This past fall, after a two-year hiatus, Hillel resumed its tradition of a Shabbat retreat at Silver Bay YMCA on Lake George. Here, Joshua Glucksman ’25 reflects on his time away with Hillel.
What made this retreat so meaningful was a Shabbat with Hillel. I was able to spend a complete Shabbat (Torah service, Havdalah, and a lot of text study) with a small group of people who otherwise I just knew from small talk once a week on Friday nights. Making friends is hard, and getting past small talk is even harder. Staying up late into the night and really getting to know a few people was the perfect way to make bonds that are currently some of my strongest.
Here are two important moments.
The first was on Saturday when we prayed the Amidah silent prayer outside. One of my favorite parts about this series of blessings, the climax of any prayer service, is that it is done almost silently and yet surrounded by others. I think that this prayer serves as a good metaphor for the Jewish faith: there is an aspect of pure individual connection with an almighty Being, and there is also a communal, physical connectedness. We decided to do this prayer, the first time doing it on Shabbat morning this semester, outside. While standing in a cluster around the building we were using, sun shining, birds chirping, wind whipping around (really, it couldn’t be more cliché), this prayer felt right. I was standing near a babbling brook and had to hold onto my siddur with all my might to make sure the pages wouldn’t flip as I concentrated on the words. If there is any prayer experience that I will remember from this semester, it will be that. For those 10 minutes, something, I don’t know what, was channeled from the dozen individuals into something greater than their sum parts.
The second activity that left a lasting impression on me was something taken right out of any summer camp counselor’s toolbox: an activity involving words written on big pieces of paper laid on the floor and discussed. In this case, we were talking about what different aspects of Judaism mean to us: whether religious, spiritual, cultural, or just Jewish. We each got little slips of paper with different facets of modern Jewish living, from fasting on Yom Kippur to eating bagels. Everyone got up and began to place each slip into one of the larger categories, essentially an exercise challenging us all to think about why we do the certain Jewish things we do, if we do them at all.
I really would love to find some overarching and succinct takeaway from the results of this activity, but I think the beautiful part is that there weren’t any. I was exposed to some worldviews about Judaism and some whys that I had never heard or thought about before: people going to political protests for religious reasons, people fasting and praying for cultural reasons. Close to the entire range of Jewish ideology was laid out in a smorgasbord of paper slips on the floor. The takeaway that I got from this activity was that people do Jewish things for quite literally hundreds of different reasons, but either way, it had brought over a dozen Middlebury students out to the middle of nowhere New York for a Shabbat. And that means something.
What does it mean? I didn’t promise an answer. But I know it must mean something. The Torah portion that we studied and read from that Saturday was Vayetzei, where the famous divine command “ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפונה ונגבה” (“and you shall spread out west, east, north, and south”) was given to Yaakov. As a lover of stretched interpretations of the weekly Torah portion, I really do believe that if some greater Being, a Jewish G-d to some, had a board with little light bulbs around the world to indicate where light and joy were being spread, that Being must have been pleasantly surprised to see the light flickering that Shabbat in a small YMCA in Silver Bay, New York.