“Are You There, God? It’s Me, __________.” Davening in White: The BJ Women’s Retreat

By Jenn Heettner | Issue Date: Fall 2014

Sometimes, B’nai Jeshurun can feel like a very big place—especially for a single woman in her thirties. After joining BJ a year ago, I explored various routes and entry points into the community. Although BJ members are friendly, warm and open, navigating the vastness of our congregation and finding a personal niche can require initiative and openness on behalf of the joiner.

After asking Felicia for guidance, I accepted her recommendation to attend the annual BJ Women’s Retreat. It seemed like a good fit: about 65 attendees; a beautiful setting outside the city; and an opportunity to explore my spirituality in a safe and unassuming way. “I can do this,” I remember thinking. “Even though I don’t know anyone going on the retreat. Really, I can.”

As I packed and prepared on the eve of the retreat, I reflected on this new way of connecting with the BJ community, with my spirituality, and with myself. I looked forward to this weekend away, but I was nervous. Going away with a bunch of women I didn’t know? I felt like my 11-year-old self on the eve of my first summer at sleepaway camp. Would the women be nice? Would I fit in? Despite years of extensive international business travel to far-flung, difficult environments, a weekend with a group of other Jewish women from New York City seemed by far the most daunting travel possibility I had experienced in a very long time.

But I was excited for a fully immersive Shabbat experience. Shabbat in the city is wonderful, but the city remains ever-present—buzzing with lights and people, blaring horns, and the distractions of urban life. Additionally, those that we welcome Shabbat with at Friday evening services may not be the same people with whom we spend the rest of Shabbat. I looked forward to spending a full Shabbat with a close-knit group.Linda Kates and Susan Margolis.

As I finished packing and dutifully did my pre-trip “homework”—including looking at God’s various names, how they translate, and what that may mean—I thought about what God meant to me. The theme of the retreat, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, ________,” was designed to explore conceptualizations of God and spirituality and how they fit into our lives. With no idea of what to expect at the retreat, I was nervous. But the content was interesting and exciting and, of course, Felicia and Sarit would be there to guide us.

What I could not have imagined was that less than 48 hours later the anxiousness would be gone; that the people I welcomed Shabbat with would also be people who would engage with one another with openness, kindness and vulnerability, imbuing every activity and discussion with warmth, community and a sense of diverse Jewish identity. And that, by the end, I would feel such a connectivity and closeness to these women.

While I cannot speak for anyone else on the trip, it certainly seemed that many of us gained exponentially more than we individually contributed. Indeed, the whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts.

The arc of the weekend’s itinerary was, of course, Shabbat. Shabbat gave us the time structure for prayer, reflection and rest. The retreat center, nestled in the verdant Berkshires, provided the inspiring space to immerse ourselves in Shabbat. The participants brought voices, experience and energy to fill the space with song, prayer, ideas and reflections. Services were held in a beautiful little chapel with walls of windows looking out on the lushness of the forest, as well as on a patio overlooking the cool calmness of a lake. And we all wore white, which took on a very special feeling of being clad in gentle, fresh light as we davened and sang together.

Meals took place in the very traditional and rustic camp dining room and consisted of excellent food, grown and freshly harvested from the Adamah Farm at Isabella Freedman. During breaks, we enjoyed the trappings of summer camp: sunning on the dock; swimming in the lake; reading a book under a tree; going for walks in the woods; and singing songs by the campfire with Felicia on guitar—all complimented by the sweet scent of roasted marshmallows and s’mores.

But it was the space in-between, where discussions and explorations of ideas about divinity, spirituality and God took place, which was the most remarkable. We had many conversations—in large groups, small groups, and in pairs—about the opportunities and challenges for connecting with God, all of which required openness and vulnerability. During study sessions, we read and reflected on different passages and how the various names and concepts of man and God shift. For example, given the different names of God that we find in the Torah, how do we relate to each one? Which names do we connect with more deeply, and which make us feel more distant from God? Could we, in small groups, come up with our favorite and identify why it spoke to us? Or in another example, in a prayer where we refer to God, what happens if we use a female pronoun instead of a male pronoun? If I refer to God as a “she” or an “it,” how does that impact feelings of connection to the divine? Does it impact me at all? It’s a wonderful exercise anyone may practice while reciting prayers. Is there a difference? Or is it a case of “just words?”

For me, the Women’s Retreat was by far one of the most connected times I have ever felt, not only as a new BJ member, but as a Jew. By the end of the weekend, I was no longer a nervous young girl at camp. I was a grown woman, seeking and finding spiritual exploration amid my community of wonderful Jewish women. I am so very grateful for Felicia, Sarit, Beth and all the BJ women who created such an incredible weekend.

Jenn Heettner recently joined BJ. A New York native, Jennifer has worked and lived internationally and is interested in global Jewish communities, culture and history. Jennifer is the Director of Global Program Information, Monitoring and Evaluation at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Prior to joining JDC, she worked domestically and abroad on good governance, transparency and citizen participation, as well as on disability issues and gender-based violence prevention. An avid traveler, Jennifer enjoys local Shabbat experiences whenever possible. She is a dedicated cyclist and loves to cook, write and take photographs.