Dream for spiritual retreat center begins with a weeklong getaway

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Founding a Jewish retreat center in Northern California may be a "grandiose dream," but a recently formed group of Renewal-inspired Jews is taking the first steps toward this goal by running a one-week pilot next month in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"This is our attempt to open a new gateway for many people to explore their Jewish identity, to fulfill their Jewish interests and spiritual connections," said Marty Potrop, a former San Francisco Hillel director and one of the group's five primary organizers.

The group is called Ruah Ha'Aretz, Hebrew for "Spirit of the Earth," and its first retreat is slated for Aug. 12 to 18 at Mount Madonna Center, south of Santa Cruz. Activities include workshops on Jewish meditation, chanting, mysticism, healing, art, eldering, ecology, storytelling and the feminine aspect of God.

The retreat brochure describes one workshop called "Sacred Chant: Opening the Heart, Planting the Seed" as a path toward enhanced spirituality.

"Sacred words and music open the heart to a fuller experience of the Divine within the self and in the world," according to the brochure. "In this class, we will use music, rhythm, silence and kavanah (intention) to develop a chanting practice for transforming sacred phrases into doorways to new dimensions of experience and spiritual fulfillment."

Teachers of the retreat's classes include rabbis from across the country, as well as a few familiar Bay Area faces — Corey Fisher, a founder of San Francisco's A Traveling Jewish Theatre, and Jonathan Seidel, a Berkeley Jewish educator and Ruah Ha'Aretz organizer.

Participants can join in morning and afternoon prayers. A hot tub will double as a ritual immersion pool for one day's ceremony. Separate activities for children and teenagers include art projects, nature hikes and singing.

Though the organizers and teachers have ties to the Jewish Renewal movement, Potrop said the retreat isn't Renewal per se.

"We're trying to be cross-denominational," said Potrop, though he acknowledges that the group's orientation is outside of mainstream Judaism and that gender-mixed worship may not attract Orthodox Jews.

Numerous other groups have offered daylong or weeklong workshops in the past, but Ruah Ha'Aretz organizers see their retreat as a beginning, rather than a final product.

"We see this as — we hope — the launching pad for something much larger, of a longer-term nature," said Leah Novick, a Carmel Valley Renewal rabbi and a Ruah Ha'Aretz organizer.

The group hopes this first event can show potential donors that a permanent retreat center can create a stronger, more spiritually oriented Bay Area Jewish community. Ruah Ha'Aretz, which applied for nonprofit status in April, hopes to raise enough funds over the next three to five years to buy a piece of property with a retreat center or hotel already on it.

Jews could live and work full time at such a center, Novick said. To help maintain the property, she added, the center could rent space for weddings or allow artists, authors and musicians to create and sell their work there.

"We almost think of it as a spiritual moshav," Novick said, referring to Israel's semicollective communities. "Every Shabbat, holiday and summer, there would be the possibility for people to experience vibrant Judaism."

Right now, she said, Jewish adults don't have a permanent space for such retreats, classes and relaxation. The Reform movement's Camp Swig in Saratoga doesn't offer the most comfortable facilities for adults, she said.

"What's always frustrating is the lack of continuity and lack of place — no makom — to call our own," Novick said.

The group has picked up inspiration from Elat Chayyim, a 5-year-old Renewal retreat center south of the Catskill Mountains. The New York center, which sprang from an idea similar to those of Ruah Ha'Aretz, offers Passover retreats, Rosh Chodesh gatherings, singles weekends, drumming camps and weeklong Jewish mysticism seminars, among other activities.

Potrop expects 60 to 70 to attend Ruah Ha'Aretz's first retreat. Though most of the attendees will be from Northern California, Potrop said he's received registration forms from Oregon, New York and Oklahoma as well.

Potrop, who also heads Berkeley's Aquarian Minyan, acknowledges that the task of establishing such a retreat center for Northern California may seem like a tall order.

"It is a grandiose dream," he said.

But Potrop hopes Northern Californian Jews can see the merit in such an experiment.

"We're trying to bring a living tradition into the future," he said.