The next core institution of Jewish life

Paradoxiacally, retreat centers communicate the hidden God in a better way than synagogues.

outdoor shul 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
outdoor shul 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Open your eyes, and you will see a Jewish "Big Bang" - the genesis of new, historic Jewish institutions. Why this new creation? Jewish institutions reflect Jewish history and they change as Jewish history changes. Every core institution reflects three key factors: the historical condition of the Jewish people, their primary religious-theological worldview, and their type of leadership. While these factors are ever-changing, only a few times in Jewish history have they changed so drastically that old institutions were no longer adequate and new institutions were born. We are living in such a time. In the biblical period, Jewish peoplehood was organized around a religious vision and mission commanded by God. God led the Israelites from Egyptian slavery to freedom in the Promised Land and intervened in their history constantly. The way to reach the Deity was through sacrifices (hence priests supplied religious leadership) and/or through prophets (who brought instructions and channeled a direct word from God). When individual tribes in Israel could no longer adequately defend against invaders, a central monarchy emerged to replace the tribal chieftains. As the Israelites settled down, a permanent Holy Temple became the centralized point for sacrifice and for communication with God - as experienced in the High Priest's Urim V'Tumim Oracles. The cosmic Lord was so manifest in the Temple that there could hardly be any other efficacious place to serve or address God. In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian exile temporarily led to the creation of local synagogues for study and community observance. But within a century the Israelites returned and rebuilt a central Temple; the synagogue remained a minor institution. THE DESTRUCTION of the Second Temple and exile led to a fundamental change in the Jewish condition and brought with it new religious understanding. With the loss of sovereignty, kingship disappeared. Without a Temple, the priests' role shriveled. The rabbinic understanding was that God had self-limited and "allowed" the destruction in order to call humans to greater responsibility in the covenant. God would no longer intervene visibly, and humans would need to uncover God's word. Prophecy disappeared as direct messages from God lost their credibility. The more hidden God - no longer "visible" or concentrated in Jerusalem - could be approached all over the world, although through prayer, not sacrifices. Thus synagogues spread. The people had to be educated; only in this way could they internalize Jewish values and live them even as a minority in a foreign land. Shabbat and Talmud Torah became central to Jewish life. Over a period of centuries, the Rabbis became the new leadership; synagogues - which were prayer, study and assembly centers - and academies emerged as the core institutions. The liturgy and many new rituals told the story of exile and destruction alongside the narratives of Creation, Exodus and future redemption. In the medieval period, lay communal leadership allied with the rabbis. These institutions proved adequate to carry the Jewish people through two millennia. Modernity initiated drastic changes in the Jewish condition. As modern secular culture spread among Jews, lay leadership and secular institutions, such as community centers and federations, emerged. THE HOLOCAUST and the creation of Israel supplied the decisive transformational thrust to Jewish life. God again self-limited (not intervening to stop the attempted total genocide), calling humans to a higher level of responsibility in the covenant. This development was expressed in the secular leadership - generals, pioneers, politicians - who led in the creation of the Jewish state. In this secular age of divine hiddenness, for many secularized Jews the rabbis come across as speaking on a frequency to which they are no longer tuned. The synagogue space is too "visibly sacred" for them. Similarly, Jews totally integrated in contemporary cultures often experience existing Jewish leadership and institutions as too parochial, and as telling stories too distant from their own experiences. New institutions, secular and universal, yet with a much higher level of Jewish content and experience, are needed to win loyalty in the free marketplace of ideas and identities. One such institution has already come into existence: the Holocaust Memorial Center. Given the tremendous emotional impact and the challenging intellectual, spiritual and ethical force of the Shoah, established institutions alone could not communicate the event adequately. The Holocaust Memorial Center (such as Yad Vashem) emerged as a total environment in which the story could be told intellectually and experientially as one. The concept is so powerful that it works even in the form of a universal, secular, American institution - the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - which becomes a "Jewish" institution. The Holocaust Memorial Center is barely six decades old, but it has spread to just about every major Jewish community. THE RETREAT CENTER is the next new central institution struggling to be born. Retreat center programs transform people's lives. The power of the retreat is the outgrowth of the same characteristics which make day schools, camps and Israel travel and study so impactful. The Retreat center provides a total Jewish environment. This distinctive world makes the Jewish message central and natural, rather than marginal and abnormal, as it is in the majority society setting. The program brings together charismatic Jewish role models and inspiring peers with whom one bonds and forms a living community. Research in various fields has shown that when people are in community and in a total environment, they absorb messages much more intensely and deeply. When good, life-enriching Jewish substance is communicated through intellectual and experiential learning, the effect is electrifying. People are open to changing their life directions and priorities. The center does not have the inherited aura of sacredness that the synagogue does. Therefore, secular and distanced Jews can more easily come there and be more open to hearing messages of instruction. PROPERLY DONE, the retreat experience has the power to create community for such people as well; the experience often raises the priority of one's Jewish identity dramatically. Retreats can be tailored to address specific audiences - ranging from highly knowledgeable and observant to the least educated and involved - offering them unique experiences. Since the center is a trans-denominational (or postdenominational) setting and not any one group's turf, all types of Jews can meet there on an equal basis, which opens them up to bonding and mutual influence. Paradoxically, since the center is not associated with inherited religious messages, it can communicate the presence of the hidden God and transmit a more universal Jewish vision, with less resistance from secularized Jews. Historically, the Jewish people successfully created the institutions it needed to transmit its values and continue its historic mission. While there are probably less than 20 dedicated Jewish retreat centers in the world, I would wager that within the century there will be one in every major Jewish community. This generation has a once-in-a-millennia opportunity to create the new infrastructure of Jewish life, starting with the National Jewish Retreat Center. The writer is president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. This essay first appeared in Contact (