Every summer the Bayit board gathers for a retreat. There are board meetings, of course. There are big-picture conversations about what we’re building, how we’re building it, whom we serve. There are late-night conversations and early morning confabs. As we learn, and pray, and play, and dream, we strengthen the foundations of the building work we aim to do (and to empower others to do.)
We talk Torah over breakfast. This week we’re in Devarim. Why is Moses speaking to the next generation as though their parents’ adventures were theirs? Is he showing that there is no before and after in Torah? Is he connecting the people with their ancestors? Is he coming unhooked in time and uncertain with whom he’s speaking? What are the pastoral and spiritual implications of each of these?
We dip in the ocean. We marvel at the ocean, because most of us on the board don’t live here. (The one who does live here laughs and affectionately calls us tourists.) Pelicans glide right overhead, and sandpipers run on wet sand. We hum bits of liturgy on the beach. A seashell with a hole in it sparks a sermon idea. Among rabbis, with the Days of Awe on the horizon, everything is a sermon idea.
We brainstorm about build projects, governance and innovation, what we want to co-create in the year to come. We talk about collaborative play, about middot (character-qualities), about book projects and game mechanics and how to reach people where they are. We play Hebrew bananagrams, examine what makes good games work, talk about what might differentiate liturgy from poetry.
We fall into accidental build-planning and vision conversations even when it’s not board meeting time, because that’s what happens when we’re together. We cook good food. We make endless pots of iced coffee. One morning we wake early and paddle kayaks among dolphins in the intercoastal waterway and I quietly sing R. Bella’s Modah Ani to the ospreys and the dolphins and the little sea turtles.
We daven beside (and in) the pool and the ocean. We sing the psalms of Hallel at new moon. We talk about the spiritual implications of the shehakol blessing, usually rendered as blessing God Who made all things by God’s word, though the grammar points toward the future, not the past. What does it mean to bless God for speaking-into-being not what is, but what everything will become?
We unpack the possible gematria of our rental car’s license plate. We unpack our various responses to R. Alan Lew’s writings on responsibility for recurring patterns, and the fine line between agency and blame. We talk about spiritual direction and flow and dishwashers, how to use StoryCubes in Torah study, favorite melodies for regular prayers, the ideal number of builders on any build team.
We talk about Tisha b’Av, about different understandings of the fundamental rupture that that day represents, about what we talk about when we talk about God. While floating in the salt waves, we talk about what it means halakhically and spiritually for a hat on the waves to be hefker (ownerless). We write ideas down on post-it notes and move them around like a live-action Trello board.
We dream an entirely new build: talking about tools we can create and curate, the communities we think it could serve, the needs we hope it would meet. The whole room gets excited, tossing ideas out in turn, each suggestion building on the last. One night we are joined by one of our builders, and we brainstorm about tools, partners, Torah interpretations, what the world needs that we could make.
At the end of the week we are scholars-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. We share some Torah, some spiritual tools and technologies — some of what we do. There are services, a Friday night d’var, Torah study, lunch table discussions. We return home nourished by dreaming, collaborating, playing, praying, remixing: ready to take up our tools again, and to continue to build.
Shared with deepest gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors.
R. Rachel Barenblat is a founding builder at Bayit. She serves Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires and is author of several volumes of poetry. Learn more at the Bayit Board page.
(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)