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.