Let me start by saying that I grew up a secular Jew. As I’ve gotten older, my desire for more Yiddishkeit has increased tenfold. Long story short, I went from being a “High Holidays-only Jew” to someone who lights candles every Friday night, attends shul every Shabbos and goes to Torah classes regularly.
My latest quest to embrace Judaism took the form of the 2016 National Jewish Retreat. Sponsored by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and Chabad, this six-day retreat took place in Palm Desert, Calif. More than 1,400 Jews from all over North America settled in to the enormously lavish JW Marriott for Jewish learning and fun.
I’m stopping here because I know that when I got to Chabad, many of you shut down and/or entertained a plethora of preconceived notions and stereotypes: black hats, long coats, lots of rocking and davening, strict Shabbos rules. Think again.
Even I was skeptical, wondering whether I’d be judged for my “immodest” clothing, my limited Jewish observance and my lack of Torah knowledge. But, no sooner did I get there, than a variety of religious and not-so-religious folks introduced themselves and welcomed me warmly. From that point on, I was hooked.
The programs comprised 150 lectures and 75 speakers. Keep in mind the retreat was only six days long, so I had to choose my topics wisely. All told, I attended 29 lectures. And I even had time to go the washroom once or twice. From 9 a.m. till late into the night, I had the honor of learning from world-renowned speakers, listening to radio talk-show host Dennis Prager, attending a Dudu Fisher concert, viewing the stunning art of Barbara Hines, and enjoying Jewish comedian Robert Cait.
The main event, the retreat sessions, covered a wide spectrum of topics including practical lessons from the Tanya; discovering purpose and mission in life; Jewish medical ethics; the pursuit of happiness and gratitude; the relevance of G-d in 2016; handling personal struggles, pain and suffering; a challah bake; a talk about why bad things happen to good people; Jewish law; living with faith; the legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Israel’s inclusive army; the miracle at Entebbe; wine tasting; the historical relationship between Jews and Muslims; antisemitism; how to pray with passion and purpose; the future of Israel and Zionism; Jewish history and mystical prophesies; the feminist challenge of 2017; a farbrengen for women; and leadership. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Focusing on the personal more than the political, historical or global, the sessions I attended were nothing short of awe-inspiring. Never having experienced intense spiritual Jewish learning like this, I was a human sponge. It sparked something visceral in me and my emotions ran wild. (Read: I’m emotionally incontinent and my tears overflowed early and often.)
My favorite sessions included a class on the Tanya, which is an early work of Chassidic philosophy and a “one size fits all” life manual. It’s basically the “GPS for life” and encourages us all to live with purpose and meaning.
I also attended a couple of sessions on the Rebbe and the secret of Chabad. While some people consider Chabad a radical sect of Judaism, it has actually become the mainstream, because of the Rebbe’s focus on outreach to Jews around the world. He considered outreach the key to continuing Yiddishkeit. The Rebbe was without doubt the most influential rabbi in modern history. A revolutionary figure and an inspiration, he created an “army” of shluchim (emissaries), who set up Chabad houses around the world to inspire Jews in Jewish traditions and education. As a result, Chabad is considered a “vanguard of change” and leaders in the community.
A session called The Pursuit of Happiness reinforced the idea that happiness and blessings are directly correlated. And, since happiness is a choice, we should direct our emotions towards positive things. In essence, we’re really products of our choices, not our circumstances.
Pain and Suffering was a session about transforming pain into growth. The speaker made a poignant observation about grief having “energy.” He posited that, when a person can harness that energy, they can change the world. He also pointed out, from studies, that people with faith have more resilience and strength. In his words: “You don’t know the power of faith until you have nothing left but faith.”
There were lots of social events at the retreat, too. I got particularly emotional during the challah bake, while lighting Shabbat candles with 600 other women, and singing and dancing after Havdalah with more than 1,400 Jews from my new Jewish “family.”
And then there was the gourmet kosher food. When I heard about the 24/7 tea room, I expected a small room with maybe some Danish and coffee, then I saw the football-field-length foyer with fruit, candy, chips, cookies, sandwiches and various beverages. That was during the weekdays. On Saturday night, at around 11 p.m., I experienced my first melaveh malkah meal: a lavish buffet that symbolically escorts the departing Shabbat queen. Imagine vegetarian burger sliders, innumerable cheesecakes, pastries, a crepe station, a pasta station, lox and bagels, an ice cream station, and more. At midnight, I thought to myself, “Do I keep eating or do I sleep?”
I came back bubbling with enthusiasm, anxious to tell my husband Harvey all about it. When the descriptions and tears of joy were done, he said: “So, I guess you drank the chicken soup.” You bet I did. And boy was I thirsty!
A huge thank you goes to Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad of Richmond for encouraging me to attend the retreat. I could never have imagined how it would alter how I think and feel about being Jewish. Truly, it was a soul-opening experience.
Every single day was a blessing of inspiration and spiritual holiness for me. Sharing my stories from the National Jewish Retreat is my way of sharing the blessings. I only hope that you get to experience it for yourself one day.
Shelley Civkin recently retired as librarian and communications officer at Richmond Public Library. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News. She’s also busy exploring her Yiddishkeit.