A photo from the Touro synagogue museum in Newport, RI describing what may have been the first Jewish men’s group in the Colonies. We’ve come a long way.
NOTE: On October 27 we were shocked and deeply saddened by the heinous attack on the congregations in Pittsburgh. Watch for details for a Menschwork ZOOM call where we can share our concerns and responses on Thursday November 15, 9-10pm.
State of the Spirit
October 28, 2018
Did the 70 men attending JMR 27 last weekend experience (one of) the best JMRs ever? I for one can’t think of a better JMR retreat! Co-leaders Marc Jacobs and Cobi Waxman looked at the evaluation forms from the previous year (JMR26) as they planned JMR27. Where I only saw the great comments from over 90% of the responses, they saw the few comments that said we could do better. It is most impressive how Marc and Cobi did better because the critical comments were split between “do more” or “do less” in the same areas.
David Cherenson, Michael Evers, and Ralph Benmergui, the three leaders of JMR28 on October 25-27, 2019, are moved in spirit by the exciting challenge to create a deep and soulful retreat for JMR28. We are confident that these Brothers will continue the tradition of building upon the foundation laid by prior JMRs. They will have help and lead the inspired brotherhood of16 men who stepped into the Planning Team during the closing circle this past weekend. Additional resources to the independent JMR28 team will come from the Menschwork Wisdom Council of 11 men.
For the past few years, the Wisdom Council has convened a two-day planning retreat to assess and develop the long-term vision, goals and programs of Menschwork. This year the group will meet December 16-17. We welcome any input of ideas for us to consider about how to grow the vision and types of services Jewish men want to deepen our lives.
We thank Marty Pashelinsky, Cobi Waxman, and Donald Gardner, who are transitioning off the Wisdom Council, and welcome into the Counsel the wisdom and gifts of Joseph Kottler and Michal Landau.
Continuing Menschwork Connections Throughout the Year
This year’s retreat was a very powerful experience. Building from that experience, we are organizing several opportunities to stay connected and through Menschwork activities throughout the year. Please make sure to mark the following dates on your calendars and look for upcoming emails with program information:
Pathways: While for many years there have been various Shabbos afternoon program choices including free time/nap, this year I heard many men say they wished they could be in 2 or 3 places the same time because multiple Pathways offerings were very appealing to them (Spiritual Eldering, Sound Healing,#MeToo, Gender Identity, Original Jewish Texts about being a Mensch, Experiential Service). These offerings took on the name Pathways; based on interest, we expect to continue this work during the year ahead.
Webinars:In 2017, Menschwork created its first webinar. Reb Shawn Zevit and a small group created a great online video, available at www.Menschwork.org, giving a history of Jewish Men’s work along with a discussion among the group. This year, Mark Dwortzan and Elliott Myrowitz created a short video guidelines to making a recorded Menschwork Webinar which includes a list of topics proposed as well as an invitation for you to offer a topic here.
Mishpacha groups: A highlight of JMRs are the Mishpacha groups. These small groups, which meet 3 times during the retreat, are an open hearted, kind, sharing experience. There has been interest to continue this experience throughout the year. The Wisdom Council is considering how to best make this type of opportunity available beyond the JMR weekend.
Mensches, we say Amazing Things Happen When Jewish Men Gather. Please gather with us over the next year in whichever of the numerous rich opportunities for soulful Jewish connection and growth that I have discussed that calls to you: Webinars, Pathways, Mishpacha groups, and beyond. While we have two Webinars ready for our upcoming schedule, Pathways and Mishpacha groups will depend on your interests and response to this communication. Send me a note on our Contact page and tell me what interests you, and I will connect you with the appropriate group.
Elliott Myrowitz, Mark Dwortzan, Marty Pashelinsky, Donald Gardner, David Piver, Harold Belkowitz, Marc Jacobs, Cobi Waxman, Simon Olsberg, Josef Kottler, Michael Landau, Yosaif August, Reb Shawn Zevit.
Wisdom Council members, Menschwork.org
JMR28 Leaders (from left): Ralph Benmergui, David Cherenson, Michael Evers (far right)
JMR27 Leaders: Marc Jacobs (3rd from left), Cobi Waxman
The Menschwork Wisdom Council (board) at the closing of the 27th annual Jewish Men's Retreat. From left, Reb Shawn Zevit, Josef Kottler, Yosaif August, Elliott Myrowitz, David Piver, Simon Olsberg, Harold Belkowitz, Mark Dwortzan, Cobi Waxman and Marc Jacobs
Jewish Men’s Retreat Update
Six years ago, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l, spoke to the JMR20 group by video conference from Boulder on the Sunday morning of the retreat. When Zalman was asked about how we could best cope with the many revolutionary changes that were transpiring around the world (particularly in the Arab world), he encouraged us to welcome the disintegration of old ways that were not serving society anymore, and the emergence of new ways that could better serve society. Zalman laid out a vision of making the city/community better in many ways, and maintained that it is sometimes necessary to tear up some roads and buildings in order to create a new, improved, healthier, evolved city/community. He encouraged us to not be demoralized by torn-up roads and buildings under demolition, but to focus on our visions of better cities/communities.
Reb Zalman’s wisdom in many ways captures the essence of the Jewish Men’s Retreat, which strives to support men in their efforts to cultivate better and better versions of themselves and their communities.
This mindset was palpable at this year’s JMR campfire, where perhaps men were more vulnerable and openhearted after just experiencing the powerful physical/spiritual Ohel Avot, a sacred, transformational ceremony beautifully facilitated by David Piver. The campfire stories and sharing were particularly kind, capturing the notion that, as our liturgy says, “the soul You have given us is pure.” My heart was touched and I felt aspects of that truth in almost all the campfire sharings. For example, Jeff Levine showed how simple kindness in his professional legal work had powerful impacts on the lives of his clients. Allen Spivack, whose years of leadership has been instrumental in shaping the JMR experience, continues to show the righteous path with his work in his community Chevra Kadisha, preparing the body for burial. Such mensches! These are just two of the dozens of men who spoke from their hearts at the campfire.
Continuing JMR’s strong attendance the past several years, more than 80 men registered for JMR26. From the post-JMR survey results, we can say that the weekend was transformative for the men in so many different ways. Thanks are due to the great efforts of the many creative men on the planning team. Throughout JMR26, I was in awe of so many wonderful contributions from first-time attendees as well as from men who have shared their truths in the group for decades.
I am happy to report that JMR 27, now scheduled for October 19-21, 2018, at Isabella Freedman, is in strong hands. The retreat’s co-leaders, Marc Jacobs and Cobi Waxman, and 16 other JMR alums gathered on January 14 in Philadelphia at the first planning meeting. There is still time to support your brothers by joining the planning team; just contact Marc (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Cobi (email@example.com), and they will help you get involved. Please mark your calendars to attend JMR 27.
As you know, many of us view Menschwork as the logical next step in the evolution of the Jewish Men’s Retreat.
With JMR’s continued growth and desire to provide more opportunities to Jewish men, the Wisdom Council, with the legal help of Steve Masters, established Menschwork in 2016 as a 501(c)(3) organization. This development allows us to develop and share our Mission and Values (listed on our website Menschwork.org) to even more Jewish men. On the websiteyou can also find information about regional meetings, a great introductory video to Jewish men’s work by Reb Shawn Zevit, the first of a growing library of Webinars, archives of JMR events, a Blog, a way to contact us, how to support Menschwork, and more.
While we say “Amazing Things Happen When Jewish Men Gather,” it is most often applied when describing the Jewish Men’s Retreat from the planning, during the event, and the transformations after the retreats. We need the input from all men receiving this letter to help define what being part of Menschwork community means to you. Please send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While we are not a membership organization, we do offer at no cost a Menschwork card, which looks and feels like a credit card. Containing the full text of our Mission, the card has been helpful as a way of introducing other men to Menschwork. Let us know if we can send you some cards for yourself and others with whom you might want to share it. Designed by Ori Alon and bringing a smile almost every time it is used, this “credit card” states, in large print, “Valid for good deeds only.”
Strength, Peace and Blessings,
Chair, Menschwork Wisdom Council
By Elliott Myrowitz
About 15 years ago I was attracted to a father-teenage son weekend at Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center. After driving from Baltimore to Accord, New York, my son and I learned from the staff person at the registration table that the program had been cancelled. Not to worry, she informed me, our registration had been rolled over into the Jewish Men’s Retreat, which was also taking place that weekend. There was one other father-teenage son duo from New York City, and they also agreed to give it a try. What else was there to do after the long drive and looking forward to spending quality time with our teenage sons?
So began my exposure to the precursor of Menschwork, the Jewish Men’s Retreat (JMR), which had been holding annual gatherings since 1991. Once drawing about 50 men each year, in 2016 the JMR grew so much that we had to close registration, as we could fit no more than 100 men in our davvening space due to fire code limits. That year, as Menschwork became a 501c3 organization, we identified a number of goals, including to share our process and values in other communities during the year. We call these regional meetings. For one of these, Herb Levine suggested that I try a father-teenage gathering in Baltimore on a Sunday afternoon.
Here is the email I sent to a few of my Menschwork brothers after the gathering concluded that day:
May 19, 2017
I am very pleased with my gathering today, three dads and four teenagers.
We had a meal in my kitchen, then took a hike with the goats for 30 minutes, and then began our sharing discussion. I gave some guidelines and did the first sharing, and asked each person to speak if they wanted to. We did two rounds and then a closing open discussion. The first-round question was, “What does a mensch (compassion, integrity, spirit) mean to you?” For the second round, everyone was asked to give an example where they felt they were and/or were not a mensch. I went first and then let whoever wanted to go next, with a suggested five-minute time limit. I did not need to stop anyone, as the teenagers all easily went under five minutes, and one or two dads went longer, but it seemed all were good listeners.
I felt we all got to know each other well, and I was impressed with these great teenagers and dads. Diverse backgrounds, all very respectful. I enjoyed the whole process. Of interest for the first round: integrity was most frequently addressed, less often compassion, and no one spoke about spirit. (While the word Mensch is in my core from childhood, it was only in one other person's core from childhood, so translating Mensch when I started into the English components seemed to be very important.) So when I started the second round, I made a point to lead with spirit in my sharing, and the group followed, and I felt we really shared at a deep level.
They were happy to agree to allow Menschwork to post the picture I took and be on our mailing list. I hope other Menschwork regional gathering leaders and participants can also share the dynamics of their gatherings so we can perhaps find key elements to make the event successful in getting a taste of Menschwork.
by Jay Lewkowitz and Jeff Schwartz
We want to tell you our story of a 45 year friendship and how the Jewish Men’s Retreat has sustained our deep connection with each other over these many years.
One might think that a friendship that survived decades of adventures, nachas (joy), and tzuras (trouble) would need little outside influence to bind it, but the Jewish Men’s Retreat did exactly that for Jay Lewkowitz and Jeffrey Schwartz.
Jeff Schwartz describes how their relationship has sustained itself for so many years:
I believe it was Jay’s uncle who said that you know you’re getting older when you look in the mirror and see your father, and you know when you are really old when you see your grandfather. Today, we are somewhere in between, but we began with the eyes of two young hippies carefully disguised as nice Jewish boys. Our story covers a journey through life with all of its trials and tribulations. Our Jewish practices ranged from orthodox, to conservative, to renewal, to very little at all – but we always saw ourselves as Jewish men.
We met as acquaintances and as classmates at Yeshiva University in the mid 1960’s. Mutual friends brought us closer together over our stay at Yeshiva and by the time we graduated in 1970 we had a lot of shared experiences, long night conversations, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Jay took over the lease on my apartment on Elwood Street in New York City, while I headed for a whirlwind trip through Canada where I stayed on a commune and met Caren, the woman who was to become the mother of my children. Not too long after we left Canada we found ourselves back in the Elwood Street apartment, staying with Jay. In fact, while I was off to work, Caren returned to the apartment from the doctor who informed her she was with child, and it was Jay who heard the good news first. From there on, there was an unbroken bond between us.
Life took us on different adventures, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in opposite directions, but regardless, we managed to stay a part of each other’s life. At one point while I was living in Ithaca, New York, Jay and his bride Donna moved there and we all considered buying a farm where we could have two houses built so we could live next to each other. While we never bought the place, our commitment to be part of each other’s life never faltered.
Jay ended up in Chicago, while I ended up in upstate New York for the next 35 or so years, putting a lot of miles between us. Children came along, as did divorces and remarriages. Occasionally we got to see each other in person like when Jay was the best man at my wedding or when Jay returned to New York from his wedding in Israel to his second wife, Ellen. Occasionally, I would visit Chicago on business and always make time to see Jay, especially at the big bash for his 40th birthday.
Sometimes we would talk frequently, and sometimes months would go by between calls, but it always seemed like no time had passed at all. We shared the joys of grandchildren being born, the sadness of a parent’s passing, stories of betrayal, adventures, our travels, the little things in life, and the big things.
When my father’s best friend passed away, my dad told me how sad it was because he would never again have a best buddy. That made no sense to me at the time, because I didn’t understand until now what it meant to have decades of history and sharing between two men that simply cannot be replaced.
Our lives and relationship could have gone on like this forever, and that would have been good enough. By this time in our life we were “seeing our fathers in the mirror,” and had each of us had our own issues to deal with. On one of my visits to Chicago, Jay introduced me to a friend who later moved to New York. That friend introduced Jay to the Jewish Men’s Retreat (JMR). The following year, Jay was on the organizing committee and Jay convinced me to attend the Retreat with him, which is now our annual get-together.
From the power of the unique group of men at each year’s Retreat, to the dynamics of the mishpacha groups(small discussion groups), to the freedom of singing and dancing in celebration of our lives as strong Jewish men, the Retreat is thought-provoking, exhilarating, and cleansing all at the same time.
Jay has lead Mishpacha discussions, and services, while I assisted. I also followed in Jay’s footsteps by joining the planning committee and one year as a roving Ambassador, making sure people felt safe and comfortable within the environment and experience. The Retreat in and of itself would have been enough on its own, but the way it increased the deep connection of Jay and me is really not something I can explain. But you can really feel it when you see Jay and me together at the JMR.
To those who have attended before, you all know what we are talking about. Now, I urge you to bring a friend and your experience will be multiplied tenfold. For those of you considering attending for the first time, all I can say is that you will never regret it. It really can transform your life in so many positive ways. Whether your Jewish beliefs and practices are traditional, conservative, reform, renewal, or non-existent, whether your feet are firmly planted on the ground or you are searching for a new direction in your life, the JMR will offer you support, acceptance and an experience of joy and fulfillment.
While Jay and I are getting older and are both grandparents, we still don’t see our grandfathers in the mirror yet. But at the Jewish Men’s Retreat, as we hope these photos convey, when we look into each other’s eyes, we see each other and ourselves as ageless, joyous, proud, strong Jewish men.
Ori Alon attended his first Jewish Men’s Retreat 2009, having emigrated from Israel to New York City with his soon to be American-born wife. He first heard about the JMR when he attended a weekend strategic planning meeting at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and talked with Allen Spivack about the JMR and how it would enrich his life. Ori explains what that first JMR was like for him and the instant “family” he inherited. This year will be Ori’s third JMR.
The JMR is one of those rare places where I instantly feel at home. The first time I came to the retreat I didn’t know what to expect and I was a bit nervous: coming to a weekend with 70 or 80 strangers is not an easy task, even if you are a very social person. After the weekend though, I felt like some of these guys were family.
I was about to get married and the most natural thing to do was to invite everyone to my wedding. Yosaif August, one of the “elders” in the retreat and its founder, also offered to make a “Tish” for me in Brooklyn. I felt a connection with some of the men I met at JMR that I have only with close friends and with all the rest it felt like part of a tribe or a Shtetl, as far as I can imagine those.
Spending a week-end with a bunch of other men was very meaningful, fun and free of judgments. At the JMR I had experienced a meaningful davening for the first time in my life thanks to the beautiful spirit of Rabbi Shawn Zevit, the special drumming of Akiva the Believer and the participation of all of us. I felt a deep connection to Judaism that I never got growing up in Israel. It gave me hope for a different kind of Judaism and it helped me feel at home in the US, to feel connected and part of a community. These and more are such rare gifts that I’m very thankful for them. I’m looking forward to at least 20 more JMR’s!
Pavlos Miyakis wrote in this email about the important role that his involvement with JMR played in his personal Jewish journey :
I just wanted to send you a short note to let you know that I am performing Aliyah is less than two weeks on August 14. In case you don't remember, I was the guy who was re-indentifying himself as a Jew or returning to the faith-- and you men welcomed me with open arms "back into the tribe".
Until last month, I was a member of Temple Sinai synagogue in Saratoga Springs, NY. One of the more secular highlights of participating there was taking three baking classes where I learned how to make real NY Bagels, babka, and challah of course.
I will be living in Tel Aviv; I have a furnished sublet for the first 5 months. I suspect that I will be busy at with Hebrew Ulpan which starts at the end of this month. Although I still consider myself mostly secular, I am considering attending an Orthodox conversion ulpan in Israel after I complete Hebrew ulpan.
So in case you (and the larger community) need a reminder of the residual value of the Jewish Men's Retreat, the hard work that goes into the event (planning, registration, and implementation, etc.) and the ripple effect that it can have upon its participants, I thought that it would be appropriate to share. You may remember me as the person smiling all the time. I still am.
Of course there were multiple factors surrounding my Aliyah decision including a trip to Israel in March/April of this year, but the fellowship that was exhibited at the retreat helped me further realize that I both like Jews and I am proud to be a Jew.
A Community Message from Jim Grossman
Jim Grossman lives in Vermont where he does community development and social work, spends a lot of time playing with his three children, and runs, bikes, skis and tends to never-ending house projects. He is also a former teacher, coach and wilderness instructor. He describes his upbringing as “clearly Jewish” even though he spent most of his life in the distinct minority—his chosen activities and environments having been almost exclusively non-Jewish. He feels that his past 30 years in northern New England have strengthened his Jewish identity since living in a place where Jewish community can be sparse forces him to effectively be a "Jew by choice." Jim is on the planning committee for the 19th Annual Jewish Men’s Retreat October 29 – 31, which will be his fifth year participating in this annual fall gathering at Isabella Freedman.
I’ve learned that life changes often have a way of impelling us to seek out new experiences.
I remember that my troubled marriage had me reaching out during my first Jewish Men’s Retreat in 2006. To my surprise, I found a supportive, non-judgmental embrace from a group of men I hardly knew. Was I shocked!
At the 2007 JMR, some of these same men remembered my struggles from the previous year and asked me how I was doing—and then actually took the time to listen to my response! I certainly wasn’t used to that. As a result of these types of experiences, I’ve learned to engage with the men in my life in healthier, more meaningful ways.
The Jewish Men’s Retreat (JMR) offers me a wonderful way of being Jewish in my own uniqueway. Even though I’ve served as a temple president and am now a board member, I had truly given up my dream of fully integrating my spirituality and my Judaism. At the JMR, I’m able to bring these two elements together. This transformative weekend has offered me the chance to look at who I am in the world and how I feel within the context of a supportive Judaism. I get to grow my knowledge and connection to my tradition and learn about myself, explore and play— not to mention being around a dynamic, caring and supportive group of men.
Each year when I arrive at the JMR, I feel like I’m home, greeted by my dear friends whom I see once a year. I spend the weekend hiking, singing, davenning, playing drums. I keep reminding myself that I can bring the JMR home with me in my heart and in my head, that I can find other people to celebrate with me my “brand” of Judaism, even if they’re not in my community.
As a father of a 10-year old son, this year’s theme, Legacy: The Hand We Are Dealt and How We Deal With It, really resonates for me. I think about my own father who died nearly five years ago. His lifelong commitment to Judaism and Jewish life was strong. He always described himself as “flexadox”—raised as an Orthodox Jew but living a Reform lifestyle (JMR would have been out of his comfort zone, but he would have felt that any Jewish activity that could motivate 50+ men to show up and be Jewish for the weekend was remarkable; I agree).
Last week, my son discovered the masks I had designed during my first JMR. The theme in 2006 was The Masks Men Wear. So began a discussion about the masks we, as men, wear and the roles we are forced into or choose to play. No epiphanies in this discussion, just an incredible moment of a son seeing how Judaism and emotional risk-taking had impacted his father’s life. I hope he’ll remember and reflect on this conversation. I hope we’ll have more opportunities to discuss this poignant topic… and one day attend the JMR together.
With my head and heart thinking and feeling “Jewishly” as I enter Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I look forward to the JMR where I can continue learning, reflecting and connecting with my wonderful, fun-loving group of brothers!I'm always amazed that a single weekend in the year can mean so much to me.
As a final thought, I know that other men who have attended the JMR have their own unique perspective on what the weekend has meant to them. I asked a few of them to send me some brief statements about why the JMR is important to them.
Mark Dwortzan has been to four retreats and says that the JMR is “an annual opportunity to connect and reconnect to an exceptional group of soulful men, to the natural splendor of the Berkshires in autumn, to my higher purpose and to the Source of Creation—all while immersing ourselves in uplifting music and prayer, deep conversation, outstanding meals and a good measure of laughter.”
Gary Goldberg, who attended his first JMR in 2009, described his experience this way: “As a young Jewish man, I spent my life traveling from job to job, knowing that I'd have to suddenly pick up roots when the Army told me to move, when the veterinary practice where I was an associate had to lay off junior associates, when I started residencies, when I tried to settle in Israel, etc. Each time, the moves caused this “Wandering Jew” to examine the fragile nature of my Jewish ties—having to leave my congregation, having to say goodbye to friends, having to say goodbye to my Hebrew students, and wondering whether I'd find a group of friends to share with in my next home. Last year was my first year at JMR at the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center. I had spent a few weeks with Sonny Greenwald at an army base in Israel at Volunteer for Israel. Prior to leaving Israel, Sonny asked me to join him and other great guys at the Jewish Men’s Retreat. I hesitantly agreed to sign up. The wonderful camaraderie and friendship were fantastic. With the spirit of the theme of Legacy, I’d like to invite other Jewish men to join us for a fantastic voyage, to this outing and to continue to explore outwardly and inwardly, to seek our kesher—our connection—to other Jewish men from New England and beyond.”
David Malchman, one of the organizers of JMR 19 (along with David Strauss) describes the event this way: “The annual Jewish Men's Retreat in mid-fall gives me a stepping stone to look forward to that time beyond the High Holidays, where I have an opportunity to continue the learning, reflection and community connection with a group of thoughtful, learned and fun-loving gents. It is truly uplifting and such a source of spirit that it brightens my soul even as the days grow shorter.”