Ed Brown covered over 970 miles of blacktop and jaw-dropping mountain passes to make his way to the first annual National Jewish Retreat from his home in Missoula, MT.
He swung into the lot at the Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado’s Rockies, stepped into the timbered lodge, entered a world suffused with Jewish learning opportunities, and encountered a vexing dilemma.
Seventy lectures were on schedule to be delivered at the retreat over August 16-20, from Chabad’s thinkers, cutting edge researchers, archeologists, teachers, writers, film critics. It simply wasn’t possible to attend them all. Brown had to choose. “It was like the old TV show ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ except behind every door was at least one diamond,” he said. “I don’t think you could make a wrong choice.”
Months before, a click-through ad on Chabad of Utah’s weekly email linked Brown to the Jewish retreat’s website. Looking for a way to “learn more about my traditions and understanding of Judaism,” he booked a spot. A group led by Chabad of Redondo Beach, CA, flew in to Colorado en masse. From Fairbanks, Calgary, Miami Beach, over 200 Jews arrived to test drive the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s first go at retreat hosting. As varied and various in background and outlook as their zip codes – from 91316 to L4J 2J6 – the feedback on the conference had a smaller range: from “absolutely amazing” to “simply incredible.” “We are extremely encouraged and enthused by the overwhelming response,” said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, director of JLI, “It is clearly thanks to visionary commitment of Pamela and George Rohr and Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who saw the retreat as an investment to take scholarship to great heights.”
Surprising even JLI planners, who have created adult education courses for tens of thousands across 160 cities, was the zeal for learning participants brought to the retreat. “There was no mistaking the retreat for an average weekend getaway at a resort,” said Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Chair of Judaic Studies at New York University. “I would have thought people would take the morning off to go horseback riding, but they were constantly at the lectures, really interested.”
Mountain peaks, rushing waters, late summer blooms dotting the hills with breaths of white inspired Frederica Barlav of LA. “It was beautiful learning in such aesthetically pleasing surroundings,” she said. Opportunities to kayak, hike, golf, fish, all beckoned. Barlav rode a chairlift up Copper Mountain, took in the breathtaking view, and hurried back to hear more from the “all-star cast of rabbis and teachers.”
When Dr. Les and Roberta Rosenthal of Encino, CA, sat down for brunch, their meal mates were a plastic surgeon from California, a pediatrician from Manhattan, a judge from the east coast, two accountants, and then lecturer and Chabad of Montreal’s Rabbi Berel Bell pulled up a chair. Participants “appreciated the accessibility of rabbis and rebbetzins sitting interspersed around tables, willing to continue the dialogue and conversations after their presentations,” said Rabbi Chaim Block, a JLI executive committee member and Director of Chabad’s South Texas branch in San Antonio.
Two o’clock a.m., after a full day of presentations and workshops, a group of college students crowded around a rabbi. They were chewing over Chabad’s philosophical view of a righteous person’s struggle between good and evil. Zhanna Rozenberg, a member of the editorial board of Logos, Cornell University’s undergraduate journal of philosophy, said she is still struggling with the concept of the chosen people, but gained “a deeper understanding how religion plays a role in people lives and provides a sense of community and family structure.”
On Saturday night, the Havdalah candle’s blaze competed for brilliance against a celestial polka dot patchwork of stars. Rabbi Yossi Jacobson captivated the group with his masterful melding of Jewish as teachings, stories and humor. The uplifting Havdalah service at the close of Shabbat provided a gentle landing for the retreat’s five days that were such a spiritual and intellectual high. Dates and locations for next year’s retreat are already in the advanced planning stages.
Harry Abram of Summerlin, NV, is already looking forward to next year’s retreat. “I’ve been to a lot of weekend retreats, and this was superb learning, accommodations and faculty,” said Abram. “I don’t know how they are going to improve on this.”