Last week, I found myself surrounded by vistas of snow-capped mountains and the breathtaking beauty that exists just outside of Salt Lake City. What could a rabbi be doing in Utah, you might ask? Simple. I was on vacation.

But it was far from an ordinary vacation. Instead of heading to the Wasatch Mountains to get away from it all, I travelled west for the annual Jewish National Retreat hosted by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

Like anyone else, I love to get away. But I find that three hours into any vacation, I long to make myself useful. The retreat, on the other hand, afforded attendees both serenity and purpose.

In addition to the hundreds of Jewish community members from across North America who made the trek, more than 50 college students – members of the select Sinai Scholars Society, a joint program between the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and the Chabad on Campus International Foundation that chooses the best and the brightest students for intensive Torah instruction and Jewish networking opportunities – came to Utah. They all came to engage with their Judaism, to gain a deeper appreciation for their spirit and to grow in their knowledge of Torah.

At the conclusion of the final session, I overheard snippets of murmured conversation. Guests milling about, invigorated with doses of inspiration, reflected on their experiences as they bid each other farewell. Participants, who were strangers to one another a just five days prior, formed bonds that hopefully will last long into the future.

I venture that no one walked away unaffected. Each of us, in our own way, took something home that will transform our Jewish life.

The retreat, I believe, will translate into enhanced enthusiasm in our respective communities. The retreat stressed that each of us has been appointed G‑d’s deputy; every one of us is a member of a special family.

The retreat mirrored an age-old tradition from the days of the Talmud called the yarchei kallah. Back then, Jewish laypeople would gather semi-annually for a full month of Torah study. Away from the distractions and worries of work and home, the students made great strides in their learning in just a short period of time.

New Perspectives on Life

Participants of the National Jewish Retreat in Utah light candles to usher in the holy day of Shabbat.
Participants of the National Jewish Retreat in Utah light candles to usher in the holy day of Shabbat.

The National Jewish Retreat, likewise, was a learning experience like none other. The most effective teachers from within Chabad-Lubavitch gathered under the same roof and led sessions with such diverse topics as “Globalization and the End of Work: Technology in the Messianic Era and the Economies of the Future” and “Human Rights or Human Obligations? Jewish Law’s Alternative Vision on Human Rights.”

During the retreat, guests delved into the deepest dimensions of Torah and wrestled with the most challenging elements of Jewish faith. Away from the daily grind and surrounded by natural beauty, we devoted our energies to study, discussion and reflection.

Those whose spiritual interests inclined towards integration of body and soul joined artist and internationally acclaimed lecturer Shimona Tzukernik for sessions on meditation and movement, writing and self-knowledge, and spiritual hiking. Those who were more inclined to explore the synthesis between the Creator and His creation joined Rabbi Asher Crispe in an exploration of the vast interface between Torah, science, and the arts.

Sara Esther Crispe, editor of the, provided a Kabbalistic view of communication and self-development, while Rabbi Dov Greenberg, co-director of the Rohr Chabad House at Stanford University, offered inspiring sessions on Jewish Identity and the spiritual path of life.

A special treat for many were the sessions offered by Rabbi Moshe Bryski, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Conejo in Agoura Hills, Calif., who led participants on an uplifting journey of courage and faith. His poignant tales and powerful anecdotes offered new perspectives on life, and opened a window on the hidden hand of Divine Providence that guides and directs our path.

An entirely separate track of sessions catered to the Sinai Scholars, who focused on topics relevant to the university experience. In all, more than 80 separate programs filled out the retreat’s agenda.

The highlight, however, was spending Shabbat with Rabbi Manis Friedman, the sought-after speaker and dean of Bais Chana Women’s International. His talks lifted the assembled to a higher plane with a completely new perspective on what being Jewish means. His depth, matched only by his wit, enthralled the audience and drew them into the sanctity of Shabbat.

We learned so much during this retreat on such a wide range of subjects. Hands-on sessions on challah baking and the Jewish scribal arts were complemented by outdoor activities such as barbecues, July 4 fireworks displays, and even a mock wedding. In-depth sessions on Chasidic thought and workshops on meditative concentration in prayer occurred alongside programs geared for the beginners among us.

Connecting with old friends and forging new friendships created a prevailing atmosphere of Jewish unity. Delicious food and delightful forays into the mountains rounded out this truly transcendental experience. I know this was the best vacation I ever took. I, for one, am determined to return.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefillah in London, Ontario, and a frequent lecturer at venues worldwide, including at the National Jewish Retreat, which ran from July 2 to 6.