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  • Devra C. Aarons

Why do we Retreat?

By Devra C. Aarons

February 14, 2024

About 20 years ago, I walked into my first Midrasha classroom of 11th and 12th graders. More than anything I remember being shocked by their size. “I'm going to teach football players,” I thought to myself. I was used to being in classrooms of 5th graders who were game to try new things, experiment. These teens, having grown up in Berkeley, reading the New York Times alongside their Berkeley Professor parents were smart, savvy, and not game for my bag of theater improv tricks. I was disheartened. How will I reach these teens? How will I ask them to be vulnerable, and engage in discussions about God and spirituality?

A month later I found myself at camp in the Redwoods with these same teams. it was my first Midrasha retreat. There were over 100 teens. My cabin held 12 Girls - enthusiastic, loud, and deeply in love with each other. I walked into our cabin - clothes were everywhere, music was playing, and the mattresses were not on the bunks but laid out on the floor like a giant shared bed. Were these girls even going to listen to me, let alone actually go to sleep when I declared, “lights out?” Unlikely.

So I decided not to fight it, but lean in and pull out my own magic - storytelling. In pajamas that night, everyone all cuddled up inside sleeping bags, inside the wood cabin I wove a tale of strong Jewish girls going on journeys of Discovery - following dreams, helping each other, and building a safe nest to return to when the going got tough. They fell asleep to our shared story of finding their way in a challenging world. It worked its magic into our weekly Midrasha sessions. When teens had been closed off, now they would listen. Where they had been silent, after that retreat, we had deep, meaningful conversation. We asked hard questions, “what kind of God do

you believe in? Wat is holy? How do we weave these ideas into our daily lives?” I saw the transformative magic of retreats for myself. And all that year, Friday night story time became our cabin’s tradition - we wove our community tighter.

It’s 20 years later and Contra Costa Midrasha now runs retreats for over five teen serving institutions in the Bay Area. I won't go into the details of how the infrastructure of Retreats have changed since my first year. Here's what remains: 1) We purposefully go away, deep into nature, without Wi-Fi or cell service. 2) We rely on the magic each of our educators bring to heighten the experience. 3) We build the weekend’s schedule on Dan Siegel's “Healthy Mind platter” a retreat mirrors what teens need to have true mental health. 4) Judaism wraps all around us, all weekend, like a tallis to keep us warm.

Just this past weekend we held our Winter 2024 retreat. I asked a few teens over lunch, “what is the most important piece of our retreats?” They all said told me that on retreats they build deep and lasting friendships. Specifically, I heard other amazing comments. *Max told me that he understood having no tech on a retreat was a gift because, “it forces me to face the people here and really get to know them without distraction.” Erica, who stars in every play at her school, said that in her theater world the circles don't open to strangers but, “at retreats every circle

opens for me and I make sure they open for others.” Ari said, “summer camp is my favorite place. Retreats are my mid-year chance to live in that world again. Oren explained in words and with his hands, “In my daily life I sometimes forget that I am Jewish. But then I come on Wednesday nights and I remember - it takes me here.” (And his hand moved to about halfway up his body.) He continued, “but Retreats and especially Havdalah take my Judaism to new heights.” And then he moved his hand to way above his head. Havdalah on retreats clearly brings his Judaism to a new level.

Why Havdalah? If any of you want to know why you need to send your teen on a Midrasha retreat, the simple answer is Havdalah. Eric Schoen, a local musician, comes to camp specifically to lead Havdalah. Teens walk outside hand in hand into the darkness. The light of the Havdala candle blazes a path forward and the sound of Havdalah’s opening niggun fills the air, “lai lai la lah la lah lai lai.” Eric leads them into a tight spiral on an open field, the stars forming a canopy above us. Someone always points out Orion's belt. In the spiral of bodies surrounding Eric and the Havdalah candle, all the teens’ hands move to shoulders and the group gets tighter. Jewish psychologist D.r Betsy Stone explain to me recently why Havdalah

works as as a teen formula to create a magic Jewish moment. The tight spiral creates proximity and our arms interlaced allow for safe touch. The music serves as a balm to our soul. It all comes together to offer our teens a deep experiential dive into lived Judaism. All our teens talk about Havdalah as a high point of each Midrasha weekend. Is this unique for Midrash only? No, most Jewish teen youth groups share this moment.

Our educational staff bring their A game to retreats. They lead night hikes, engage in deep text study and construct creative hands-on lessons that reflect our weekly learning. We’ve worked to train our staff to maintain a shared culture where teens’ mental health is valued. Retreats are a place for educators to get to know their teens outside a classroom. Walking amidst the woods, dancing on a Saturday night or seeing their talents in a talent show, give us broader perspectives into each of our teens and bond our community deeply. Inevitably, retreats are the time when teens share their harder life stories too. It’s when we sometimes hear about suicidal

ideations, about gender questions, and even about abuse. So we started this year having a mental health counselor on our staff. This has meant that teens and educators have a person to counsel with when one of these issues comes to light.

Midrasha retreats are the glue of our program. They enable us to do deeper weekly learning and provide opportunities for Shabbat ritual and engagement. Mostly they are the time for our community to bond and be woven more tightly together. My mentor Corey Fischer coined the idea that, “sometimes we need a story more than food.” I would argue today’s teens need Havdalah, friendship, community, mentors and yes, good food too.

We carry with us to each retreat a box of tallises. Many of the tallises were created by previous classes of Midrasha teens. We hold the largest over the teens while we read Torah. This past weekend, all the teens came up to have an Aliyah when we invited them to heed this call, “Come have a Torah Aliyah if you need the community you get on a retreat.” They all came up. We chanted Torah under a canopy of redwoods, read by the teens and protected by tallises created by generations of Midrasha teens. May this tradition never end.

*All names changed to protect identity of teens.

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