HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Retreats from Soup to Ropes

by Judith Schiller Issue: Formal-Informal Education

The author draws on her extensive experience to offer a how-to for planning school retreats.

The aroma of challah baking wafted through the hallways. Students set tables with tablecloths and floral centerpieces that they created. The 6th grade overnight shabbaton would begin in a few hours, and final preparations were underway. The shabbaton was the culmination of a unit of study about Shabbat; for several weeks, students were involved in creating tallitot, developing tefillah enrichments, and exploring texts that offered insights into the concept of Shabbat.

Over the course of the shabbaton, the students experienced Shabbat in a whole new way. Their enjoyment was grounded in the fact that they had prepared the foods they were eating and produced materials that they used. The shabbaton offered them a time to connect with each other through prayer, learning sessions and group challenge activities. Although, due to budget constraints, this event was held at the school rather than a retreat site, the students still felt a sense of “being away” having transformed their day-to-day environment into a sacred Shabbat space.

For over 20 years, the Retreat Institute (RI) of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland has worked with supplemental and day schools and congregations of all denominations to develop experiences that integrate informal with formal education. An important goal of our programs is to invite participants to explore Jewish texts and to find meaning through experience with Jewish tradition and community.

Developing a retreat is like baking a challah with multiple strands that get braided together into a sweet, aromatic, nourishing bread.

A well-constructed retreat addresses the whole person, including the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions of each participant. A retreat experience provides an opportunity for “living the learning.” The use of extended time, space and context serves to create a learning journey, enabling participants to make powerful connections with content and one another, and work collaboratively as a community. Participants come away with both new understanding of a topic and an association of fun and friendship with Jewish learning.

Efforts to create “aha moments” require thoughtful planning and focus. In the opening snapshot, many elements came together in planning the shabbaton, including curricular integration, text study, co-production of materials by the students, the intentional creation of an environment, experiential learning and the fostering of community. While each of these elements has its own integrity, together they connect to produce a full experience. Developing a retreat is like baking a challah with multiple strands that get braided together into a sweet, aromatic, nourishing bread.

Planning Process

Timeline and Initial Decisions

A three to five month planning timeline is recommended, to allow time for promotion and recruitment, program development, curricular connections, creating materials, logistical considerations, and preparing faculty. Look at your institution’s overall calendar for the program year. Determine a time of year for your proposed retreat that makes sense for the pacing of time and energies of your staff. Consider this point for both the planning and implementation phases of the retreat. Also, check the calendar of events outside of school, including important community dates, SAT exams, scheduled holiday celebrations, and events at other institutions that may affect your recruitment.

Examine how a retreat can best be integrated into the group’s curriculum or educational goals for the year.


Retreats require a lot of resources, not the least of which is money. There is a range of site costs, depending on where the retreat is held, along with food, materials, staff, and transportation. Participant fees need to be determined based on the total expenditures less available sources of income (perhaps a special retreat fund or grant). Keep in mind that participant fees should be set at a reasonable amount to encourage participation. Be realistic about numbers of participants who can be recruited or required to attend the retreat. Planning is easier when a projected budget reflects realistic potential.

Educational Content

Spend time focusing the theme of the proposed retreat and related pre- and post-retreat sessions. A retreat is best used to address a defined aspect of a topic; “tefillah” or “identity” or “community” is too broad.

The purpose of a retreat is to create a viable educational journey that is stimulating and enriching. The learning unit needs to make sense as it unfolds over a two to three day period with activities anchored in clear educational goals and outcomes.


Careful attention needs to be paid to site selection, arrangements, and coordinating with site staff; menu planning, food shopping, kashrut requirements, acquiring and organizing supplies, producing educational materials, pack-up, set-up, first aid, hospitality, and often shlepping everything to a site. It can be very helpful to designate a logistics coordinator.

Retreat Leader

In addition to Jewish content knowledge, the retreat coordinator should have the capacity to think creatively, develop experiential programming, work collaboratively, connect with participants, and manage administrative details. With such a broad range of needed qualities, it may turn out that two professionals with complementary skills can work together as a team. In addition, the retreat leader should be familiar with the decision making process and culture within your school; someone in his or her first year will face a steep learning curve. This professional needs to devote a significant amount of time for the full planning implementation, and evaluation of a retreat, over a 3-5 month period. Make sure this is part of the leader’s reasonable work plan for the year.


A striking difference between the classroom and a retreat is the staff to student ratio: we recommend one staff person to eight participants, to cover small group facilitation and sleep time. Collaborative efforts generate the strongest outcomes in both the planning and implementation phases of a retreat. Select faculty who are open to collaboration, comfortable facilitating learning in an informal setting, willing to interact with students on a personal level, and able to take responsibility for some aspects of program design and development. (This may not always be the grade level teachers.) Retreat staff should meet a few times to become fully acquainted with the content and all aspects of the retreat, encompassing program facilitation, meal time, free time and bed time. Depending on school culture, they may be compensated for their additional time. Retreat planning offers professional development in experiential education that complements, and can be integrated into, the classroom.


Community Building and Group Safety

The first questions to ask are, Who are the participants? What have they been learning? How well do they know each other and work together? It is essential to have a basic understanding of the group’s knowledge base, skills, needs and interests so that the program is truly in sync with the participants.

Groups are often motivated to do a retreat in order to build community. Invest time in the beginning of the retreat to encourage the group to bond and connect. Throughout the programming, consider ways to promote teamwork and cooperation. Participants always have priority over programming. Staff must be attuned to the group, and recognize that there may be times when the schedule or program needs to be adjusted, depending on the participants’ needs. Retreat staff should check in to share how the participants are doing, and discuss any issues that may have arisen.

Retreats often take people out of their comfort zones. While there is much potential for discovery, excitement, and fun, a retreat is also a place that presents challenge and risk. For people to participate in any program such as this, an atmosphere of safety needs to exist—a space where people can speak their minds and push themselves to new limits. More importantly, learning happens best in an atmosphere of trust, safety and fun.

Establishing a group brit at the beginning of a retreat can serve to create the group’s “safety net.” Its purpose is 1) to establish safe and respectful behavioral norms, 2) for everyone to commit to those norms, and 3) to accept a shared responsibility for their maintenance.

A retreat is not just “the program.” Every aspect of the experience offers opportunities for learning, reflecting and bonding, and should weave together into a cohesive whole.

Here is a suggested, adaptable format for developing a brit.

We agree to:

  • Value everyone and not devalue anyone
  • (Adhere to) safety guidelines—(physical and emotional safety)
  • Give and receive feedback
  • Honor and maintain ruach Shabbat
  • Respect our environment

Students discuss what each point means, share examples of desired behavior, and then sign the brit. The group should do a few check-ins during the time they are together on how well they are keeping with brit expectations. With the brit as a guide, facilitators can give feedback and have a clear basis for identifying unsafe as well as valuing behavior. The brit enables community building and group bonding to permeate the entire retreat.

A Spirit of Welcome

Retreat participants should feel that they have entered into a warm, welcoming environment from the moment they arrive at the retreat. Attention to important details, including a welcome snack, staff interactions with participants, set-up and décor of the space, initial icebreakers, seating arrangements, all combine to set a tone for the rest of the time together.


As with more formal curriculum, informal education is driven by big ideas and enduring understandings. Clarify at the beginning what participants are to come away with from the experience. Sharpening the outcomes from the outset shapes coherent programming. Keep in mind that once a retreat template is developed, and staff has the experience of implementing it, the planning process will not be as time-intensive as in the first go-around.

Experiential Learning and Jewish Texts

There is a wide range of experiential modalities—field trips, debates, ropes course and group initiatives, the arts, games, to name a few. The experience alone does not create the learning. Attention must be given to how the experience is set up, what happens in anticipation of the experience, and the debriefing of the experience, which can be done as a group discussion, journaling, art, blogging, etc. Following are examples of two kinds of experiential learning connected to Jewish texts and values.

Experiential/Adventure Education

Icebreaker activities, problem-solving games, and physical initiatives offer surprising challenges and risks within a playful context. They can be utilized in a purposeful way both for community building and to connect with Jewish texts and values. Take for example a text from Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” A well planned and skillfully facilitated sequence of group challenges that require a balance of coping with group and individual needs opens up new insights into the meaning of this text.

Simulation Activities

Example: A group of 5th graders explore the texts and values that inform an understanding of Jewish community. Their challenge is to make recommendations about what community institutions should be funded, utilizing a limited amount of funds. Their program takes them on a simulated “tour” of the Jewish community in which they interview staff representing various institutions. Later in the day, working together in groups, they reach consensus on what to fund and what to cut, based on the Jewish texts that they studied.



Content and context work hand in hand when developing a retreat experience. A retreat works best when it is part of a larger learning unit. In the opening shabbaton example, students were highly invested in their participation in the retreat since they helped to create many of its component parts. Their initial study of Shabbat culminated in experiencing it in real time. They took on the challenge, whether they realized it or not, of creating their own meaningful Shabbat experience.


A retreat is not just “the program.” Every aspect of the experience offers opportunities for learning, reflecting and bonding, and should weave together into a cohesive whole. This encompasses site set-up, meal times, rituals, tefillah, bed time, breaks and free time. Consider how the food served can relate to the retreat theme; the kavannah of Jewish rituals; bed time rituals; integrating tefillah as part of the flow, and not separate and compartmentalized; transitions throughout the schedule; debriefing and closing circle.

Free time is not just a break from programming. Participants need to shift gears into a more playful or restful mode. Consider offering several optional activities such as sports, crafts, board games, a hike, as well as informal bunk time. Retreat staff should have free time assignments, as they are needed to monitor, facilitate and interact with students.

Creating Sacred Space

An ordinary classroom, camp, or hotel meeting room can be transformed into a group’s sacred space in a number of ways. Consider ways to set a tone, both consciously and subliminally. Post texts on the walls that reflect the theme of the retreat and reinforce the feeling of being in a Jewish space. Display student artwork to decorate the space and affirm the contributions of the participants. Use table tents with thematic texts, icebreaker questions, and table seating. Play music in the background as participants enter. The space should convey a sense of togetherness.

A Few Last Notes

Acquire for Yourself a Teacher

Professional development is an ongoing, necessary part of our work. There are many resources and experts within a given community, and a day school often has unique access to faculty from many disciplines who could share expertise and collaborate with Judaic educators in developing experiential programming. Additionally, there are excellent books and online resources on experiential learning, as well as professionals and organizations that offer training. (See sidebar.)

Family Retreats

A day school community can be greatly enriched by family retreats. More than just a weekend getaway, retreats can deepen connections among families and to Jewish learning and practice. They are also more complex to plan than student retreats owing to multiple age groups, different site requirements and more diverse staffing needs. The retreat theme needs to resonate with adults as well as children, and offer ways to be integrated into the families’ lives. For example, holiday themes can enhance family holiday celebrations with new learning and ideas. The retreat should provide interactive family programming and separate learning for adults and children.


Even though many of us would agree with the broad concept of play being important, it is often astonishing how many of our Jewish learning environments do not embrace play. When play becomes the dominant pedagogy, our children smile and have fun; not only are we contributing to their overall development, but they are also more open to learning and experiencing the beauty of what Jewish life has to offer. (David Bryfman, Bryfy.net)

Play is the essential component to any retreat. It is often missing from our students’ and families’ lives, with the pressures of achievement, tests, and extracurricular activities. A retreat experience, with an atmosphere of playfulness and in which each participant feels valued and connected to others, can have long-lasting impact for each individual, family, and community.♦

Judith Schiller is Director of the Retreat Institute of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. She can be reached at jschiller@ameritech.net.

To Learn More

Biers-Ariel, Matt; Newbrun, Deborah, and Smart Fox, Michal. Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail.

This is an invaluable resource that offers ways “to turn an ordinary walk in the woods into a journey of the spirit.” The activities in this book have the potential of creating “aha” moments, linking Jewish texts, prayers and blessings with nature experiences.

Cain, Jim and Jolliff. Teamwork and Teamplay.

A comprehensive resource with an easy-to-use format, this book contains all the elements for creating challenge and adventure programs, event planning tips, get acquainted activities, processing and debriefing ideas, games of all kinds, and detailed instructions for designing equipment.

Elkins, Dov Peretz. Jewish Guided Imagery.

Elkins provides insight into the goals and purposes of guided imagery, along with guidelines, preparation techniques and how-tos of setting the atmosphere for experiences of high impact. Included are almost twenty guided imagery scripts for the Bible, rabbinic literature, Jewish history, prayer, Shabbat and much more.

Foster-Harrison, Elisabeth S. More Energizers and Icebreakers for All Ages and Stages Book II.

All of the activities in this book were developed to enhance the learning environment in a class or group. Easy to use, well designed with illustrations, set up to be photocopied.

Frank, Laurie S. The Caring Classroom: Using Adventure to Create Community in the Classroom and Beyond.

A guide for teachers with activities, tips and information that help facilitate the growth of a classroom as a community.

Pollack, Stanley with Fusoni, Mary. Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Innovative Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action.

A valuable resource offering insight and practical exercises for building effective teams, engaging students in learning, and making meetings and trainings work. It documents over 300 interactive exercises to help group members make difficult decisions, create new ideas, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and understand new concepts.

Project Adventure: www.pa.org.

Project Adventure is a pioneer and leader in adventure-based experiential programming which uses physical exercises to build character, promote team work, and encourage responsibility. The website offers helpful information about adventure based experiential programming. Materials and publications can be ordered from the website.

Rohnke, Karl. Silver Bullets.

Rohnke, Karl. Cowstails and Cobras II.

These books are resourceful guides for group-building programs that include adventure leadership, icebreakers, initiatives and trust building. They unpack the essential concepts of sequencing, debriefing and closure.

Silberman, Shoshana and Mel. Active Jewish Learning: 57 Strategies to Enliven Your Class.

The authors offer activities and strategies designed to enliven learning, deepen understanding, and promote retention.

Spolin, Viola. Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook.

Handbook for teachers of theatre games to promote learning and interacting socially and emotionally with each other.

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Formal-Informal Education

If only school could be like camp… Many people’s fondest childhood memories are of camp with its unstructured days and enjoyable activities. Increasingly, under the rubric of informal or experiential education, schools are capturing some of the atmosphere of camp in the classroom and beyond. How can this model be adapted effectively to the educational rigor of a day school?

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