Jewish Retreating Finally Comes of Age

Nesiya Lodge at Capital Retreat Center; courtesy.

By Josh Fidler and David Phillips

Over the past decade or more, new models of Jewish learning have been formally studied, achieved recognition and, as a result, have been elevated in both importance and attention. Israel experiences, summer overnight camps and outdoor, environmental and experiential education have assumed their rightful place as living laboratories for creative and appealing programming. Birthright Israel, Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Grinspoon Foundation’s JCamp 180, JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming & Environmental Education), Moishe House and others are all now providing compelling, immersive experiences with lasting value worthy of investment. They are clearly woven into the tapestry of our communities.

However, another powerful force exists that has only recently been formally studied and has yet to be recognized and integrated into the continuum of Jewish learning options. Jewish retreating has been the silent partner to innovative programming found in communities across the country and around the world.

Retreats offer powerful immersive experiences for diverse institutions, both existing and emerging, individuals of all ages and degrees of Jewish affiliation, and occur in unique settings nationwide (indeed, worldwide). Jewish retreats serve well over 100,000 people annually – eclipsing the number of children who experience Jewish camp each year in North America and exceeding by many times the number of participants in JOFEE programs as reported in the seminal JOFEE report, Seeds of Opportunity. That is not in any way to diminish the import of camps or outdoor experiences. Jewish retreats often utilize camp facilities and incorporate outdoor experiences. Adult participants experience the magic of the ‘un-city’ – finding spiritual meaning, growing closer, exploring important topics, deepening relationships or just escaping to release the toxins of everyday life.

Formal study of the field of retreating began in 2015 when two foundations supported a landscape survey of the Jewish retreat sector. Since then, with the active oversight of an advisory committee representing retreat operators, organizers and funders, momentum has been building to elevate retreating.

Advancing Jewish Retreating, a robust study undertaken by Amy L. Sales and Nicole Samuel of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, has just been released. We believe this research will replicate the transformational impact of Sales and Saxe’s Limud By The Lake (2002). The current study offers much more than a description of the scale and growth path of retreats and anecdotal testimony for the transformational effect of retreats. It addresses WHO organizes retreats, WHY they use this format, HOW retreats are integrated into the lives of their organizations, and WHERE the needs and interests of facility operators intersect with organizers.

For example, the study provides an in-depth look at Moishe House’s Retreatology retreat. Moishe House views retreating as a critical tool for engaging young adults and is “doubling down” on peer-led retreats. Retreatology is designed to empower participants to create and host Jewish retreats for their peers.

Another entity featured in the study is GatherDC. Their Beyond the Tent retreat is intended for young adults seeking “something between traditional synagogue life and big happy hours.” The retreat highlights spirituality, wisdom, ethics, community and culture. As evidenced in the success of both Moishe House and GatherDC, these events are mission-critical and particularly well-suited for energizing the millennial generation and serving emerging communities.

The issuance of Advancing Jewish Retreating is not the “end of the road.” Far from it; we believe it will act as a catalyst and propel the field forward.

The Jewish retreat sector is ripe for investment, infrastructure and ongoing research and expansion.

  • Many retreat organizers indicate they would love to utilize Jewish spaces, but there are not enough of them and/or they are not of a quality to match the competition. Thus, millions of dollars annually are leaving the community. That should stop.
  • Retreat operators (those who provide the facilities and hospitality services) indicate the need for help and assistance in the day-to-day mechanics, including evaluation, staff training, and best practices. The list is long, and the need is real.
  • Organizers and operators both need help setting up and programming events. It’s time for us to provide support for these groups and subsidies to encourage them to come together, just as we do for other Jewish immersive experiences.

The time has come to support and invest in Jewish retreating. The impact is clear. With investment in both the operators and organizers, we could see a tectonic shift in usage. In fact, if Jewish retreating follows the trajectory of other supportive and collaborative enterprises, there is no reason why in ten years we would not have doubled the number of people attending Jewish retreats to over 200,000.

Research on impact is coming and will inform our work going forward. Look for opportunities to get on board. You are all invited to be part of the wave of support and impact that Jewish retreating represents.

Josh Fidler is Co-Chairman of Chesapeake Realty Partners. He serves on the boards of Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Baltimore Community Foundation and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. He was Founding Chairman of the Pearlstone Retreat Center and Past Chairman of Capital Camps & Retreat Center and Camp Shoresh.

David Phillips is Principal of Immersive1st: a consulting practice that works with organizations and develops programs that help ensure a vibrant and vital Jewish community. He can be reached at https://www.immersive1st.com/.