Providence Hosts the National Jewish Retreat
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The National Jewish Retreat has been hosting annual conferences across the country for 13 years, but this year’s conference holds special meaning because of its Rhode Island location.
Indeed, it was to a Jewish congregation in Newport that President George Washington delivered a letter in 1790 guaranteeing religious liberties for Jews, said Rabbi David Eliezrie, of Yorba Linda, California, who attended the weeklong conference.
“It was here that the first president presented it, and it became enshrined in the Bill of Rights,” he said.
This year’s conference, being held at the Rhode Island Convention Center, includes a day-trip to Newport to tour the Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the country, Eliezrie said.
Mordechai Friedman, 79, who traveled to the conference from Wilmette, Illinois, said he was looking forward to visiting the historic Jewish landmark on Sunday.
Friedman, who has attended seven National Jewish Retreat conferences across the country, came to this year’s conference with his friend Eva Hershman, 70, of Northbrook, Illinois.
Hershman, who has attended the last 10 conferences, said they have grown exponentially.
This year, about 1,200 people are attending the conference, which is being held from July 31 to Aug. 5, said Rabbi Heshy Epstein, chairman of the National Jewish Retreat, whose parent organization is the Jewish Learning Institute, a national organization for Jewish education.
“The retreat is an effort to bring together students from all over America and also all over the world to create a community of learners,” Epstein said.
Over the course of six days, conference guests attend lectures, workshops, prayer gatherings, Bible studies and celebrations.
This year’s conference featured a diverse array of activities, including a lecture on the history of 1,000 ancient chess sets, sessions on Jewish law and Jewish medical ethics, a screening of a film about Chabad rabbis in Australia, shown for the first time in the U.S., and intellectual discussions with Sinai Scholars, a collection of Jewish college students from around the country.
The group also hosted a Jewish rite of passage celebration on Thursday for Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and executed by the U.S. government in 1953. As a teenager, Meeropol, now 71, didn’t take part in the ancient ritual of tefillin, a Jewish custom during which the head and arm are wrapped in sacred bands, said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, director of the Jewish Learning Institute. Many Jewish boys take part in the ritual during their bar mitzvahs, Mintz said.
“It was a very emotional moment,” he said.
The conference attracts a diverse group of people, from secular to Orthodox Jews, who come to feel a sense of community and reconnect with their faith.
“We have so many people who make this their annual pilgrimage,” Epstein said.
One of those people is Holly Cohen, 52, of Marion, Pennsylvania, who has attended the conference with her husband for the last nine years.
“My husband and I look forward to this every week of the year that we’re not here,” she said. “This retreat is the best place for a Jewish person to come spend a week every year, to refresh their body and their soul, and their mind and their heart.”