“Becoming Holy: Persons and a Day” is the title of the first Spiritual Retreat to be conducted by the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, on October 16-18, organized by the newly formed Department of Spiritual Growth, headed by Rabbi Richard N. Levy. The retreat will be held on Shabbat Bereisheet, the Sabbath when the first chapters of Genesis are read, symbolizing the beginning of the liturgical year and a new start for rabbinic and education students desiring to deepen their spiritual lives. Site for the retreat is the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University in Simi Valley, California. The retreat is subsidized by the Angell Foundation.
Sixteen students have registered for the retreat, which will be guided by Rabbi Levy, Rabbi Mike Comins, head of TorahTrek, Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), Rabbi Ruth Sohn, Rabbi of the Beit Midrash and Coordinator of the Leona Aronoff Mentoring Program at the LA Campus, and Ida Unger, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor. Rabbi Comins will lead sessions in wilderness spirituality (including a three-hour hike on Shabbat afternoon), Rabbi Klein in spirituality and social justice, Rabbi Sohn in meditation, and Ms. Unger will lead daily yoga sessions from a Jewish perspective.
In addition to learning or honing skills in the above areas, students will have opportunities to share insights and spiritual histories with each other as well as the staff. It is expected that students will leave the retreat with plans for pursuing their own spiritual growth for the year, including means of deepening their prayer lives, perceiving the holy in their academic studies, expanding observance of Shabbat and holidays, and becoming more aware of the ways in which God’s presence manifests itself in their lives.
At the retreat, students will learn the texts and melodies of traditional Shabbat zmirot (liturgical table songs), will explore how the weekly Torah portion can speak to their personal lives, and expand their experiences of prayer. Dan Medwin, a fifth year rabbinic student, will offer some computer-generated visual accompaniment for Kabbalat Shabbat, the service of psalms that begins the Shabbat evening liturgy, and his classmate Miriam Terlinchamp will introduce means of artistic expression during Seudah Shlisheet, the liturgical third meal held on Shabbat afternoon. Both Medwin and Terlinchamp are writing rabbinic theses dealing with visual enhancements of prayers. Two meals will be conducted in silence, and the full Birkat Ha-Mazon , the Grace after Meals, will be taught and offered by participants.
In keeping with the theme of the retreat, much time will be spent on Friday afternoon preparing for Shabbat, introducing students to the skills to be taught by the staff, holding a Shabbat preparation session in which Shabbat melodies will be taught, and giving participants time for their own individual preparation, including an encouragement for everyone to dress in white. Students will spend several sessions in small groups, reflecting on the retreat, deepening their awareness of the holiness of those with whom they share classes and friendships during the week, and assisting each other in developing their spiritual plans. It is hoped that students in these groups will continue to check in with each other when the retreat ends, and Rabbi Levy will follow up with them on a periodic basis.
The Department of Spiritual Growth was begun at the Los Angeles campus this year with the intention of helping to fulfill the College-Institute’s commitment in its Core Curriculum to offer spiritual development for its rabbinic and education students as well as rigorous academic and professional training. It is hoped that there will be funding for some form of this retreat to be offered every year.