My drive to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., took me over creeks and mountains dripping with frozen icicles.
I was heading to the retreat center for Moishe House’s Passover Seder Retreat when, about 20 minutes from my destination, near a town called Goshen, my phone picked up the fact that I was going away for the weekend and severed my connection to the world.
I was no longer connected to the network, and therefore had no GPS and no ability to call or text a friend for help. So for the last stretch of my drive, I had to rely — for the first time in my millennial life — on street signs.
That was how my retreat began, but arriving at the center surrounded by trees and mountains just before Shabbat, it was nice not have my phone functioning. It helped me be present.
I spent that weekend, from March 1 to 3, with a group of about 30 young adults who had come to this Jewish getaway from cities across the country to attend the Passover-themed retreat.
Passover is, of course, not here for another month-and-a-half, but this retreat was not intended to be a celebration of the holiday. The experience was intended to empower and provide resources to the attendees in advance of the holiday so they could host their own seders when they got home.
This retreat was just one of more than a dozen that Moishe House puts on throughout the year in different parts of the country — and even sometimes the world. Examples of other retreats include The Shavuot Study, The Havdallah Hike and The Sukkah Build. Like the Passover retreat, the holiday-themed ones are held in advance of the actual holiday.
The Passover Seder retreat was my first Moishe House retreat, so I can’t say how it compares, but other attendees told me they are all different, even when they are on the same topic.
When I arrived at the center, retreat activities were already underway, so I immediately jumped into icebreaker activities. Then we did a text study of “In History,” written by Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid. Afterward, we went off to our cabins to get ready for Shabbat.
In early March, the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center was a winter wonderland. The center looked over a frozen lake and trees covered in snow.
We ate our Shabbat dinner, like every meal during the retreat, in a dining room that we shared with the center’s other guests: a Jewish family staying there to celebrate their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
The center felt both like a camp and a farm. We slept in cabins and spent the majority of our days in a room with big windows and bookshelves on topics that included Chassidus, women and LGBTQ issues and Zionism. While walking one of the center’s trails, we even saw the center’s goats.
The vast majority of the attendees on the retreat were women, and most worked in the Jewish community at day schools, Hillels, synagogues and other organizations. Attendees ranged in religious observance, and while some had a concrete task of planning a seder ahead of them — one woman was there gathering resources for a 300-person seder — many others didn’t.
Over the next day, we engaged with Passover. We studied different types of metanarratives, read through the Maxwell Coffee Haggadah, learned Yiddish Passover songs and storytelling techniques and brainstormed ways to enhance the holiday.
Finally, in the late afternoon on the second day of the retreat, we began preparing for our mock seder.
The entire weekend felt like it had been gearing up to this event.
We were divided into random groups of three or four and assigned pages from our Maxwell Coffee Haggadahs. As fate would have it, I was in the first group, and so ended up with pages that included the first cup of wine, the first hand-washing, dipping of the karpas and the Four Questions.
We had about a half an hour to figure out how we would present these parts of the seder.
Then, we gathered for Havdalah and we were on — seated around conference-style tables arranged in a rectangle.
I was the first to speak, and I opened our mock seder by weaving together the Kadesh with a guided meditation. I had everyone close their eyes, and in between each line of the blessing over the wine, I added instructions to breathe in and out, or be aware of their toes or other parts of the body.
Some memorable ways attendees presented their parts of the Haggadah included a game in which each person said only one word at a time as the group tried to tell the Passover story and 10 Plagues charades. When we got to the “Ki l’olam chasdo” — “whose mercy endures forever” — part of the Haggadah, the group leading this activity started a beat, then each person shared what they were thankful for to the rhythm of the beat, followed by everyone joining together to say, “Ki l’olam chasdo.” This got everyone at the table to join in.
From this exercise, I learned how central the idea of thanksgiving is to Passover. Many of us know “Dayenu” and are familiar with the idea that “It would have been enough.” But the concept of gratefulness was intertwined throughout much of the seder, which became apparent when multiple groups’ activities related to that idea.
We had one morning left together after the mock seder, and then I was back on the road, winding through mountains and over creeks, trying to beat the snow scheduled for that evening and following the one other Philadelphia-area resident who attended the retreat.
When we reached the border with New York, he stuck his hand out the window and gave me a thumbs-up, asking, I assumed, if I had connection again and felt comfortable continuing on my own.
I rolled down my window and gave him a thumbs-up.