Over 800 attend National Jewish Retreat in Old Greenwich

Posted Thursday, Aug 18th, 2011

As the smell of Kosher cooking wafted from the hallway, a silent audience sat captivated while political pundits Mark Mellman and William Kristol, a frequent commentator on Fox News, joined Rabbi Levei Shemtov at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich to discuss the effect of American news on the Jewish community.

"It's all about balancing political motivations with the Jewish faith and living the Torah," Mellman said as part of a panel discussion Thursday.

More than 800 guests gathered at the Hyatt in Old Greenwich for the third day of the sixth annual National Jewish Retreat, hosted by the Chabad-Lubavitch Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, which began Tuesday and concludes Sunday. The crowds were composed of Jews from all walks of life and levels of commitment, forming an atmosphere that program director Rabbi Hesh Epstein describes as "warm, accepting, and non-judgemental."

"Labels for Jews don't exist," Greenwich resident Maryashie Deren said. "When people ask me what I am -- reform, conservative, orthodox -- I just say `I'm Jewish.' Labels divide us, and there is only one thing that unites us, and that is following the Torah."

The retreat brought together rabbis, students from the Sinai Scholars program, and Jewish laymen through a comprehensive program meant to celebrate Jewish culture and spirituality.

"It addresses all elements of the psychological, spiritual, and intellectual makeup," Epstein said.

Each day of the gathering consists of morning prayers and meditation followed by three or four hourly lectures, panel discussions and presentations that range in subject from the fundamentals of Kosher cooking and Jewish poetry to homosexuality in the Jewish community and placing the cosmological origins of the universe in a religious context.

For speaker Leah Poltoirak, of New York City, whose presentation focused on reconciling science and religion, the greatest challenge was choosing which workshop to attend.

"You wish you could clone yourself and be in three or four places at once," Poltoirak said.

Sometimes controversial in topic, the presentations sparked discussions and heated debates among the participants.

"The presenters are warm, very open, and they have a great sense of humor," said Andrew Meles, of Toronto, after attending Poltoirak's presentation on the conflict between modern cosmology and Judaism. "I am fascinated by things of a cerebral nature, and I can accept the sophisticated science as a metaphor, as a fable, for the world. We should certainly discuss these things. But, at the same time, I think God is the way you perceive him and the world is the way you perceive it. I don't buy into it."

Started in Colorado in 2009, the retreat expects its largest turnout this year, drawing participants from more than 50 cities, some hailing from as far as Chile and Canada.

This is the second time the retreat has been hosted in Greenwich, with the blessing of Rabbi Yossi Deren, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greenwich.

"There is meaningful content," Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, chairman of the Jewish Learning Institute, said. "I don't know of any Jewish retreat that is this varied, that provides a smorgasbord of opportunities to enhance their education. People come back year after year for the positive atmosphere."

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