Set in the early summer, in the green hills of Cortland, New York, over a hundred Jewish professionals are gathering for Hillel’s DWELL. I’m lucky enough to be one of the faculty here this week, and will be blogging about the experience as I go.
This is the first time that Hillel is engaging in this type of week long professional development retreat geared for their campus staff around the United States, Canada Russia and Israel. The goal of the week is to gather Hillel programming professionals and support them to be more confident and more fulfilled when they return to their campuses. A kitchen has been made kosher, faculty have been flown in from all over the world to a grand retreat center 45 minutes outside of Syracuse and a DWELL specific mail system has been erected in the lobby to make this happen.
The week is one of instruction on how to gather people for meaningful community experiences and an experiment on it. DWELL seems to be asking how do we live fulfilled, meaningful lives not just as Jews, but as Jewish educators. We all know the issues; young people are more anxious than ever, more depressed than ever, lonelier than ever despite being more connected than ever and religion is not changing as fast as apps to meet their needs. The diaspora we now live in is intensified, not soothed, by the prism of black mirrors. DWELL is trying to both help its participants address these issues within themselves and also give them ideas to go try back on their campuses.
The faculty for the DWELL week have titles like “musical instigator”, and whimsy is baked into the week. You can learn how to blow a shofar and make a pickled cocktail this week, but you can also learn how to better welcome people; which is something that DWELL wants to teach, but also what DWELL wants to do.
The week was launched in a very, very large circle under a tent with people chattering amongst themselves as the musical instigator started singing a nigun into a microphone. There is a large percentage of birkenstocks being worn and nalgene bottles being tucked under chairs but cellphones are hardly out of pockets. It took several minutes for the crowd to quiet and relatively few people joined in the singing. Eventually the instigator began singing, “hine ne ma tov” and a few more people joined it, but it was still a relatively quiet sing-a-long. Quiet though it was, it occurred to me with no irony at all that “yes. It is nice to sit here with a community.”
After the singing, the norms for the week are set (breathe, be present, connect) and the final blessing made: “When in doubt, sing dance and celebrate!” and we are launched into our first activity. Two leaders have us break up into groups of a good old minyan ten and have us answer trivia questions about ourselves like, how many hours do you sleep on a typical weeknight and how many plants do you own? Each minyan averages the answers to the questions and then shares in the large, 100-plus person group.
People are off to go start learning and tonight there will be dinner and a DWELL Olympics. With all the metrics that have been set and all of the goals for the week, I suspect that the success of this week can possibly be measured in how loud the singing is Thursday night.
Vanessa Zoltan is the founder and CEO of Not Sorry Productions and co-host of the podcast, Harry Potter & the Sacred Text. You can usually find her living in Cambridge, MA. but this week she’s DWELLING at Hope Lake Lodge.