to learning from Rabbi Shefa Gold; she wrote some of my favorite liturgical chants, so I'm hoping her presence means we'll sing a lot. The fourth is Kvod Wieder, about whom I know very little (except that he directs the teen philanthropy program at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation) so stay tuned for further information when I get home again!

Though I don't expect to davven for twelve straight hours like the folks at Jerusalem's 'Leader' minyan do, I do expect prayer, meditation, chanting, Torah study, and a sense of community that will pervade the 25 hours of the holiday and continue to resonate through my Jewish life in the year to come. Whatever your form of observance, I wish all of my readers a joyous and meaningful Yom Kippur!

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Another week at Elat Chayyim

Elat Chayyim, for me, is like Miriam's Well, which (midrash teaches) followed our ancestors in the wilderness. The well contained such mayimei chayyim (living waters) that drinking from it nurtured both body and soul; it conferred Torah wisdom and insights, quenching thirst in all four worlds at once. I've just returned from a week-long Elat Chayyim retreat, and as usual, I feel steeped in tradition and enlivened by my learning.

I had three purposes in going on retreat. One was the pleasure of returning and dipping into that well. The second was Reb Shaya Isenberg's course Sharing Spiritual Wisdom: A Course in Deep Ecumenism. Thirdly, last week was a gathering-time for those involved with Aleph's various ordination programs, and I wanted to meet the rabbinic students and the other prospective applicants who were there.

This post is quite long (over seven thousand words) so read at your leisure. Herein you'll find class notes, conversational anecdotes, descriptions of the various prayer services, and (come Friday afternoon) a story about jumping in a river, among other things...

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Pesach at Elat Chayyim

I just spent three days on Passover retreat with rabbis Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Berman, and Marcia Prager, and cantor Jack Kessler. What a weekend!

Alas, many of the highlights don't translate well. The best parts for me were the new connections, prayers, and melodies. I don't think I can adequately blog the way it feels to sing and pray, open-hearted, in a room full of people who are invested in exploring and revitalizing Judaism the way I also want to do.

I can tell you a little bit about the seders and the davvening, though, and I can pass along some of the insights I gained through our study sessions. Maybe I can impart a little bit of the flavor of the retreat, what it was like for me to celebrate my favorite festival of the year in a community of like-minded folks. (Long-ish post alert: 2800 words. Read at your leisure.)

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Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim

I had a terrific Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim with rabbis Jeff Roth and Elliot Ginsburg. Yom Kippur has always frustrated me; I've always felt like I didn't have full access to it. Not so this year: this year I threw myself into it with gusto, and the holiday repaid me. Predictably, I scribbled a lot over the weekend. Many of those notes, slightly redacted, appear below for those who are interested in what a Yom Kippur weekend at Elat Chayyim is like.

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Holiday apparel

When I was a kid, September meant shopping. Mostly for new school clothes, though the season also always brought one new dressy outfit, to wear to synagogue on the High Holidays. Nice clothes were de rigeur for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (In those days, "nice clothes" mostly meant black patent leather Mary Janes and dresses with smocking across the top.)

It's years since autumn meant the start of school for me, and I don't usually shop for holiday clothes anymore. I have a couple of decent fall dresses that have gotten me through the last several High Holidays; I'm not such a fashion maven that I need something new every year. But as Yom Kippur approaches, I've been feeling like I wanted something new to wear. Specifically, I wanted something white.

It's traditional in some communities to wear white on Shabbat. The first time I encountered that was at the UAHC summer camp where I worked the summer I was nineteen; I loved seeing the streams of kids pouring out of their cabins to walk to the outdoor ampitheatre as sundown approached, all clad in white. We do the same at Elat Chayyim, and though nobody looks askance at those who don't know the custom or don't bring white clothes, every time I go I find myself wishing I had white to wear. When I was there in June I promised myself I'd get a white dress for my next Elat Chayyim Shabbat.

My next Elat Chayyim Shabbat, it turns out, is Yom Kippur: the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," which this year falls on a Shabbat. A lot of people wear white on Yom Kippur, too. It's customary in some communities for men to wear a kittel, a white tunic, on festivals like Yom Kippur and Passover (bridegrooms wear them, too). The white represents purity; the kittel also resembles a burial shroud, which serves as a reminder of impermanence. On Yom Kippur in particular the kittel is supposed to remind one of what's genuinely important (repentance, right thinking, purity of thought, elevated consciousness) -- arguably better areas of holiday focus than, say, what hemline is "in" this year.

In the community I come from, we dress up on the High Holidays because fancy dress is a way of showing respect for the community and the holiday. And were I celebrating Yom Kippur with my parents, I'd surely be looking for something elegant and new to wear, out of respect for that custom! But since I'm going to be at Elat Chayyim, where people will be wearing simple white (and presumably wearing canvas sneakers in lieu of leather shoes, too; though hopefully not eschewing bathing), I want to follow their tradition. But most of my white clothing is super-lightweight linen (in which I would shiver at this season). I have a white sweater, and plenty of white t-shirts, but those do not a wardrobe make. What to do?

A quick trip to the Berkshire Mall solved my dilemma. I found a pair of sturdy, serviceable winter-white corduroy trousers to pair with the white shirts I already own, so if it's cold, there's my holiday garb right there. And if it's warm? A flowing white embroidered dress from the ethnic-clothes-and-incense store, which will also serve as my Elat Chayyim Shabbat dress for the next umpteen years. Now I just have to hope no one blinks at my burgundy Converse Hi-Tops...