You may have heard the joke about the man who was rescued from a desert island after having washed ashore twenty years earlier on his small sloop in a gale. “How did you manage to survive and maintain your sanity?” a reporter asked the rescued man.
“By relying on my faith,” he replied. “Follow me and I’ll show you.” When they arrived at a clearing a shul fashioned of palm fronds, coconut shells, and woven grass came into view. “It took me ten years to build this shul.”
“Amazing!” the reporter said. “And what did you do for the next ten years?”
“Follow me.” He led the reporter to the far side of the island and at the end of a glen another shul came into view.
“Why, sir, would you build two shuls? You’re the only Jew here.”
“This is the shul I attend. That other place, feh. I wouldn’t set foot in there if you paid me.”
This joke resonates with many of us because we know from experience that internecine conflicts among the various streams of Judaism, sometimes stemming from disagreements over doctrinal or liturgical matters, have at times strained relations among Jews.
JLI—The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute—the adult educational arm of Chabad—held its thirteenth National Jewish Retreat in Providence, Rhode Island in August 2018 and we attended. Individuals from all the major streams of Judaism—orthodox, conservative, reform, and reconstructionist—were represented. More than half the attendees—orthodox and non-orthodox alike—were repeaters; they had attended a retreat before. The objective of JLI is to break down barriers and provide adult education that will appeal to Jews regardless of background or affiliation. From the diversity of the crowd it was clearly succeeding. All ages were in attendance, from the twenty-somethings to octogenarians.
We suspect that any first-timer who may have initially been uncertain as to how welcoming JLI would be to those who embraced a more liberal practice of Judaism soon had their fears allayed. The information presented in the sessions was non-judgmental and the answers provided to attendees’ questions suggested that the speakers were comfortable with positions at variance with their own. Nowhere in evidence was the type of attitude evinced by the man on the island that suggested that a particular type of worship was unacceptable. If anything, some of the presenters’ humor was self-deprecating which no doubt put people at ease.
The retreat featured 180 presentations by over 75 presenters over a six-day period and offered something for everyone. Although the entire retreat spanned six days, attendees could register for as few as three. The price covered the program, deluxe accommodations, and all meals. The presenters were leading Jewish scholars, theologians, academics, and educators from all over the world.
The material was packaged in easy-to-digest 50-minute presentations and at any given time there were as many as six concurrent sessions. If one topic was not to your liking, you had up to five other topics to choose from during that same time slot. The material in the presentations that we attended was well organized and provided bullet-like takeaways. A few of the presentations were geared specifically to men and a few specifically to women—something that some might find particularly appealing.
Religious services and Torah and Talmud study were of course offered. The retreat also featured Krav Maga (military self-defense and fighting developed by the Israeli Defense Forces) for men, morning stretch for women, entertainment, comedy, film screening, hands-on challah baking and art workshops, and concerts.
Sessions on subjects as diverse as Kabbalah, antisemitism, the right to die, why we are here, mindfulness, relationships, getting the love you want, drug abuse, and being human in an age of artificial intelligence were offered.
Sessions on medical ethics through a Jewish lens were offered, and physicians could obtain CME credit for attending.
One of the highlights of the retreat and one befitting a venue which is just 50 miles from Boston was litigation before a Mock Rabbinical Court of the iconic events of the Boston Tea Party (styled for purposes of the mock trial as “British East India Company v. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty”) for the destruction of 342 chests of tea on December 16, 1773. Following the Boston Tea Party, Parliament retaliated with the Intolerable Acts which helped to precipitate the American Revolution.
For attendees with kids in tow, the retreat offered a babysitting program for newborns-2, in-house entertainment and activities for children 2-3, and a recreational program for children 4-14.
When one of us informed a previous attendee of plans to register for the retreat, she said, with an expression suggestive of understatement, “I think you may like the food.” The food at the retreat turned out to be an opulent Bar Mitzvah reception on steroids. The sumptuous and varied Kosher offerings extended from dawn to dusk only to start anew the next day.
The next National Jewish Retreat is scheduled for August 13-18, 2019 in Washington, D.C. at the Marriott Wardman Park, the capital’s largest conference hotel, located on 16 scenic acres. If you register for what we’re sure you will find to be an inspiring experience, you may wish to pace yourself with regard to the gourmet cuisine. As Senator Joe Lieberman humorously said in a video, the retreat will afford you the opportunity “to grow in mind and spirit but I hope not too much in body.”
This article was co-authored by Jane Dorval M.D.
Jane is an active member of Cape Cod Havurah Am HaYam. She has a Torah partner, through Partners in Torah, with whom she has met weekly for the last five years. Dr. Dorval is a retired psychiatrist, specializing in restoring function as a result of disease or injury. During her 35 years of practice she has also served as a past chair of the board for CARF, an international standards-setting and accrediting organization for quality rehabilitation programs serving the needs of people with disabilities in the U.S. and throughout the world.