Retreat Jewish – It’s About Time

Photo courtesy Hazon

By Josh Fidler, David Phillips and Jaynie Schultz

The Biblical pilgrimage to the Temple, the BBYO International Convention, and Moishe House all magnify their undeniable impact through the power of “immersion” – separating participants from their “everyday” to elevate their experience, build community and deepen relationships. Research about camping, day schools and Birthright consistently demonstrate that these specialized kinds of immersive experiences are impactful in numerous and lasting ways. From a 2016 study we know that over 250,000 (and possibly as many as 400,000) American Jews annually participate in retreat experiences at approximately 100 Jewish camp and retreat facilities in North America.

Retreating represents a multimillion-dollar investment in the Jewish world, so it would make sense to have a mechanism to monitor the field, assist operators (managers of facilities) and organizers (program providers). However, until now there has been virtually no shared research, data collection or operational best practices available to either retreat operators or organizers to assist in planning, conducting or evaluating these experiences. Moreover, there has been no organized advocacy for the Jewish retreat sector resulting in greater usage, and the type of impact proportionate to the investment that operators and organizers spend in these immersive endeavors!

In February 2017, after years of working to build a coalition of interested parties, 19 retreat operators, organizers, funders and thought leaders met in Dallas at the invitation of Jaynie Schultz, Josh Fidler and David Phillips to discuss how to strengthen the Jewish retreat sector. Graciously hosted by BBYO, the group brainstormed how best to support one another and ensure that the resources devoted to retreat immersion are fully leveraged for maximum effect.

The Dallas Group discussed both micro and macro issues:

1. Micro – What kind of support is needed by established retreat operators and by those considering entering the business? What are “metrics of success” and “best practices” in the field and how do we share this information? Where can we realize economies of scale? How can we best develop talent to staff and facilitate immersive experiences? How do we translate these skills into future leadership and Jewish organizations more broadly?
2. Macro – How do we foster collaboration between similarly-focused organizations or facilities? Is it desirable for organizers to share program ideas or branding? How do we test outcomes? Do uniquely Jewish environments produce more effective Jewish outcomes?

Building on the momentum of the meeting, the Dallas Group is pushing forward with a number of tangible steps, including:

  1. Establish a list-serve group and video conferences for retreat operators to share questions, challenges, thoughts and ideas. (For information on the group contact David Phillips; david@immersive1st.com.)
  2. Develop a common participant survey to establish benchmarks and quality measures.
  3. Conduct initial research in collaboration with the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University to understand the scale, scope and impact of Jewish Retreating on our communities.

As we progress along this journey to discover the needs of both operators and organizers (and ultimately participants), we hold no preconceived notions of outcomes. Form, function, infrastructure, and leadership are all still questions to be answered. We are committed to ensuring that the voices of the operators and organizers are at the center of the process. And we commit to making our work a model of immersive practices that focus on deepening relationships, listening, learning, and ultimately making a difference.

As was pointed out at the Dallas meeting – the key is not just to ride the wave – but to predict its approach and harness its power for the good of all.

If this piques your interest, let us know. We believe Jewish retreating is an extraordinarily valuable activity that has potential impact beyond our current understanding. We have barely any substantive research or infrastructure to support it, yet the space is rich and deep with opportunity to impact our Jewish future. Perhaps retreating was not ready until now to be uncovered, polished and given the chance to shine – but that time is now!

Josh Fidler is Co-Chairman of Chesapeake Realty Partners and Chairman of Private Client Resources. 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, Chairman of Capital Camps & Retreat Center and Chair of Shoresh.

Jaynie Schultz is President of Retreat Central and a long time Jewish community volunteer in her home city of Dallas, TX. She also sits on the City of Dallas Planning Commission. Jaynie’s national portfolio includes the Boards of Moishe House, the JDC, and the American Associates of Ben Gurion University.

David Phillips is Principal at Immersive1st Consulting. He is the former President & CEO of Capital Camps & Retreat Center and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.