SINGLES SUPPLEMENT: Retreats Opportunity for singles, spiritual encounter

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Some say retreats are just for general shmoozing, some prefer a spiritual slant and others say they're a good way to build leadership. But the consensus of people from three local singles groups is that spending a weekend with a group of people is the best way to get to know who they truly are.

Jana Good, a 29-year-old retreat-goer of San Francisco, said, "Spending a Shabbat dinner with a chavurah is nice, but it's not the same as spending an entire weekend in a camping atmosphere with people. A two-hour dinner doesn't let you figure out if you'd like to get to know someone better. A weekend tells you much more."

When the Marin Jewish Community Center held its annual mountain weekend retreat at Saratoga's Camp Swig last month, about 65 people came, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s, said singles program coordinator Robin Schepps.

For Grek Prokter of San Jose, one of the highlights was carrying the Torah into the woods for a prayer ceremony at Swig's Holocaust memorial. "It was a great moment — this particular moment of prayer," he said. "People who had never touched the Torah [had the opportunity]. It was something that really spoke to people. In this special place in the woods, we felt close to God. He was definitely nearby."

George Youngerman, 39, a Marin advertising consultant, served as volunteer coordinator for the Marin JCC retreat. One of his goals was to include former members of San Francisco's JCC, because many of that center's programs have been phased out.

During the weekend, Youngerman taught a massage therapy class. Other participants taught fish-printing and Latin dancing. Volleyball, biking and a talent show also highlighted the weekend.

Youngerman said people enjoyed themselves so much that they "literally stayed up till all hours just shmoozing." He said he was up until 3 a.m. talking with a dozen other people until the evening ended in an amicable marshmallow fight by the campfire.

Temple Sherith Israel in San Francisco will hold its annual summer Simcha retreat July 7-9 in Sonoma's Westerbeke Ranch. Simcha takes a more spiritual approach to its retreats, said Rabbi Alice Goldfinger, noting that this year's theme is "Finding God in the Material World."

Besides spending a weekend with about 30 people in beautiful surroundings, participants will be joined by Daniel Matt, writer and professor of mysticism at the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. Matt will teach from the Zohar and other spiritual readings.

Anath Ranon, a 32-year-old San Francisco architect, said she enjoys Simcha retreats because they give her a combined spiritual experience through being outdoors, learning about Judaism, singing songs and, yes, eating great organically grown food.

John Jemerin, 41, of San Francisco, said for him spirituality at the Simcha weekend comes from "getting in touch with the more important things in life and reflecting on them." He said the unstructured time during the weekend allows him to meet and talk with people — one of the biggest plusses of the retreat.

The Young Adults Division of the Jewish Federation's annual August retreat, by contrast, focuses on developing leadership. While the Simcha event is open to a wide audience, the YAD retreat is invitational and geared for people who are deeply involved in YAD. The purpose of the Westerbeke Ranch weekend is not only to mingle with friends but to plan upcoming YAD events.

Nearly 50 current and potential young leaders get together to talk about what the Jewish community is doing and what can be done next year, said YAD's vice president of leadership Jill Blumberg.

President Karen Katz said that in the spring of next year, YAD hopes to have a general singles retreat, too.

If you've never been on a retreat and don't know why you should go, perhaps Marin JCC's Schepps can persuade you: "A retreat is personal enough to let you see people in different settings — first thing in the morning and last thing at night," she said. "Spending time with people in all these different activities gives you a real sense of the person in a short slice-of-life weekend."