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.
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.