Two Prayer Retreats, Two Paths to the Soul

By John Ruskay and Robin Bernstein and Siân Gibby | Issue Date: Spring 2015

BJ Prayer Retreat at Menla Mountain

By Sian Gibby

How to describe the transcendent communal Jewish experience of the BJ Prayer Retreat? A complete picture isn’t possible; living it happened in multiple dimensions, some of them not communicable in writing. Below, then, a sketch.

The Menla Mountain Center, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in the Catskills, is tucked in among frosty forested peaks, almost giving one the sense of being in the
Himalayas, particularly on the retreat’s first days, when temperatures fell below zero, and the wind blew furiously outside, making the center itself all the more cozy and warm. Our gathering room was curved into a gentle oval and painted gold, with heated terracotta tile flooring, and windows facing the snowy hills.

Forty voices davened together three times daily using melodies some of us didn’t already know or even know were possible, in strange, lovely harmonies that seemed plucked out of the thin, holy mountain air. When we weren’t praying, we were either studying or singing piyyutim. What time remained went to eating (delicious, fresh vegetarian food) and sleeping. If it doesn’t sound like a vacation, it wasn’t. If it doesn’t sound like fun, let me assure you that it was.

The study, led by our beloved rabbi Roly Matalon and four close Israeli friends, Yair Harel, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, Chani Kroizer, and Uri Kroizer, covered every aspect of prayer: using the voice, experiencing place, body, heart, movement. It centered on the most fundamental elements of tefillah, the Shema and the Amidah, as well as on the dimensions and possibilities of petitionary prayer.

We came to this retreat from many different places in our relationships to prayer, faith, and Jewish practice—not as experts, but as seekers who trusted one another, sharing our struggles with the journey of prayer, and exploring both where we were on that path and where we might go, as individual souls and as a Jewish kahal.







Sian Gibby is a writer/editor at the Calandra Institute and the copy editor for Tablet Magazine.


BJ Mindfulness Retreat in Nature

By Robin Bernstein and John Ruskay

Providing alternate, nontraditional methods of Jewish prayer is a resource BJ thinks is important to offer our community. One of these approaches to prayer, spearheaded by Rabbis Rachel Cowan and Marcelo Bronstein, we call mindfulness davening. Recently, Marcelo and a group of BJ members came together at the BJ Mindfulness Retreat in Nature, in one of the world’s most picturesque settings: Costa Rica. Here’s what BJ members John Ruskay and Robin Bernstein had to say about their profound experience exploring this unique method of prayer as a path to the soul.


John Ruskay:

The Mindfulness Retreat was a magnificently crafted program which enabled me to journey far deeper into prayer and Jewish text and explore more intimate levels of my heart and soul. Marcelo and Rachel sculpted and led a week of perfection, and I use that word rarely. The program elements—meditation, prayer, study, visits in the community; the gorgeous physical setting, the sequencing—further enriched my appreciation of the richness of our people and our tradition. Throughout the week, bonds deepened with congregants who I have known for decades from afar. In sum, to participate in the retreat was both a gift and a privilege.

Robin Bernstein:

Simply said, the Mindfulness Retreat allowed me to discover in a profound way both God and prayer for the first time in my life. Since the age of eight, when my father suddenly died, I have been trying to make sense of the notion of God and have sought to find meaning in prayer. Until the retreat, prayer has just been
a lot of words that I didn’t understand in Hebrew, and in English the words did not move me. When I signed up for the retreat, I was intimidated by the notion of a daily prayer service, but I was curious about the mindfulness aspect and the idea of a meditation retreat in Costa Rica. Marcelo’s facilitation of prayer moved me to the core. I spent a week weeping gentle tears throughout morning prayer and Shabbat. I don’t yet fully understand the tears but believe that they were important tears for me to shed. I am a person who has led an extraordinary and, by many standards, successful life, from the head up. I have been in search of connecting my head to my heart and through the brilliant facilitation of both Rachel and Marcelo they provided those of us at the retreat with simple tools to do just that, tools that I am continuing to use back home. I returned home with a more opened heart. The trip was an extraordinary gift.


A multidecade BJ member, John Ruskay served as Education Director of the 92nd Street Y, JTS Vice Chancellor, and CEO of UJA- Federation. He is a partner with Robin in JRB Consulting Services and is enjoying/exploring life in this personal “post fast track” era.
Robin Bernstein joined BJ 14 years ago when she married John. She worked at the Educational Alliance in a variety of positions for 26 years, the last 15 as the CEO. She stepped down from that position a year ago and is now a partner with John in JRB Consulting Services. They have five children between them, and seven grandchildren.