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I never went to summer camp, unless you count the rec program on the playground in Fords, New Jersey, where I grew up. My ability to make potholders on a loom with loops was developed on that playground, where counselors supervised simple games and activities all day, except when we went home to have lunch.
These days, the annual retreat held by my congregation, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom (BHSS) in Mahwah, NJ, fills the I-didn’t-go-to-camp void in my Jewish experience. Held at URJ Camp Harlam, a two-hour drive from Mahwah, it’s close enough for the weekend, but far enough away that we’re not tempted to go home for other events, allowing me to celebrate Shabbat in a way I don’t at home.
From the time we arrive on Friday afternoon through the final song session on Sunday morning, I’m removed from the everyday activities and responsibilities of life. I don’t work, do laundry, cook a meal, or go grocery shopping. I don’t watch TV, scan Facebook, or check my email. Instead, I can rest, recharge and live in the moment, as well as connect with fellow congregants. people I don’t usually spend time with. Together, we sing, dance, share meals, and enrich our BHSS community.
It takes a congregation – staff, volunteers, and clergy – to plan and run a successful retreat. Our planning begins about a week after the end of the last retreat! Our clergy do a terrific job making services feel different and special at the retreat. This year, for example, our Shabbat morning service started with everyone lying on the floor meditating! Later, a particularly moving element illustrated the tradition of l’dor v’ dor (from generation to generation) as we lined up by age – oldest to youngest – and passed the Torah down the line. Five-year-old Emily, our youngest participant, helped our rabbi return the Torah to the ark. Beautiful!
If your congregation wants to plan a retreat, here are some ideas to help you get started.
Before I knew it, Shabbat was over and our group was seated on the floor in a big circle, reflecting on the week just ended. Havdalah was spiritual, moving, and peaceful, offering us a chance to reflect on the week and capture the feeling of the moment so we could take it with us into the week ahead. The Saturday night bonfire and song fest that followed Havdalah is always popular. Camp songs, contemporary Jewish songs, and Broadway show tunes filled the air. The campfire kept us warm and melted the chocolate and marshmallows in our s’mores. Of course, to no one’s surprise, there were plenty of s’mores to go around.