Next Labor Day weekend, Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz will carefully remove the Torah scroll from its home at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish retreat center they founded 16 years ago, and carry it on the first leg of the journey to its new home. Then they’ll hand it off to pairs of friends who will take turns walking the holy scroll 62 miles, to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.
Removing the Torah will be the final act by Elat Chayyim’s leaders before they close the retreat center’s doors, bringing to an end a grand experiment in the spiritual renewal of Judaism.
People with every kind of Jewish background went to Elat Chayyim to learn and practice meditation, experiment with neo-chasidic practices like chanting and ecstatic movement, and bring an environmentally sensitive consciousness to every act. The problem was that its ramshackle site was too uncomfortably funky for all but the most committed, and its creators and leaders were focused more on teaching than on finances. "They didn’t run it like a business. They’d run a program for 20 people, which isn’t cost-efficient. But its leaders had an intention that they really honored," said Sally Gottesman, a consultant to nonprofits who attended over a dozen retreats there. On the silent meditation retreats she has gone to for the last several years, "there are people who have been on a Buddhist path and a guy wearing a (chasidic) shtreimel, all together. I don’t know other places where Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews spend religious time together," she said. After long struggles to maintain the retreat center’s viability, its board recently decided to close its doors and become a program of Isabella Freedman. Elat Chayyim’s 35-acre home in Accord, N.Y., is up for sale with an asking price of $1.2 million.
The end of Elat Chayyim as it existed illuminates the difficulties of maintaining a retreat center. It also raises the question of why the New York Jewish community has been unable to create and sustain one even as Jewish groups regularly rent Catholic, Protestant and secular retreat sites. "For some reason it seems very hard to fund," said Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who has been going on Jewish retreats for over 30 years. Now the director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which teaches rabbis and Jewish educators about contemplative practices, Rabbi Cowan for over a decade ran the Jewish Life and Values Program of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. She paid for a study of whether a Jewish retreat center could be created in Lenox, Mass., to serve the Boston area. Its organizers, however, couldn’t get the funding together.
Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg has been trying to create a New York area Jewish retreat center for some 35 years. The earliest incarnation of what became CLAL: The Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership was in fact called the National Jewish Conference Center. Now, backed by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, Rabbi Greenberg is investigating creating a high-end Jewish retreat center in the area.
This is his third serious attempt in as many decades. Now that recent research has proven the value of immersion experiences like Jewish overnight camps and Israel trips in inculcating Jewish identity, the community is more ready to back a retreat center, Rabbi Greenberg told The Jewish Week. He expects to have the results of the feasibility studies complete in the coming months. And, he said, "[Steinhardt] is interested." Others have also looked into creating a Jewish retreat center. New York’s UJA-Federation 1991 Strategic Plan endorsed the idea of having a retreat center in the area, said Chief Executive Officer John Ruskay. After investigating the possibility about five years ago, the federation decided not to proceed and instead gave Camp Isabella Freedman a grant to help it make the transition from senior citizens getaway spot to full-fledged retreat center. The federation has long provided Isabella Freedman with about 6 percent of its $180 million annual operating budget, said its director of three years, Adam Berman.
A modest site with many rooms sharing bathrooms, Isabella Freedman is located on 400 acres in Falls Village, Conn. It’s a two-hour drive from New York, which some people view as too far to make it convenient for daylong meetings or even weekend retreats. But, says Berman, today "there’s more life, more energy, more community here then there had been and Elat Chayyim coming here will supercharge that process."
After decades of catering to Elderhostel groups and summer camps for senior citizens, Berman is diversifying its offerings and upgrading its facilities. There are now more programs for younger adults, like Adamah, a three-month residential fellowship devoted to Jewish learning and organic farming. Isabella Freedman is also kicking off a $13 million capital campaign to build upgraded accommodations with private bathrooms, and expand its offices and meeting space. Even with these improvements, Rabbi Greenberg says, "Isabella Freedman is not enough. It’s pretty much sold out when it’s available, so there’s an unmet market there. It’s sort of low end, and we think there’s room at a middle and higher end."
"There are people who would come to a place closer to NYC and be physically more comfortable. [Isabella Freedman is] meeting an important need but there seems to be room for a lot more."
Rabbi Greenberg envisions creating something on the model of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which is located outside of Los Angeles and offers creative programming for a range of ages. Experts say that creating this kind of Jewish retreat center will cost at least $50 million. Even if someone like Steinhardt puts up that money, perhaps in coalition with philanthropist-friends who have also partnered with him on Jewish educational ventures, they question how such a retreat center will sustain itself. Some also question how accessible a high-end retreat center would be to most members of the Jewish community.
"If you built a really rich spa environment, can you have rich people pay enough to make it affordable for other people?" asked Gottesman.
According to another observer who asked not to be named, Rabbi Greenberg and Steinhardt "tend to be elitist and top down. It may be their idea to have 5-star luxury and have very wealthy Jews come and persuade them to give their money to Jewish causes. But it would have been great if they had given enough money to Elat Chayyim to make it work.
"While Elat Chayyim and Isabella Freedman leaders express enthusiasm about what is being termed a merger, some involved also worry about whether the unique character of Elat Chayyim can survive the change into a program housed at a more mainstream site.
"The federation’s concerns are not the same as ours. How does that blending happen?" asked Elat Chayyim’s Rabbi Katz, who founded Elat Chayyim with her husband. While she believes that being at Isabella Freedman will bring Elat Chayyim’s programs to a wider, more mainstream audience, closing her retreat center’s doors "is bittersweet," said Chaia Lehrer, Elat Chayym’s associate director.
When Elat Chayyim’s Torah scroll gets close to the end of its trip to its new home, Isabella Freedman’s Berman will be there to receive it.
"We are a spiritual community and this is how we leave the space and enter a new space," said Lehrer. "It’s our kavannah [intention]: that we’re going there to create a new sacred space."