Up until last year, my family always celebrated Rosh Hashanah at home. We would attend a local synagogue and then enjoy large, festive meals with friends and family. Last year, we decided to try something different and instead spent the holiday at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center located a couple of hours from our urban apartment in New York.
Though we returned bug-bitten and allergy-ridden with a suitcase full of very dirty laundry, we can’t wait to get back there this Rosh Hashanah, because we also returned spiritually renewed, more deeply connected, and grateful for the many blessings that fill our lives.
I was particularly grateful for the experiences and messages, both subtle and overt, to which my sons were exposed during last year’s retreat—lessons that I hope will be instilled again this year.
The retreat offers two different options for prayer services. One room featured rows of chairs with a mechitza (divider separating men from women) down the middle; the other, a circle scattered with meditation pillows and yoga chairs. One room was filled with the sounds of Hebrew; in the other English predominated. One room featured the swaying of silent prayer; the other the rhythm of deep breathing.
My husband and I went to one, and my mother-in-law went to the other. As my sons wandered between the two (when they were not participating in the children’s activities that were offered simultaneously), I hoped that they began to internalize that there is no one “correct” way to pray. That in both services, people were in conversation with God—reflecting on the past year and determining how they could improve themselves and their imprint on the world in the year to come.
I know my sons were not—and probably are still not—old enough to understand all the nuanced complexities, but they could observe the obvious differences and simply took it at face value that Mommy and Abba went to one service, and Nana went to the other. I am hoping that this will lay the foundation for a lifelong respect for Jewish pluralism and a recognition that this kaleidoscope of plurality is one of the things that makes Judaism so beautiful.
Last year, my older son spent most of his time with me and my husband in the more traditional prayer services, though even these services looked very different from the ones back home. At the retreat, the services were filled with singing and dancing, with clapping and stomping and banging. Simply put, they were filled with joy. The rabbi spoke about the importance of serving God through song and everyone rose to that charge. So much so that by the end of the second day, when my son led “Adon Olam,” the concluding prayer, he did so with the great gusto he had observed throughout the day—he banged on the podium, swayed his head from side to side, and sang as loudly as he could. He had the opportunity to witness, partake in, and even lead prayer at its best—participatory, engaging, meaningful, and fun. I am eager for him to experience that again this year.
Another highlight that I am happily anticipating is Rosh Hashanah afternoons. Each day, after a delicious lunch prepared and served by a tireless and talented staff (another plus of being on a retreat—far less time in the kitchen involved with the physical aspects of the holiday, and far more time spent enjoying the spiritual elements and the company of family and friends), we took a hike on one of the trails that crisscrosses the retreat center’s grounds. While in the morning, we had found God in a synagogue, in the afternoons we found God among the trees. One of these hikes took us to a beautiful overlook where we saw an expanse of rolling mountains covered in fall foliage. We thanked God for creating such a beautiful world and for giving us bodies healthy enough to be able to climb up and see this world from afar.
Too soon after we returned from last year’s retreat, we reverted back to our routine of school and work. But, throughout the year, I simply had to close my eyes to remember the star-filled sky that bore witness to the moving Havdalah service that marked the conclusion of the holiday, or the joy on my sons’ faces as they sang and danced their way through services.
And now, as these memories grow dimmer, I am buoyed by the fact that my family and I will soon be able to recreate new ones, and that these layers of memories will provide us with the spiritual nourishment to move forward into a year that, God willing, will be filled with many reasons to sing and dance.