By: Rabbi Dr. Sue Reinhold
When I divorced, my rabbi told me that divorce after a long marriage can be harder than losing a spouse to death. I think she was right. No community gathers to lovingly surround you, there’s no shiva, no one brings casseroles to your house, and you don’t necessarily get time off from regular life. And, all the knowledge we have is that divorce is completely devastating for the people who go through it. But, even for people who are very attached to Jewish communal life, the community really isn’t set up to do much to support recent divorcees.
For the first time that we know of, a retreat was crafted that brought Jewish tradition and community together to create healing from the pain of divorce. Last weekend Camp Tawonga piloted a four-day “Divorce & Discovery: A Jewish Healing Retreat.” Meant for people who wanted Jewish tradition to offer healing from the rupture of their divorce, Tawonga’s Director Emeritus Rabbi Deborah Newbrun (and, full disclosure, my wife) envisioned, developed, and then led our faculty of eight, and over fifty participants, in a meaningful, rich, connecting weekend, and all supported by the stellar crew that runs Camp Tawonga.
As faculty for Divorce & Discovery, we were tasked with crafting unique learnings using our tradition to help encourage participants into a stance of healing and even hope. Participants were able to focus on opportunities to find new ways to tell their stories, to look at healing prayers from the Bible and to write their own. They availed themselves of Jewish rituals like taschlich, mikveh, our Shabbat services and havdalah with a lens on divorce (parashat Noach was particularly apt for this!), created Jewish ritual objects like mezuzot and hamsas to encourage ideas of mindfulness and protection, and connected with each other and with the divine in the natural beauty that is Camp.
Importantly, we also curated daily opportunities for participants to bond in intimate conversation in a havurah (friendship group), facilitated by faculty, which created deep connection and community-building. The fact that all the faculty had also been divorced helped create a model for vulnerability and trust: things got real, real fast. So many participants said that the hardest thing about divorce was how often they felt so alone. And, after this weekend, many not only reported not feeling so alone just during the weekend – many intend to stay in touch and get together down the mountain.
On Shabbat morning, in the beauty of the natural amphitheater that is Makom Shalom, we held services. I got to tell a Talmudic story about the great flood. The story goes, that to end the great flood, God had to take two stars out of the constellation the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, the Bear, and move them over to the Pleiades. That was how God got the waters to recede. And, in due course, over many years, the earth was repopulated with people, plants, animals, and everything else. But, the Bear still misses her two stars. And so the lesson went, the world can gets rebuilt, indeed reborn, and yet constellations shift. There are things one can never get back, because of the way the universe shifts when big things happen.
Many found this story poignant and moving. And this was just one small, small story amongst so many instances during the weekend where a Jewish story, ritual, text, or tradition was called upon to shift people’s perspectives, spirits, and lives.
When my havurah group met for the last time at the end of the retreat, we called up a few more Jewish stories and heard about important shifts that were going to be lasting, like in the constellation. In fine Jewish form, we blessed each other. There were more than a few tears. But, as one participant said, some of the tears this weekend were sweet tears, that also came with sweet laughter.
I like to think that out there in the universe, a constellation may have shifted that will have positive ramifications for our community for generations to come. Mah tovu, how good it will be one day when our Jewish community does a better job of taking care of people who go through divorce.
Rabbi Dr. Sue Reinhold is a longtime Tawonga mom. She teaches regularly for Camp Tawonga family camps and is a co-founder of The Tilden Minyan, which partners with Camp Tawonga for its Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre services. She is the principal at Braveheart Advising and runs Addict Torah.