As Jews in America we make choices every day. We choose when and if to identify as Jews. We choose how to express our Judaism and how to celebrate our Judaism; and we choose how, where and when to affiliate with other Jews. Non-Jewish members of our families also make these choices when they participate in Jewish traditions at home, attend services and participate in celebrations and in study. Forty-two women of Emanuel Congregation made a choice in January to immerse themselves in exploration of this theme and in a celebration of Jewish community at Emanuel’s 26th annual Women’s Retreat.
With the exception of two years, the retreat has always been held at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute camp (OSRUI), the Reform movement’s first summer camp founded by Emanuel’s own Rabbi Emeritus Herman Schaalman, in Oconomowoc, WI. Emanuel’s Women’s retreat is the only of its kind at OSRUI. The women ranged in age from their 30’s to their 80’s; they were married, single, widowed; they were Jewish and non-Jewish and a few were even on a path toward choosing to be Jewish. Some of the women have attended nearly every retreat since its inception. For others, it was their very first event with Emanuel having just joined the congregation in recent weeks or months.
Annually, the women of Emanuel choose a theme, develop session ideas and put together a full weekend of study, worship, music and so much fun. Every program and service is completely lay planned and lay led. Over the years programming has included art projects making dream journals, tallitot, challah covers and book marks. We’ve done mitzvah projects making bags of toiletries and potted plants for women’s shelters and nursing homes. We’ve baked challot, burekas and a lot of hamentashen. We’ve done yoga, Zumba and have even gone sledding down Bayit Hill in the moonlight. This year’s Cards Against Humanity game had us rolling in our chairs with laughter. And every year the music, the chorus of women’s voices (led by Emanuel’s Music Director, Ruthie Seidner) at services after meals and around the fire, fills the room and lifts our spirits.
It’s very difficult to describe the ruach of this weekend. It’s very difficult to convey the meaningfulness of the connections that are built and sustained through this very brief encounter (40+ hours). But it is very clear, that all the women who come are making a very conscious choice to be in a Jewish place, with Jewish people, doing Jewish things. And what happens in that time and space is truly powerful.