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.”