Since 2005 Rabbi Sid Schwarz has been organizing retreats for rabbinical students from across the denominational spectrum. Eleven separate seminaries serve as co-sponsors of the retreat with strong endorsements from their respective academic deans [Hebrew Union College (New York, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles), The Jewish Theological Seminary, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbinical School at Hebrew College (Boston), Academy for Jewish Religion (NY), Academy for Jewish Religion (LA), Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and ALEPH Rabbinic Program].
The dean of each seminary is allowed to nominate up to five students for each retreat and the seminaries pay a nominal registration fee for each student. Typical attendance ranges from 20-40 students. The support of the program by the seminaries owes to the overwhelmingly positive evaluations of the retreats by participating students and the evidence that these experiences provide a vitally important co-curricular experience for future rabbis that complement their formal seminary studies. Over the past ten years some 500 seminarians have attended the retreats.
Need and Program Goals
The 2013 Pew Research Center “Portrait of Jewish Americans” outlined the extent to which Jewish communal institutions, including synagogues, have been losing ground in their attempt to engage Next Gen Jews in Jewish life. Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen have documented and named this trend “the sovereign self” in their study, The Jew Within (2000). In the same year, Sid Schwarz offered an analysis of how the American synagogue might re-engineer itself to meet the needs of the 21st century and the generation he called “the new American Jew” (Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue).
While rabbinical schools are well aware of these trends, they face a formidable task in their attempt to pack into a five or six-year course of study all the knowledge and wisdom of Judaism that rabbis need to acquire. Many who are attracted to the rabbinate out of a desire to serve the Jewish people find seminaries to be heavy on graduate level course work and not as successful at nurturing the passion for spiritual leadership that drew them to rabbinical school. Nor are seminaries in a position to significantly change the nature of the communal institutions that guide Jewish life. To the extent that seminaries send rabbis out into the world to serve and lead institutions which are themselves at risk, young rabbis are not being given the tools necessary to succeed in their life vocation.
The stated goals of the retreats are:
- to challenge students to thinking boldly about their rabbinate and how they can help make Judaism more compelling and relevant to a new generation of American Jews;
- to meet, forge relationships with and learn from rabbinical students from different ideological, denominational and institutional contexts;
- to expose future rabbis to some of the most outstanding practitioners in the field from whom they can learn some practical “Torah” that goes beyond the curricular offerings of their respective seminaries.
For each retreat Rabbi Sid has invited outstanding colleagues to join him as co-faculty providing a rich array of experience and ideological diversity to enrich and challenge the participants. Among the faculty who have taught at these retreats are: Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA; Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School; Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA; Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen in San Francisco; Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author; Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Rabbi Sheila Weinberg of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality; Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Los Angeles; Rabbis Irwin Kula, Brad Hirschfield and Steven Greenberg of Clal.
A Tefillah Committee is formed about two months prior to the retreat made up of one representative from each seminary. This committee works through the challenge of organizing the prayer time so as to take full advantage of the group’s diversity while respecting the religious needs of all. The process itself becomes a major learning opportunity for rabbis who hope to serve the needs of klal yisrael, the totality of the Jewish community.
Sessions throughout the weekend are designed to tap into the gifts and talents of all assembled. While students are eager to learn from the faculty, by the final day of the retreat, all agree that just as much was learned from peers as from the faculty. It creates a special bond between participants, an exhilarating intimacy in the community that gets formed over the four days and exposes participants to a unique way of structuring an intentional spiritual community that is instructive for their own rabbinates.
The most frequent comment that students make as they evaluate the impact of the retreats is that the experience helps them regain the idealism that drove them to seek out the rabbinate in the first place. Often the seminary experience gets students bogged down in building their knowledge base, so necessary for rabbis. Yet the inter-denominational rabbinical student retreats focus future rabbis on their power to effect transformative change in the American Jewish community and provide role models and real skills to help them achieve it as well.
I recently attended the Interdenominational Rabbinical Student Retreat hosted by Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability. It was an incredibly fulfilling and enriching experience, and I hope that this retreat will continue to be offered to rabbinical students for many years to come.
Throughout the retreat, we had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Sid Schwarz and Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum in several planned sessions. In each session, I learned something that I know will be relevant to my rabbinate. Rabbi Schwarz helped articulate some of the trends in synagogue membership and Jewish communal life. He guided us through conversations that helped me think about the opportunities and challenges I will face when I am ordained and serve a community as their rabbi. Rabbi Nussbaum’s sessions offered deep insight into the way that one specific community has been successful. Her presentations and stories challenged me to think about the ways that I want to confront the status quo of Jewish life and build strong communities based on shared values of Jewish life. In addition to the time we spent with Rabbi Schwarz and Rabbi Nussbaum in official sessions, I also had the opportunity to engage with them on a less formal basis during meals and during down-time.
This retreat also provided the opportunity to meet and interact with students from other rabbinical schools around the country. As a student in Cincinnati, I do not often get the chance to study and pray with students outside the Reform Movement. This retreat facilitated conversations and friendships that I otherwise would not have had access to. I left the retreat with a number of new friends and people who I know I will call on as we face similar challenges in our rabbinates.
Though I knew that this retreat had a specific focus on Jewish pluralism and inter-denominationalism, I was not prepared to be as inspired as I was by its success. This retreat puts pluralism into practice in a way that I have never experienced. Each t’filah was carefully crafted to share aspects of our different movements. Everyone participated in every t’filah. In a very short amount of time, we built a community of people who were invested in our joint t’filah, even though every service did not ‘work’ for every person. The guidelines and framework of the retreat helped create this community, and the participants who showed up were invested in its success. I will recall this retreat as a model for any work that I do in interdenominational Jewish spaces going forward. On a personal note, I am so grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat in a new place with new people. As a student, I so often spend my Shabbatot serving communities (and learning a lot in the process). It is not often that I am able to take a Shabbat that is focused so much on my needs as a rabbinical student or that takes place with dozens of rabbinical students who are travelling a similar path to my own. I left the retreat tired from a weekend of learning, but entirely refreshed from my experiences.
As a result of this retreat, I am more attuned to both the need for interdenominational Jewish spaces and the opportunities that those spaces provide. Though on the surface rabbinical students from different movements do not have much in common, this retreat reminded me in a powerful way that there is much more that connects us within the Jewish community than divides us. In addition, this retreat reminded me that difference is not a vice. Our differences can strengthen us, if only we have the courage and fortitude to come together and participate as partners in conversation.
I hope this retreat will be able to be offered to many more rabbinical students in the future.
HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, OH
I write to share my experience of the Interdenominational Rabbinical Student Retreat organized by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. As a student at the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal looking at ordination in January 2020, I am delighted to have been able to experience this interdenominational retreat. On two counts, for me, this experience offered training that exceeds and complements the education offered by my seminary. First, meeting, working, praying, rooming, talking, and eating with students from other seminary training programs, including the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox movements along with Jewish Renewal, underscored both our shared purpose and our different styles. Second, workshops in building spiritual communities, or covenantal communities of meaning, involved practical insights that our courses can only touch briefly.
On my first point, we all offered services throughout our three-day Shabbaton, working together to create beauty and holy encounter. We could say that any judgments or pre-conceived notions vanished as we supported each other in this work. The networking that was required for this aspect of the program is powerful. I know I will contact some of these people in the future and I learned a good deal working side by side with them.
On the second point, I cannot overestimate the useful and timely education in entrepreneurial leadership we received. Beginning with a sense of the history of Jewish institutions in this country, we were asked to consider leadership for a changing Jewish community and how we personally could become agents of change. Understanding the difference between the “transactional synagogue” in which we pay for goods and the idea of mission-driven partnerships in which all members come to have a sense of ownership for the institution was simple, yet radical. Moreover, clear advice on how to proceed and whom to ask was abundant. How do we empower the community rather than worry about paying for the building and how can we put this into practice? We considered real human needs and ways in which our training in Torah, Talmud, Lifecycles and liturgy, pastoral care, fundraising and halachah might be secondary to real spiritual leadership. And we talked about how real needs and real talents can be met or utilized as we hone our skills at becoming “empowerers,” visionaries and agents for change. We learned about the power of provoking disequilibrium in order to help today’s synagogues survive beyond the coming generation and we considered models of co-operation that make everyone a partner in building meaning.
I appreciate the opportunity to share some views about this extraordinary workshop. I believe it should be a required retreat for all rabbis and cantors in training because I truly believe that the energy and enthusiasm of these program directors and their students will make a difference in the future of Jewish leadership in the 21st Century.
Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal
Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, University of Oregon, Eugene
I recently attended the Inter-Denominational Rabbinical Student Retreat headed by Rabbis Sid Schwarz and Rachel Nussbaum and in Ojai, CA. As a second career student – I was a tenured professor at the University of South Carolina and left my position to live with my family in New York City – this was an uplifting and stimulating experience. I flew home full of hope for the future of Jewish people.
The faculty’s presentations and workshops set the tone for the week-end, and pushed me to reconsider my vision for my rabbinate. I was particularly impacted by the adaptive leadership model and came away with new concepts and with a list of authors whose ideas I hope to explore over the summer break. The retreat showed me that across the liberal spectrum of Judaism that was present in Ojai, future rabbinic leaders were asking similar questions and developing different responses to the issues. I found that so inspiring! Some participants were already on the path to setting up communities to reach the non-affiliated. I heard impassioned arguments to set up liberal outreach centers, following a Chabad model, and how to reach the underserved mentally ill.
Another focal point of the retreat was prayer. Each service was led by representatives from two seminaries and each was completely different from the other. They were earnest, joyful, soulful, and embodied. One took place with a mechitza because we had Orthodox participants and they accommodated to progressive styles of tefillah; it was only appropriate that we made some accommodation to their style of tefillah. I was so impressed that there were no tensions. This, in my experience, is rare and speaks for the community created by the tone set by the retreat leaders. There was space for all of us.
But for me, perhaps the most useful part of the retreat were the many side conversations that took place on the seams of the official program. We debated the merits of the models our faculty had just presented to us; we discussed the nature of our study at our respective seminaries; we shared hopes and plans for the future. We got to know each other a little bit, as well as the cultures of the various schools. The retreat also stimulated our creative juices: musicians jammed together, and I performed a German song with a Ziegler student whom I had just met, something I had not done in decades!
Collaboration has already begun: As a first direct result of this week-end, the New York City area participants decided to resurrect a defunct inter-seminary group to lay the ground work for a lifetime of co-operation and, perhaps, friendship. And several participants have been in touch with me to talk about study plans in Israel.
Thank you for your support of this important program.
Dr. Katja Vehlow,
Jewish Theological Seminary, New York
I am grateful to have experienced the interdenominational Rabbinical Student Retreat run by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. It was a rare opportunity to spend time with other students that are pursuing the same path through different institutions. Having the space to reflect and brainstorm with this diverse community led to a more expansive conversation than could happen in any one of our schools. I am a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and while I still identify strongly as a Reconstructionist, this has inspired me to seek out more opportunities for dialogue with other denominations.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the future of American Judaism will push the boundaries of denominations and movements as people explore new models for creating community. While we discussed this shift in the educational content of the retreat, we also enacted it by creating a pluralistic Jewish space for the weekend. We navigated the experience of sharing prayer, study, meals and space for the weekend. There was no privileging of a “right way” of doing Jewish practice; we were all given the opportunity to contribute in a way that felt authentic to us. In addition to sharing some of ourselves, we also each had to negotiate time where we may have felt out of our comfort zones. This gave each of us a practical experience of navigating a pluralistic Jewish community and valuing each of the community’s members.
Given this shift in Jewish community, it is likely that many future rabbis will have careers that take them out of the confines of one denomination. We will need to be prepared to work collaboratively with colleagues that may have a different Jewish background, or who have gone to a different seminary. The retreat was a chance to begin conversations with other future rabbis, that may someday, turn into future professional relationships. I come to the rabbinate from a musical background, and it so happened that my randomly assigned roommate for the weekend did as well. We ended up composing a new prayer setting together and sharing it with the group. Even though we are in school on opposite coasts, I hope to continue working with him to write more prayer music. I made several new connections that I hope to maintain in the future.
While there is increasing collaboration among non-Orthodox Jews in America, there is still a bigger split when it comes to dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The retreat was unique in that it included Orthodox rabbinical students in the conversation. I had an extended conversation with a young woman who attends Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox rabbinical school for women in New York. We shared our aspirations for making Jewish communities more inclusive and accessible. Although we may be on opposite ends of the spectrum, knowing that we share these common goals opened up my perspective on partnering with Orthodox Jews in the future.
The educational sessions of the retreat were a rare chance to explore new models for creating Jewish community. Both Rabbi Sid Schwarz and Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum were able to share extensively from their personal experience in their various ventures. Hearing them share honestly about the trials and errors of creating new communities gave us all insights into how we might approach the communities that we create or serve in. They helped us think about how to wrestle with the challenges that any spiritual community, whether startup or legacy institution, is facing in the 21st century. This knowledge will certainly be beneficial as we begin our professional careers.
As I reflect on the retreat, the communal experiences, personal connections and educational sessions all contributed to an invaluable weekend. Thank you for your support in making it happen.
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
What it is like to be on retreat with Rabbi Sid
I am standing across the room from Rabbi Sid before his session. He is looking down at his notes before teaching “Spiritual Leadership in a Time of Partisanship.” At first, I assume he is like most presenters, thinking about what he is going to say, making sure he will cover all his points. I offer to bring some lunch downstairs for him, he thanks me and declines, and then suddenly my perception of him shifts.
As an organic beekeeper, I have learned that there is always far more happening in a hive than I can perceive. A beehive is a multi-layered, highly complex super organism. By bringing myself into a meditative state while working my bees, the focus, intention and energy of a hive becomes clear.
So it was while I watched Rabbi Sid. The project of teaching was for him not about delivery of material. Rather, he was in a state of prayer. It was as if he said:
May the Jewish people continue to exist and fulfill our calling in the world. Help me fully manifest to these students love for Judaism, the Jewish people, and the rabbinical role itself. Make me a conduit for God’s love, and help me to be fully clear, honest, and transparent about the difficulty of leading congregations in our time – whether they are old-style congregation or new spiritual communities.
As someone who has worked in social entrepreneurship, I knew of Rabbi Sid but was somewhat intimidated by his success. Having never met him before, I didn’t expect him to be particularly approachable. But I found the opposite. He projects such a palpable warmth and sincerity that I felt I could fully share with him my challenges as a developing leader.
Rabbi Sid was so candid with us. He described having been surprised by a portion of his congregation turning against him, and as he spoke of it he clearly held no grudge against either the congregants who were challenging his leadership, nor against his supporters who had, in a crucial moment of confrontation, failed to stand up for him. He has a way of understanding the communal dynamics that depersonalized what most leaders would read as a personal attack. Not only did he not hold a posture of blame, rather he saw much or all of what happened as a necessary part of the process of evolving into a congregation.
One participant, a high school teacher who had worked as a marriage and sex therapist told me that, in his therapy practice, he endeavored to help his clients understand that sexual conflict and dissatisfaction are not about sex. They are about relationships and power and trust. During our closing circle at the end of the retreat, this participant said that Rabbi Sid’s openness about how rabbis can become the focus of congregants’ attacks and negativity was making him rethink if he really would want to be in such a position.
I found Rabbi Sid’s response very telling. He validated this man’s feelings and then said that he was not trying to scare us off from entering the rabbinate. Indeed, he said, it is exactly those with the emotional maturity to be aware of their desire to not be at the center of congregational conflict that often make the best leaders.
Rabbi Sid’s retreat was one of the most moving and valuable experiences of my professional development over the last 25 years.
Amalia Haas teaches and consults on sustainable land and food justice initiatives at www.Bee-Awesome.com, her consulting and honey company devoted to celebrating and saving the bees through a Jewish lens. She is a mother of six and a member of the Executive Kollel Ordination track at Yeshivat Maharat.