Jewish Retreating in the Age of COVID-19: Paradox or Possibility?

By Amy L. Sales and Nicole Samuel

Our research report, Advancing Jewish Retreating, was published in January 2020 and intended to spark conversation on Jewish retreats and their promise for the future. Our plan was to hold conversations at conferences, in eJewish Philanthropy, and on webinars. In March, it all came to an abrupt halt.

Advancing Jewish Retreating had concluded that retreating was an extraordinary tool that could be applied throughout the Jewish community. The study stated with conviction that Jewish retreating was a growing activity and that every sign indicated that it would continue to be so. Until it wasn’t.

Retreating no longer felt relevant in the face of coronavirus, mandatory lockdowns and social distancing, furloughs and layoffs, school and daycare closures, and the upending of life as we knew it. How could we talk about “unplugging” and “getting away from it all” when we were separated from friends and family and sheltering in place?

And yet, the research highlighted the yearning for relationship and community that underlies retreats – a desire that does not go away, even during a pandemic. The research also showed the great diversity of Jewish retreats, which are organized by different types of organizations for many different purposes and audiences. Jewish retreats were ubiquitous, multiform, flexible, and adaptive. Such entities are hard to suppress.

These two factors – the persistence of the hunger for relationship and community and the adaptability of retreating as a tool – provoked us to review the report and consider whether this is a time to reopen a conversation. We have argued the reasons for and against, beginning with con.

Con: This is not the time

Retreats are dispensable – in today’s parlance, they are nonessential. In most instances, retreats serve to support or enhance the mission of an organization. Whether or not Jewish organizations can retreat, they will certainly continue to pursue their mission.

The import of contextual factors driving interest in Jewish retreating has changed. Factors cited in the report include:

  • the emergence of Jewish engagement as an organizing principle for Jewish communities,
  • the professionalization of experiential Jewish education,
  • the prevalence of technology and the universal need to “unplug,”
  • the particular characteristics that make the Millennial generation a ready audience for retreating.

These factors no longer call for retreats. Approaches to Jewish engagement are being reinvented in the age of COVID-19. The constant use of technology, a lifestyle “problem” for which retreating was an antidote, has become the solution to isolation and social distance. Millennials and Gen Z will undoubtedly be marked by the pandemic in generation-specific ways. There is important work to be done to understand and address the impact of the pandemic on Jewish young adults, but this is a task quite apart from retreating.

The research identified seven ways in which retreats added unique value:

  • they can lead to personal and professional transformation as they remove people from everyday life;
  • they build relationships and community in special ways;
  • they can be booster shots that help participants regain a “sense of amazement”;
  • they offer special experiences for micro-communities (e.g., LGBTQ gatherings);
  • they offer the gift of time;
  • they can be a laboratory for testing out new ideas for community;
  • they can give participants a new experience of Shabbat, amplifying the notion of unplugging from everyday life, the practice of mindfulness, and the experience of spirituality.

These effects are being pursued in new ways in the COVID-19 era. For some, social distancing has led to deeper individual relationships as we check in with one another more frequently. Mindfulness and meditation are available 24/7 through apps and online platforms, giving us access to new teachers and practices. Organizations are providing online Jewish learning experiences that reach larger audiences than ever before. Congregations of all types have been bringing new thinking to communal prayer, holiday observances, shiva, and other functions of our synagogues and minyanim. These congregations are testing new models all of which have something to teach us, all of which may have enduring value post-pandemic, and none of which require retreating.

Pro: This is the time

Advancing Jewish Retreating showed Jewish retreating to be a vast, varied, and dynamic ecosystem filled with talent, creativity, and energy. The talent pool includes, among others, retreat organizers, program designers, facilitators, and educators. Also included are alumni of retreats who know, from their own experience, the power of retreating and what is worth holding onto.

There are three reasons why this is the time to initiate a conversation among these experts. First, the wisdom of retreating aligns with the recommendations for dealing with pandemic stress. In addition to turning off the news for a few hours every day, techniques generally include meditation, mindfulness, immersion in projects or learning, and interpersonal connection. Second, the needs that drew people to retreats still persist. Relationship and community building, personal and professional development, spirituality and R&R are all still relevant. And third, this is a time for new thinking. The pandemic is forcing American society and the Jewish community to think differently about, simply put, everything. Experts in retreating have much to say about strengthening our capacity to deal with current realities, developing new approaches to fulfilling our human and Jewish needs, and thinking in new ways.

We already see great creativity coming out of the pandemic – including new ideas for how we gather, learn, care for, and support one another. Specialists in retreating would add a valuable dimension to this exploration. Questions for their consideration might include: What use can be made of Jewish retreat centers during a time of social distancing? How can retreats, which are innately adaptive, adapt to current circumstances? How can the spirit, if not the practice of retreats, continue during and after the pandemic? What can we accomplish now that will serve us later? Much of the work of the Jewish community currently takes place online. Technology is easily accessible and the cost is low. Jewish organizations are experimenting with the paradox of gathering while maintaining distance. Day after day, creativity fills our inboxes and Instagram feeds. In this climate, harnessing the formidable talent in Jewish retreating – with its expertise, wisdom, experience, and passion – will cost little and could yield much.

Amy L. Sales, recently retired from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, spent the greater part of her career researching the Jewish community.

Nicole Samuel is Associate Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. She can be reached at