Our Little Shul in the Woods: The BJ Community Retreat

By Susan Bodnar | Issue Date: Fall 2014

Enjoying the cuisine at the BJ Community RetreatOn Memorial Day weekend, nearly one hundred BJ members, Marcelo, Roly and guest teacher Nigel Savage, Director and Founder of Hazon, decamped to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. The long drive brought us home to the woods, surrounded by farmlands, alongside a tranquil lake. When everyone gathered to light Shabbat candles, the glow of flickering wicks lit our faces as the rose hues of a fading day enclosed us within each other’s hearts.

We prayed, listening to the swish of trees and the occasional goose honking as it skidded onto the water. We ate delicious home-cooked meals. We got to know each other, intimacy aided by a game, a shot or two of good scotch, or the comfortable couches where conversation could linger. We slept to the rhythm of gentle raindrops, and awoke to a misty fog that gave way to spots of sunshine.

We prayed together, each one in dialogue with his or her private Torah as we encountered the text. We acknowledged the simhas, new steps and memories among us. Matt Turk’s music lifted our meditations. The blustery wind of a rainstorm coming to an end carried the sound of our service through the windows of our little shul, out to the woods and into the homes of birds, rabbits and raccoons who might have thought themselves part of us.

The retreat offered opportunities for learning. Nigel, as a teacher among and not above us, coaxed exploration of our relationship to food as Jews—the choices we make and what they mean. He taught us that how we eat might be considered as central to our lives as how we pray.

Abutting the frame of Shabbat, we huddled in small groups—at the meal table, on a long hike, on a journey to see the sheep—or in a private tête à tête. We spoke about our kids, our relationships, our lack of relationships, the new challenges of our maturing selves, and the old struggles of our younger selves. Every once in a while a couple of kids charged in, eager to explore a hike at night, the other side of the lake, the animals in the barn.

After an uplifting havdalah, the sky cleared. We gathered for a bonfire with the music of at least four guitarists, one trumpeter and multiple percussionists. Singing in Hebrew, English and Spanish, including modern melodies, old ones, folk, blues, rock, and the obligatory Guantanamera, many voices became one song—in more ways than one.

BJ Families at the Community Retreat


Susan Bodnar has been a BJ member since 1990. She is a psychologist who, among other endeavors, explores how environmental issues interact with people’s overall psychological development. She and her husband, David, and their children, Ronen and Binah, are always seeking new ways to live sustainably in their urban context.