HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Students Convene for Second Spiritual Retreat

Thirty Jews at the breakfast table not saying a word? Thirty HUC students and community rabbis at the lunch table talking about God and holy moments in their lives? These same people pouring their hearts out at a Friday night kumzitz (happening) as Debbie Friedman led them in her songs they first learned as teenagers?

Sponsored by the Spiritual Growth department of the LA campus, and headed by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, students from the rabbinic, education and Jewish non-profit management (formerly Jewish communal service) schools spent the weekend, a short walk from the Pacific Ocean at the Steve Breuer Conference Center in Malibu, of October 8-10 praying, meditating, doing yoga, singing, walking by the ocean, doing art and exploring the relationship between spirituality and social justice. Students were divided into groups of three to process aspects of the weekend and to discuss ways of continuing its work once students returned to school.

Debbie Friedman joined with recent ordinee Rabbi Dan Medwin, Manager of Technology for the CCAR, to lead an uplifting Kabbalat Shabbat service blending visuals of the Pacific and the Mediterranean, the Breuer Center and Tel Aviv, so seamlessly that participants were not sure by which body of water they were praying. Rabbi Ruth Sohn led the meditation sessions; rabbinic student Sara Abrams, a professional yoga instructor, led daily sessions in that practice; and Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, West Coast Lead Organizer for the URJ Department of Just Congregations, Rabbi Joel Simonds, assistant rabbi of University Synagogue, and Rabbi Levy led the sessions on Spirituality and Social Justice. Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp, rabbi of Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, flew in to lead sessions on art as a spiritual expression. Rabbi Simonds and Rabbi Rachel Timoner, assistant rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, led the table discussions on spiritual topics, and Rabbis Timoner and Terlinchamp led a discussion session on Saturday night on "Interweaving Spiritual and Academic Concerns."

The Saturday night session produced some interesting insights as to how HUC-JIR might better fulfill its Statement of Purpose to be "a Jewish religious community built on God, Torah, avodah, mitzvot, and Tikkun Ha-olam...instilling in its members exceptional leadership skills and spiritual growth enabling them to be catalysts of transformation..."

Students identified problems in blending spiritual growth with their academic work such as: feelings of being overwhelmed, tight schedules, professors trained to encourage academic pursuits, not spiritual ones, the intrusion of school assignments on Shabbat practice, and many others. Among the solutions to the perceived absence of a spiritual atmosphere were: encouraging each other "to assume that God is in everything at school and that you are searching for God;" beginning class with a blessing; concluding class with writing a reflection on what spiritual insights one might derive from that day's class; initiating discussions on spiritual topics at lunch; if homework must be done on Shabbat, accompanying it by practices that perceived the holiness in that study.

The first Spiritual Retreat was held one year ago, and attracted 16 students, primarily from the rabbinic program. This year's gathering included 13 rabbinic students, 1 rabbinic student taking the year-long Master’s degree in Jewish Education, 6 students from the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, 3 joint Masters of Nonprofit Management and Jewish Education students, and one Education Masters student.

Before departing, students completed a Spiritual Plan to help them incorporate some of the Retreat practices into their daily lives, and registered for ongoing reflection meetings with the teachers at the retreat. Another Spiritual Retreat will be held in January, over Martin Luther King's Birthday weekend, also funded by the Angell Foundation.

Among the comments on evaluations were: "I really appreciated how varied the services were;" "I felt the 'outside' teachers brought a refreshing attitude and style"; the silent meals were "awesome"; the workshops were "great [yoga]," "difficult [meditation]" and "mind-opening [social justice];" the three-person groups were "fantastic! very valuable reflection time:" "the 'holy moments' discussion was great'; the Kumsitz was AMAZING!!"

The evaluations also revealed that not all the three-member groups worked as well as others; that more services might have been outdoors; that there might have been better integration of people from different programs. Several students suggested ways of building on this retreat in planning for the gathering in January 2011.

A reunion of all participants will be held on Thursday, November 4, in Los Angeles. Lunch will be served and speaking will be allowed.

For additional information, please contact Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Director of the Campus Synagogue and Spiritual Growth, at 213-749-3424 or at rlevy@huc.edu.