22nd Annual Jewish Men's Retreat
Friday, October 25 – Sunday, October 27, 2013
Come join our gathering of spirited Jewish men during the peak fall foliage season at Isabella Freedman as we celebrate our 21st annual Jewish Men's Retreat (JMR). Located two hours from New York City and three hours from Boston, IFJRC is a relaxing Berkshire retreat destination that provides excellent glatt kosher dining, country lodging, miles of hiking trails, great cycling, and an organic farm. It serves as the perfect backdrop for a full weekend of inspiring and enriching JMR activities.
Our weekend community represents a broad range of Jewish men: young adults and elders; gay, bi-, straight, and questioning; single, married, and divorced; JMR veterans and many newcomers; and men with a broad range of Jewish knowledge and observance. Along with the connections that naturally develop among men who meet at our retreats, many men have used the JMR as an occasion to deepen their relationships with their fathers, sons, or brothers, friends, and congregants by inviting them to join them for the weekend. Give yourself and others the gift of experiencing this truly unique weekend!
For photos, a Facebook link, and more information about the JMR, visit the JMR website.
If you're new to Isabella Freedman, check out our Frequently Asked Questions for information about where we're located, arrival and departure times, what to bring, etc.
Registration is not yet open for this retreat.
Ori Alon attended his first Jewish Men's Retreat in 2009, having emigrated from Israel to New York City with his soon to be American-born wife. He first heard about the JMR when he attended a weekend strategic planning meeting at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and talked with Allen Spivack about the JMR and how it could enrich his life. Ori explains what that first JMR was like for him and the instant "family" he inherited. This year will be Ori's third JMR.
The JMR is one of those rare places where I instantly feel at home. The first time I came to the retreat I didn't know what to expect. I was nervous. Coming to a weekend with 70 or 80 strangers is not an easy task, even if you are a very social person…
After that first weekend though, I felt like some of these guys were family. I was about to get married and the most natural thing to do was to invite everyone to my wedding. Yosaif August, one of the elders of the retreat, as well as its founder, offered to make a tisch for me in Brooklyn. I felt a connection with some of the men I met at JMR that I have only experienced with close friends; and with the rest of the group, I felt like what I imagine would feel like being part of a tribe or a shtetl.
Spending a weekend with a group of men was meaningful, fun, and free of judgments. At the JMR I had experienced meaningful davening for the first time in my life—thanks to the beautiful spirit of Rabbi Shawn Zevit, the special drumming of Akiva the Believer, and the participation of everyone there.
I felt a deep connection to Judaism that I never got growing up in Israel. It gave me hope for a different kind of Judaism, and it helped me feel at home in the U.S.—connected to and part of a community. I'm so very thankful for these rare gifts. IÕm looking forward to at least 20 more JMR's!
We want to tell you our story of a 45-year friendship and how the Jewish Men's Retreat has sustained our deep connection with each other over these many years. One might think that a friendship that survived decades of adventures, nachas (joy), and tzuras (trouble) would need little outside influence to bind it, but the Jewish Men's Retreat did exactly that for Jay Lewkowitz and Jeffrey Schwartz.
Click here to read Jeff's description of the deep friendship and connection he and Jay share.
I believe it was Jay's uncle who said that you know you're getting older when you look in the mirror and see your father, and you know when you are really old when you see your grandfather. Today, we are somewhere in between, but we began with the eyes of two young hippies carefully disguised as nice Jewish boys. Our story covers a journey through life with all of its trials and tribulations. Our Jewish practices ranged from orthodox, to conservative, to renewal, to very little at all—but we always saw ourselves as Jewish men.
We met as acquaintances and as classmates at Yeshiva University in the mid 1960's. Mutual friends brought us closer together over our stay at Yeshiva and by the time we graduated in 1970 we had a lot of shared experiences, long night conversations, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Jay took over the lease on my apartment on Elwood Street in New York City, while I headed for a whirlwind trip through Canada where I stayed on a commune and met Caren, the woman who was to become the mother of my children. Not too long after we left Canada we found ourselves back in the Elwood Street apartment, staying with Jay. In fact, while I was off to work, Caren returned to the apartment from the doctor who informed her she was with child, and it was Jay who heard the good news first. From there on, there was an unbroken bond between us.
Life took us on different adventures, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in opposite directions, but regardless, we managed to stay a part of each other's lives. At one point while I was living in Ithaca, New York, Jay and his bride Donna moved there and we all considered buying a farm where we could have two houses built so we could live next to each other. While we never bought the place, our commitment to be part of each otherÕs life never faltered.
Jay ended up in Chicago, while I ended up in upstate New York for the next 35 or so years, putting a lot of miles between us. Children came along, as did divorces and remarriages. Occasionally we got to see each other in person like when Jay was the best man at my wedding or when Jay returned to New York from his wedding in Israel to his second wife, Ellen. Occasionally, I would visit Chicago on business and always make time to see Jay, especially at the big bash for his 40th birthday.
Sometimes we would talk frequently, and sometimes months would go by between calls, but it always seemed like no time had passed at all. We shared the joys of grandchildren being born, the sadness of a parent's passing, stories of betrayal, adventures, our travels, the little things in life, and the big things.
When my father's best friend passed away, my dad told me how sad it was because he would never again have a best buddy. That made no sense to me at the time, because I didn't understand until now what it meant to have decades of history and sharing between two men that simply cannot be replaced.
Our lives and relationship could have gone on like this forever, and that would have been good enough. By this time in our life we were "seeing our fathers in the mirror," and each of us had our own issues to deal with. On one of my visits to Chicago, Jay introduced me to a friend who later moved to New York. That friend introduced Jay to the Jewish Men's Retreat (JMR). The following year, Jay was on the organizing committee and Jay convinced me to attend the Retreat with him, which is now our annual get-together.
From the power of the unique group of men at each year's Retreat, to the dynamics of the mishpacha groups (small discussion groups), to the freedom of singing and dancing in celebration of our lives as strong Jewish men, the Retreat is thought-provoking, exhilarating, and cleansing all at the same time.
Jay has lead mishpacha discussions and services while I have assisted. I also followed in JayÕs footsteps by joining the planning committee and one year as a roving Ambassador, making sure people felt safe and comfortable within the environment and experience. The Retreat in and of itself would have been enough on its own, but the way it increased the deep connection of Jay and me is really not something I can explain. But you can really feel it when you see Jay and me together at the JMR.
To those who have attended before, you all know what we are talking about. Now, I urge you to bring a friend and your experience will be multiplied tenfold. For those of you considering attending for the first time, all I can say is that you will never regret it. It really can transform your life in so many positive ways. Whether your Jewish beliefs and practices are traditional, conservative, reform, renewal, or non-existent, whether your feet are firmly planted on the ground or you are searching for a new direction in your life, the JMR will offer you support, acceptance, and an experience of joy and fulfillment.
While Jay and I are getting older and are both grandparents, we still donÕt see our grandfathers in the mirror yet. But at the Jewish MenÕs Retreat, as we hope these photos convey, when we look into each other's eyes, we see each other and ourselves as ageless, joyous, proud, strong Jewish men.
Allen Spivack attended his first Jewish Men's Retreat (JMR) in 1994 at the invitation of a friend of his who had attended the year before. His experience that weekend changed his life and he has not only attended each JMR since then, but also has become an active member of each year’s organizing committee. He has cultivated many friendships with other JMR attendees over the years and counts many of these men among his closest friends. In 1998, Allen invited his youngest son, Lev, to attend the JMR 7. Lev was 15 years old. The community warmly embraced Lev, who has since attended 8 weekend retreats.
Click here to read a conversation between Allen and Lev.
Allen: The JMR changed who I am as a man and as a father. The JMR men have taught me over the years how to be a mensch and also gave me permission to be a different kind of man in the world-loving, affectionate, sweet, and open. These JMR weekends really defy the rules that most men choose to live by. But I learned from these JMR weekends that I could make new rules for my own life that would help me be an expressive and open man and a better father to my sons.
Lev: Since high school, the JMR has been an annual ritual in my life. The first few years, I couldn't articulate why I came back. I just knew that I felt an energy that was primal, ancient, connected to something that men have been doing together since the beginning of time. I also felt that it was an environment where my Dad and I could open our hearts to each other, and express our deep love, gratitude, and appreciation for each other's presence in our respective lives. Over the years, this one weekend—being a stable anchor in both my father's and my own life—has rippled out into our relationship in ways that I could not have imagined. During the last few years, as I have been embarking upon the journey of building a business and establishing a home with my life partner, my relationship with my father has been invaluable. I feel that the JMR has created a context for my father and me to communicate and share the most authentic parts of ourselves with each other.
Allen: I needed other men to show my sons what it takes to be a man of principle and wisdom. I couldn't do it alone. Lev and I both grew up in our own ways by attending the JMR. The event gave the two of us a common thread of experience that we could share with each other. It's like we were both on this exciting and challenging journey together and each of us got different things from being on the journey. We were able to hold hands as we made this trek. We knew we were different people because of this journey and we were there to support each other.
Lev: Yes, I distinctly remember one Shabbos morning, sitting next to my Dad in the Shul at Isabella Freedman. Men were sharing about an intimate topic, and as we listened, we did grab hold of each other's hands, feeling the chills in the room from the stories being shared. And then, my Dad shared a story about his father. I felt the power of the lineage of fathers and sons. I felt so blessed sitting and holding my father's rough carpenter's hands, and the love and gratitude in my heart was palpable.
Allen: I've seen Lev grow into this wonderfully creative, fun-loving jokester and life-lover. He knows how to squeeze the most out of relationships and brings a sense of passion into all the work he does. He's allowed himself to struggle with many difficult challenges and knows he has support to help him along the way. I think he learned the true value of friendship and community from attending the JMR and being so accepted and embraced by the men there. I also saw him make a quantum leap after he organized the JMR in 2006 at the ripe old age of 24. This was a real rite of passage for him.
Lev: The JMR taught me what men's work is. It introduced me to Iron John by Robert Bly and Men and the Waters of Life by Michael Meade (books that my Dad gave me, actually). It has been a doorway to my quest as a spiritual seeker, and more and more as a spiritual guide, as well. It gave me a context for my shamanic training with Hawksbrother, my teacher for the last 5 years. It taught me the relevance of being witnessed by other men as I grow into my manhood, which I've come to understand as central to the initiatory process that is so essential for boys to grow into healthy, responsible, integrity-rooted men. Rites of Passage and initiation have become such meaningful focal points in my life that I have been called to pursue this work in my professional life through empowerment coaching and shamanic sound healing.
Yeshaya Ballon, a graduate of Reb Shawn's Davvenen Leadership institute, has attended many JMRs. He brought his brother, Rabbi Jeff Ballon, z"l, to JMR 18 as a way for the two to enhance their relationship as Jeff was dying from the effects of a brain tumor. Jeff passed away in January 2011, shortly after Yesh wrote an article on his blog about Psalm 23, freedom from want, and Jeff's request that Yesh study and learn these things that became so powerfully clear to him at the end of his life.
Click here to read excerpts from Yeshaya's journal.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Of course inconveniences such as these quickly pale in the light of my brother and sister-in-law's daily struggle with his increasing infirmity. His simplest acts have become major undertakings enabled largely by the enduring patience, strength, and determination of Ann Lois. Many of Jeff's abilities have diminished. He either has had some mild strokes or the lesions have affected his ability to move about freely and to communicate clearly. Every action, every utterance is an effort. Often at issue is whether to use a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair for his transport—all viable options under certain circumstances, although increasingly, the wheelchair seems most appropriate. He is most comfortable sitting in a new motor-controlled recliner. Often he lies back in it idly playing with the up and down buttons—seeming to exercise control over the small part of his universe that succumbs to his will.
His understanding of the world about him varies—or at least our understanding of his understanding does. Occasionally his words are sharp and clear—more often not. Sometimes unintelligible. Sometime nonsense. He has been disinhibited for much of his illness—anger, frustration, sadness, joy always on the surface. He is also still amazingly clever and funny at times—knowing when he has broken through the dim translucent wall surrounding him, making the silly grin that we used to see so often.
Thursday night, after dinner, I pulled a chair alongside his recliner and patiently panned for meaning in his intermittent stream of ramblings. He was able to clarify his intent somewhat. He definitely wanted a copy of the twenty-third psalm that I quickly found in a weathered Rabbi's Manual in his office. He seemed to be asking me to study the psalm with Adam Stein, a recently ordained rabbi and young friend of our family since birth.
"What does it mean," he probed, "Adonai ro-ee, lo echsar. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)?"
"…they all say they know this, but none of them [really know] any of it!"
"After I'm gone…in the home, at the house…even once…a little bit of…a lesson—it must be done…"—a clear mandate not only to read the Twenty-third Psalm at his shiva, but to study it as well.
"Lo echsar! Lo echsar! (I shall not want! I shall not want!)" he kept exclaiming.
His lesson seemed to be that people want more and more. If they really felt the protection of the Lord as their shepherd they would want for nothing. Some of his words suggested that he was criticizing young rabbis, but I suspect this was as much a commentary on his own life as much as the next generation. Jeff, throughout his illness has often quoted the Twenty-seventh Psalm as a reflection of his condition. "Though armies be arrayed against me, I will have no fear." Now, as the traditional mourners' psalm seems increasingly imminent, I believe he truly feels the guiding hand of the shepherd and knows what it is to want nothing more.
It was an amazing teaching from a man barely able to make his simplest thoughts understood. Jeff chatted with great animation for about an hour, late into the night, well past his normal bedtime. His words cause me to reflect on my own "wants" and the effects the shepherd's hand may have had on this very trip—flights moved ahead, flight moved back, seemingly what we least wanted becoming what we most needed.
Was it the shepherd's whisper that spoke to me Thursday morning and inspired me to turn the inconvenience of a cancelled flight into an opportunity to share precious moments with my brother? By what divine providence did we come to witness acts of loving kindness such as the extraordinary efforts of Ann Lois who everyday defines the word mitzvah with her unrelenting physical and emotional support of her husband. How did it come to pass that we were present to hear the garbled words of a rabbi and teacher striving to give one more lesson?
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Now I must study.
Read more at Yesh Indeed.