How This Congregation's Women's Retreat Filled a Need They Didn't Know They Had

Women's Retreat
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In February 2019, Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Silver Springs, MD hosted a women’s retreat. The following case study was written by Dana Pelzman and Sharon Light, the retreat’s co-chairs.

In April 2018, Or Kodesh Congregation hosted a congregational retreat for synagogue members of all ages, including families. While it was a lovely Shabbat weekend, we didn’t feel like we had attended a relaxing and spiritual retreat. As moms to young kids, we had spent a harried weekend chasing our children and needed another weekend away to recover from the chaos. We left that retreat feeling a great need to create stronger connections with other women and a space to develop our spirituality in order to feel something beyond the requirements of daily parenting.

We polled the community for input on a women’s only retreat. A small group of women were very enthusiastic. Another small group were lukewarm on the idea - together, these two groups represented about forty-five women. A few women were adamantly opposed - or at least opposed to the idea of holding the event over Shabbat. Still others did not want to leave their families over a Shabbat weekend. Some admitted that they did not feel comfortable spending time with other women in this format or felt they were not into retreats because they focus too much on personal feelings. Based on the positive interest we received, we took a risk and booked space for thirty people at a nearby Jewish and kosher retreat center.

Despite some hesitancy, we felt it was important for people to connect as a larger community, but also to create connections based on affinities and identities. Many of the functions of a traditional Sisterhood would have formerly fulfilled these connections, but our synagogue does not have one, so women-only activities are now organized by other groups and individuals within the congregation. We do have a women’s Rosh Chodesh (first day of the new month) group and an informal social group for parents of young children, but we do not regularly offer programming that affords women in our congregation the opportunity to connect with each other across generational lines and in a way that goes beyond exchanging pleasantries at kiddush on Shabbat.

We settled on a theme of “Sacred Balance.” Our priorities for the retreat weekend were to build varied programming that would touch attendees across mind, body and spirit. We were intent that people come away from the weekend having deepened existing connections and created new relationships. Attendees with special skills were encouraged to contribute those skills to the program.

People were hesitant about signing up and unsure of what to expect at first. A lot were worried it would be too “touchy feely”. But the registrations kept rolling in and we quickly blew past our initial 30-person reservation limit. When we closed registration, we had 60 women signed up to participate.

From the moment people arrived before Shabbat for the retreat, there was an unexpected level of enthusiasm. By the end of dinner on Friday night, one woman summed it up perfectly: “You’ve filled a need we didn’t even know we had!”

In the end, the connections that we made over the retreat weekend were far more vast and strong than we could have imagined. The memories from this event will be long lasting and the women were all talking about next year’s retreat before the first one even ended!

If you are considering a women’s retreat in your community, we have a few recommendations. Survey your community to gauge interest and to poll available dates. Provide lots of opportunities for women to share stories, thoughts and experiences that would not come up in regular conversation. Encourage people to connect across life stages by assigning seating and groups for some activities. Provide lots of chocolate (this isn’t just a stereotype - it was the most common feedback we got in our post-event survey). Most importantly, don’t assume that because no one is asking for it, there is no desire for an event like this. For us, it was truly a “you don’t know what you don’t know” situation - but as soon as women could wrap their arms around it, they realized how special and important this opportunity was for them.

One other suggestion that helped allay anxieties back at home: Our community’s men’s club (called the “Mensch Club”) organized low-key programming at shul around the theme of a “Here-treat: A Staycation with your Congregation.” The Here-treat was carefully communicated to make clear that it was a community-wide offering. Having this available made a number of people more comfortable with the idea of some of the women being away over the weekend. It built additional community connections, and gave our kids something to look forward to while we were away!

Dana Pelzman is a full-time middle school art teacher and mom of three kids, ages, 3, 6 and 9. She has been exploring her own sense of purpose recently and found great joy and fulfillment in organizing a women's retreat for her Jewish community. In her spare time she can be found enjoying time with her family, reading, exercising, organizing or creating art.

Sharon Light builds connections and client engagement as a senior manager in the marketing department at Sidley Austin LLP. Through her volunteer work at Ohr Kodesh Congregation, she seeks to build community among the congregation's women, young families, and others. She has two daughters, ages 6 and 3.

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