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.