Women connect in Judaism’s diverse streams at retreat

Chairs of the retreat, Nadine Spitz (left) and Aura Kavadlo. 

By Victoria Siegel, Special to the Jewish Light

Combine massages, chocolates and mouthwatering meals with yoga, hikes and inspiring workshops and you end up with more than 115 women from all streams of Judaism coming together to experience the Nishmah Women’s Shabbat Retreat.

“We wanted to connect women with Judaism in all different ways,” explained Aura Kavadlo, co-chair of the retreat, which took place Friday and Saturday at Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center in Grafton. “Some connect through nature, some through music and singing, some through text, some through Israel.” 

With the theme “Ignite Sparks! Illuminate Blessings,” the retreat offered women many ways to bond, beginning when they entered the lodge.  At registration, attendees were greeted with samples of chocolate martinis, snacks, wine, a tote bag filled with goodies and the opportunity to get creative with crafts. While sitting around tables coloring or making beeswax Shabbat candles, women began to connect with each other through casual conversation. 

“The retreat allows us to come together and find commonalities instead of focusing on our differences,” said two-time attendee Jennifer Rogers, who belongs to Kol Rinah. “It’s a very safe place for that to occur. The organizing committee intentionally and clearly put the effort into creating this safe space.”

To welcome Shabbat, women lit candles and participated in a Kabbalat Shabbat service that was filled with voices singing psalms and prayers. One of the challenges of planning an event that appeals to women from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds is creating the services.

“Sometimes it’s really hard for people to understand they have to go out of their comfort zone,” explained Sarah Winkelman, director of Nishmah, a program of the Jewish Community Center. “For example, some people had never heard of a Kabbalat Shabbat, so we had to make it comfortable for everyone and make it so everyone feels she has a place at the table.”

That diversity impressed three-time attendee Cindy Kalachek.

“You see someone on one side of you in jeans and someone on the other side who is frum,” she said. “Everyone is celebrating Shabbat together. You figure out all the ways you’re connected.”

For first-time attendee Sharol Brickman, who teaches music at Congregation Shaare Emeth, the challenge was learning new music and performing it in front of people she didn’t know.

“And I learned to do it without the guitar,” Brickman said.

Shabbat dinner provided women with the opportunity to once again step out of their comfort zones to meet new people. Attendees were assigned tables, putting people together from different backgrounds, in order to create more connections. Ice-breaking questions were on each table to encourage discussions.

“At dinner, I thought I would be with my friends, but we were split up and got to meet new people from different streams of Judaism,” said Jackie Abramson, first-time attendee and member of the U. City Shul. “During the discussions, it was nice learning about different rituals and that all kinds of observances are beautiful.”

Furthering the theme of the retreat, attendees then participated in a fun and revealing activity called “Broadway Speed-Friending.” In small groups, women had a few minutes to ask one another prewritten questions related to Broadway shows before having to switch to a new group.

After indulging at the dessert and wine bar, attendees listened to the scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Ariella Graetz-Bartuv, who talked about living in Israel and the pluralistic world of Judaism. Graetz-Bartuv shared her story of growing up in a Conservative family with a mother who was one of the first feminists in Israel and a father who was a Conservative rabbi; marrying an Orthodox man; and how she became a Reform rabbi. 

Shabbat morning began with an opportunity to start the day with a yoga class led by Julie Lazaroff. Women could attend a variety of Shabbat services designed to offer something for everyone, from musical tefillah to meditation and chanting.

Numerous breakout sessions throughout the day were tied into the retreat’s theme and designed to give women choices from text-based discussions and inspirational talks to hands-on experiences and current events.

“Being here is a bit of renewal for me. New ideas. New ways of looking at things,” said Chelle Medow of Young Israel. “I’ve learned about the plurality issues in Israel from Rabbi Ariella. I now have a better understanding of the layout of the Talmud from the session led by Phyllis Shapiro. And I’ve learned some psychological lingo and how some of the things we do and how we say things can be viewed as negative.”

Several women remarked that just being able to get away helped them ignite sparks and feel gratitude. 

“When the organizers said, ‘This retreat was for you,’ that was really true,” said first-time attendee Tara Zafft of Bais Abraham. “You could sit by the fire and drink coffee or wine and talk with friends, or participate in Israeli dancing or study Talmud. I learned that we get along a lot more than we disagree. 

“Friendship is important. There was a lot of love in all directions. There were many times I’d be sitting at a table and someone would come up and introduce herself … it didn’t feel awkward at all.”

One of the highlights for Kalachek was Vicki Lander’s presentation on organic farming.  For Brickman, it was a hike led by Maxine Mirowitz.

Brickman said: “I loved talking to various women of different backgrounds, pushing myself to complete the hike, having to pay attention to the rocks and roots, watching my step, looking at trees, learning about the environment from Maxine, seeing the hawks and eagle, getting to the top of the bluff and seeing that view.”

All of the events and activities were designed to encourage women to connect with each other and be inspired.

“There’s something about sitting outside and connecting with things outside of the household and kids,” Rogers said. “This retreat offers a break … a chance to just ‘be.’ ” 

Co-chair Nadine Spitz agreed. 

“The purpose of the retreat is for women to know each other, to expose ourselves to different ways and views,” she said. “We want attendees to leave feeling inspired, that they’ve opened themselves to new experiences.”

The Shabbat retreat was capped off with a havdalah service filled with singing and dancing. Feedback from attendees indicated that the organizers had successfully met their goals of creating a space for connection and renewal.

“This retreat reinforces how important it is for us to take time out for ourselves,” Kalacheck said. 

Kavadlo added: “It challenges me to unplug from the real world and relate to all of these amazing women and learning experiences that I would normally be too busy to experience.”

The Nishmah Women’s Shabbat Retreat is held every other year, alternating with the Passover Journey. The next retreat will be in 2018.