Five Days of 'Wow' at National Jewish Retreat, With Every Topic Under the Sun

Posted Friday, Aug 22nd, 2014

 Stephanie Zighelboim says she is still coming down from what she describes as “five days in a perpetual state of ‘wow.’ ”

The resident of Eau Claire, Wis., was one of 1,000 participants in the National Jewish Retreat, held this year in Chicago from Aug. 6 to Aug. 10. Together with her husband and daughter, she had her choice of more than 150 lectures from more than 80 presenters, ranging from scholar Rabbi Adin (Even-Yisrael) Steinsaltz to former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Coming from a town with a very small Jewish population, she says that finding herself surrounded by like-minded Jewish people did not allow her “to wipe that grin off my face for all five days,” and that she felt honored for “the opportunity to be in the same space and breathe the same air as some of the greatest Jewish minds and souls of our time.”

More than just a Torah-study conference, the retreat—arranged annually by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI)—is also a premier vacation with world-class kosher dining and entertainment. Held this year in the Palmer House—a landmark Chicago hotel since 1871 that has hosted U.S. presidents and other celebrities, from Charles Dickens to Oscar Wilde—guests were afforded the opportunity to enjoy downtown Chicago’s famous architecture and museums whenever they wanted some time to pause and digest the wealth of Jewish knowledge and inspiration being shared.

Rabbi Zalman Abraham of JLI says they carefully packed the schedule with a rich range of presentations that spoke to both heart and mind, so that attendees could choose topics such as attending a debate between leading attorneys on the separation between church and state; studying Talmud; hearing a heartwarming, personal experience on a Jewish-oriented topic; and motivational Torah talks.

The retreat also ran a number of specialized programs simultaneously. Doctors from around the country gathered for a Jewish medical-ethics conference, and lawyers joined interactive discussions with legal experts on current and emerging ethical issues from a Jewish and common-law perspective. While 150 college students held their own program under the auspices of the JLI and Chabad on Campus Sinai Scholars Society, there was a women’s program organized by the Rosh Chodesh Society, and a beit midrash program for those wishing to experience the intensity of text-based study.

‘A Phenomenal Experience’

“There really were so many options of lectures and learning formats that you simply could not become tired,” says Steve Rosenberg of Skokie, Ill., who attended for the third time together with his wife, Susan, and eight other people from his local Chabad center.

And when pressed to identify the most touching moment for her, Zighelboim says it was during the Shabbat lunch, when two recent college graduates stood up and shared with the 1,000 participants the impact that Chabad on Campus has had on their lives. With her own daughter, Annabella, currently benefiting from Chabad’s presence at the University of Kansas, she says their words rung especially true for her and her family.

“Every year, there is another theme that I find very powerful, and this year, it was undoubtedly Israel,” says Rosenberg. “In addition, I felt that every lecture and every talk came back to the concept of ahavat Yisrael—love for fellow Jews—and I found that it really stayed with me.”

As for Rosenberg, he already put down a deposit for the coming year’s retreat.

“In fact, I signed up for this year’s retreat immediately after last year’s retreat, not knowing it would be held so close to home,” he says. “And I have no question about next year. It’s just a phenomenal experience.”

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