Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sacred community among strangers

A significant part of my job involves being locked away in a hotel or conference center with groups of people. In the last nine months, I have been on two retreats with a total of 60 United Synagogue staff, at a Kallah with about 200 kehilla leaders, staff and vendors, one retreat with our board of directors, and two Shabbatons with a total of 52 kehilla presidents. I just returned from three days of business and planning meetings with United Synagogue and local lay leaders in Detroit. Although it doesn't come close to what cruise ship staff might log in with passengers for the year, it does add up to more than 500 hours with about 380 people.

Besides lack of fresh air and sunshine, and eating too many unhealthy snacks, there is something that happens to people when they stay together for several days.

After the habitual blackberry and cell phone checking, the group eventually eases in to a relaxed rhythm when they realize that they're not going anywhere for awhile. Bonding happens quickly, especially in a well orchestrated program like Sulam for Presidents, an intensive training for new and incoming synagogue presidents.

It takes time to get comfortable in a new space with strangers. It takes even more time to filter out our normal distractions and bring our whole attention into the room. That's why facilitators spend so much energy designing creative opening exercises. But the real shift towards being a cohesive group at Sulam happens when we stop for mincha.

Most of us are unaccustomed to interrupting our business meetings or classes for prayer. Yet just as Sulam participants finish the orientation exercises and settle in for serious learning, they are handed prayer books and told it's time to daven. I watch them mentally and physically shift gears, remembering that this is a Jewish retreat, and realizing that in addition to bathroom and noshing breaks, prayer breaks will be on the agenda.

We begin their first mincha service with a meditation on how we will spend our days together as a group. At this point, they don't know that there will be many more prayer breaks -  three times a day, with birkat ha mazon after every meal, Shabbat services, text study, a rabbi's tisch on Friday night. We'll be on Jewish time for three days, and we'll track the time through prayer services.

In two days, they will complain that rather than prayer punctuating the learning, it feels like the learning punctuates the endless prayer.

But something will happen to everyone on retreat, despite the occasional kvetching. At some point, someone will try something he or she never tried before. A woman might wear a tallit, or someone will put on tefillin, for the first time. One person, terrified of making mistakes reading Torah, will get hearty cheers and support. Someone else will give a dvar Torah, or lead a verse of prayer in Hebrew even if he can't read it for real.

Almost everyone at the retreat will find a moment when they experience prayer in a way that they never did in their synagogues at home. By the last day, they will wish they could have one more Shabbat together.

One Sulam president wrote to us:
"I thought it would be a weekend of seminars, learning experiences and practical business type seminars designed to help me in my leadership roles...But I wasn't anticipating the intensity of when you package it all with prayer with a group of equally committed individuals. The whole package was intense, spiritual and emotional in a good way."
We begin our retreats as a circle of individuals. We end our retreats as a kehilla - sacred community.

1 comment:

  1. Kathy, Your blog captures the intent of our work beautifully. Great piece. I look forward to your next blog. Yasher Koach, Charlie