Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies

Advancing Jewish Retreating

Amy L. Sales and Nicole Samuel

January 2020

Advancing Jewish Retreating coverRetreats are immersive experiences that remove people from their everyday lives. They give participants time and space for renewal and growth, and opportunities to expand horizons, deepen relationships, and build community. Jewish retreats, with their vast array of organizers and retreat centers, are found across the American Jewish landscape. Each year Jewish retreats touch the lives of tens of thousands of people of all ages and, overall, appear to be on a growth trajectory.

Advancing Jewish Retreating maps the diverse ecosystem of Jewish retreating. It examines how retreating has been adopted by a vast array of organizations, what issues facilitate or impede their efforts, and what current levels of activity portend for the future of Jewish retreating. The report also suggests opportunities to grow Jewish retreating and to help raise the quality of retreat experiences.

The research was overseen by an Advisory Committee with extensive experience in Jewish retreating, engagement, and immersive experiences; and was made possible by the support of Josh E. and Genine Macks Fidler, longtime advocates for Jewish retreating and camping.

Key Findings

  • Retreats add unique value to an organization’s work that could not otherwise be accomplished. They are a powerful tool for fulfilling organizational mission, building community among participants and leaders, and providing experiential education that can deepen Jewish learning and practice. Retreats meld with and enhance the organization’s program year.
  • The most common purposes for Jewish retreats are community building, Jewish education, Shabbat or holiday celebrations, and spirituality. Other purposes are also represented in the study (e.g., leadership or professional development, relationship building, health and wellness, outreach, and simple R&R). Part of the power of retreating is that one retreat event can serve multiple purposes.
  • Retreats are a natural tool for micro-communities as they can offer intensive experiences for small groups of individuals with similar interests and needs. They are particularly well suited to the millennial generation (born 1981-1996).
  • Jewish retreating is a growing enterprise for both retreat organizers and operators. Organizers report steep growth in the number of retreats offered, total number of participants, addition of new locations and audiences, and new program themes and content. Jewish retreat centers, for their part, have seen notable growth in numbers between 2015 and 2018 but a decline in the percentage of their business that is Jewish.
  • Both operators and organizers need capacity building. To build the Jewish part of their work, operators will need to understand the gap between what they are offering in terms of price, location, accommodations, or services and what Jewish organizers are seeking. Organizers report a need for better promotion, marketing, and recruitment for their retreats; assistance in finding appropriate sites for their retreat events; stronger follow up, evaluation, and measurement of impact; and help with raising funds to make their retreats more widely affordable.
  • Jewish retreating needs structures that can promote it as a valuable tool, improve its use, create forums for learning and sharing, and harness the expertise needed to build capacity among organizers and operators. A structure for organizers needs to accommodate their great diversity and help them see their shared interests. Operators—already well known to one another—may be ready for a more formal collaborative structure that promotes information and resource sharing.
  • Additional funding for Jewish retreating could make a substantial impact. Funding is needed to support capacity building and provide scholarships and subsidies that will make Jewish retreating accessible to larger numbers.
  • Additional research can add to the momentum of Jewish retreating through studies focused on impact, best practices, and assessment of Jewish retreat center operations (e.g., accommodations, business model, and Jewish purpose). Also needed will be feasibility studies of action proposals that emerge from the current research.

Retreating is an extraordinary tool that can be applied throughout the Jewish community to realize many of the aspirations for Jewish life today. Tools, however, are only as good as their design and their application. Advancing Jewish Retreating is a first step in understanding what constitutes excellence in design and how far and wide this tool might be applied. Most importantly, it indicates that retreating’s potential can be advanced through actions that support the proliferation of Jewish retreats, increase the number of Jewish organizers and participants, and help raise the quality of these experiences.