The Sisterhood of Our Traveling Souls

Deborah Fineblum

Too bad the word ‘retreat’ smacks of military cowardice. Because it takes courage to say, “There is so much I don’t know and I’m going to take a chance that these people just might be able to teach me.”

Eighty of us took that chance and the Bais Chana invitation to learn together in this corner of heaven at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. We were women from New York and Los Angeles, from Toronto and Boston, women in wigs and in baseball caps, in tichels and with bare heads. Women in skirts and women in jeans. None of these distinctions which have so much import elsewhere made a whit of difference to any of us. We were all there to hear what these special people had to teach us.

And teach us they did.

From the moment when the first teacher Shifra Sharfstein opened her mouth Sunday afternoon and new ways to transform our lives with our thoughts came out, the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings blessing our five senses was mirrored in the deep Torah wisdom blessing our spirits.

During these special days we awoke early to drink in with our coffee Itty Kay’s Chassidut insights, we were initiated into the power of the 10 Sephirot to elevate our lives with Freidy Yanover, were shared deep secrets of transformation by Shimona Tzukernik, learned how to turn memory into memoir from Tzivia Emmer and enjoyed a lively “stress-busting” drum circle with Robert Friedman.

And Chabad superstar Rabbi Manis Friedman, whom I’d only met as a disembodied YouTube sage, gifted us with new truths about what it means to love. To love our husbands, our children and our G-d. In fact the rabbi showed us where the bridge is between human bonding and our bond with G-d, and taught us that one not only leads to the other but that the bridge goes both ways, and that real love is at once rooted in this world and totally transcendent of it.

The learning was so rich that, with all the beauty around us, the inviting trails and the canoe sitting seductively on the shore, I just couldn’t miss a single presentation. Each teacher was put there because s/he had what to teach each one of us and the aha-moments, which differed for each of us, were pure gold, and continue to ricochet through my mind like a favorite lullaby.

None of us, for instance, is likely to forget when the Rabbi said with his trademark grin that we should be mothers like our mothers were. When a loud groan rose up from the crowd, he was quick to add. “Then you’ll get a daughter like yourself.” Stopping us mid-groan. A master of the understatement and the snappy come-back, Rabbi Friedman is a teacher whose quick wit masks a wisdom you might need days, weeks or years to fully digest and integrate. He’s a rare breed: a man who just naturally understands and respects women.

In fact, not only did the rabbi clearly not resent the frequent interruptions and questions, he appeared to thrive on them, and his own “lesson plans” had a fluidity that spoke directly to each woman in the room. His tennis-match teaching style invited us all in to either jump in ourselves, benefit from the feedback he was giving another or at the least appreciate how important this conversation was to her on her journey, whether she’s at a place where once we stood or a point somewhere down the road.

In a world where we too often take each other at face value, the retreat was a time and place where we were just our souls. Where, steeped in this sisterhood soup, we were our truest and most vulnerable selves.

This one’s 25-year-old son feels like a failure. This one’s husband doesn’t understand why she’s religious. This one’s mother is a Holocaust survivor who loved her but couldn’t show it. This one is limping along after a grisly divorce. This one’s daughter died of a drug overdose. All together on a ship afloat in an ocean of Torah wisdom, embraced by fragrant evergreens alongside a sparkling lake and fed fresh organic food from the Isabella Freedman kitchen.

Easy friendships spring up in such fertile ground, bonds based not on age or religious path or profession, but on where we are on our own journey and the joy of sharing this sweet leg of it together.

As a newbie, I could see it was the women who have returned to Bais Chana’s Women’s Study Retreat again and again — and there are many around the country and around the year for different ages – whose very presence each year pays the highest compliment these teachers and organizers could hope for.

For me, as one of five sisters, these three days smelled like the air I breathed growing up in a house of women. And whereas I had feared I might encounter a spate of girly learning — you know, just skip the sources and tell us to go home and be patient with our husbands and kids — the learning here was real and deep.

The beauty of chassidut being the gentle way it cuts through the layers of dogma, revealing in all its splendor the powerful inner essence of our history, our tradition, our people and our relationship with our G-d.

So thank you for three days that put the rest of my life into sharp focus.