Location: Chicago. Purpose: two-day soul retreat for Orthodox women. Sponsors: Chicago Torah Network and the Orthodox Union. 

Last week’s pilot program brought together 40 women from Chicago’s religious neighborhoods: West Rogers Park, Lincolnwood and Peterson Park. I was keynoting and the point was to bring inspiration and what we call chizuk, or strengthening, to these women. Many of the presenters, including myself, are involved in interdenominational education and are more accustomed to teaching Reform and Conservative women than Orthodox. Yet it seems the style of interdenominational education is exactly what the religious world needs. 

Most of the women at the retreat have been observant their entire lives and believe in the basics of Torah Judaism: there is a G-d, He created the world, He gave us the Torah and wants us to follow its laws. But often those of us who grew up religiously observant can fall into a rut of practicing by habit. The young moms of this community who constituted the retreat are pulled in 100 directions: kids, husband, work, Jewish holidays, Shabbat cooking and hosting, extended family, community – oh, and their own spirituality. 

They, and all of us, desperately need the occasional recharge. 

We educators who were at the retreat are used to teaching Jews with no assumptions about what they believe and how they practice. We have become what I call “frum-blind.” (“Frum” is the Yiddish term for Orthodox.) We have learned you can’t judge a person by their externals and everyone is on a deeply personal spiritual journey. We have learned to practice and teach a love-based relationship with G-d to replace the “punishing G-d” model many grew up with. We have learned to stress transcendence, forgiveness, redemption and purpose. 

Now what happens when you bring that model to the religious world?

What happens is that these deeply thirsty women have met their big, cold drink of water. It’s like an instant revival. Here are women who are already juggling so much, trying so hard, aching for their kids to be inspired and love Judaism. In a world where many of us are afraid to be vulnerable, to reveal our insecurities and let our hair down, we at the retreat did just that. 

None of us are superstars. We are all just women on a journey. We are sisters. We support each other. We inspire each other. We learn from one another. We will practice love-based Judaism for each other, ourselves and our kids. No one is perfect and that’s OK. Perfect is for angels. As I said in one of the keynotes, we are by definition failing beings and therefore growing beings. 

We gave those religious women permission, as I do to every Jew I meet, to be honest and forgiving about their own Jewish journey, but to always challenge themselves to actually be on the journey. We encouraged them to applaud themselves on everything they’ve already done and to surround themselves with a peer group that will support them and their efforts. We reminded them it’s the effort that counts and as hard as something might be, that will be the depth of the rewarding feeling they will get on the other side. 

And at the end, we sat around on the floor for a kumzitz and sang, with our arms around one another, about how good it is to thank G-d, for all of it. 

Read Ruchi Koval online at cjn.org/ruchikoval. Connect with her on Facebook at ruchi.koval and on Instagram @ruchi.koval.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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