28 Days, 28 Ideas #27: Spiritual Birthright
Today’s idea comes from Jay Michaelson (@jaymichaelson), author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Shambhala), as well as two other books and over 200 articles. A columnist for the Forward, Huffington Post, and Tikkun, Michaelson was recently named to the “Forward 50” list of the most influential Jewish leaders in America. He is also executive director of Nehirim, a national nonprofit organization of GLBT Jews and allies. In 2008-09, he spent five months on silent meditation retreat, mostly in Nepal.
Ask anyone who’s gone on a seven-day meditation retreat, or a weeklong Jewish spirituality retreat, and they’ll tell you that the experience is life-changing. It’s not merely a pleasant weekend, or interesting few days of text study. Real spiritual retreats – whether traditionally religious, Renewal-style, yoga-based, meditation-oriented, musar-focused, or any number of other flavors – are transformative, not informative. When they work, they change the self, often in radical ways. Spirituality may not be for everyone, but for those for whom it is, it often becomes the center of Jewish identity and practice. Like Israel experiences or immersive social justice programming, spirituality is one of the many items on the Jewish salad bar which, for many people, can become the main course.
Yet spirituality remains, as yet, a phenomenon of the fringe. Yes, there are a handful of Jewish retreat centers around the country, and organizations like the Institute for Jewish Spirituality which seek to promote spirituality in synagogues. But spiritual retreats are expensive, they are rare, and they are often poorly promoted due to lack of funds. Immersive Jewish spiritual experiences could be, I believe, one of the single most effective means of engaging and inspiring young Jews – particularly those turned off by those who think that exciting davening means rattling your jewelry on Rosh Hashanah. Yet it is woefully underutilized.
Imagine a Spiritual Birthright, which subsidized a seven-day immersive spiritual retreat for young people aged 22-30. There would be no need to create new programming; like Birthright Israel, the Spiritual Birthright would subcontract out programming to groups like Chochmat HaLev, Makom Sholom, Elat Chayyim, Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, The Carlebach Shul, the Makom program at the Manhattan JCC, The Iyyun Center, Nehirim (the organization I direct), The Romemu Center, Wilderness Torah, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and dozens of other spiritual organizations around the country. (Sorry if I left yours out.) There could be Orthodox retreats and Renewal ones; silent meditation and ecstatic singing and dancing; hippied-out, touchy feely opportunities to explore your feelings, and misnagdic yuppie yoga. The criteria for qualification would simply be that a program must provide a seven-day immersion experience in some form of spiritual practice. Perhaps “spiritual practice” may even be defined broadly, to include Talmud study, for example – although it should not be so broad that it encompasses existing categories such as social justice work.
The Spiritual Birthright program is a way to connect the hundreds of thousands of young Jews interested in spirituality – especially the tens of thousands who leave Judaism in order to find it – to the organizations which can provide them a life-changing experience. Make no mistake, in my own experience and in the lives of many people I know, a seven-day retreat is even more powerful than a trip to Israel. My first such retreat, back in 2002, changed my life forever and renewed my connection to Judaism. It was like getting the answer key to Jewish practice and the words of the Bible. And but for it, I would surely not be the Jew I am today.
Spiritual Birthright will not be another cute program. It will generate the best return on investment, in terms of Jewish inspiration and involvement on a per capita basis, of any weeklong Jewish program in the world – including Birthright Israel. It’s that powerful. It will change the Jewish world.
This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, , over at the Jewish Federations of North America. And be sure to check out tomorrow’s idea — the last in the series — at Jewschool. You can also visit 28days28ideas.com for the full list of ideas.