Ritual and Retreat: Reflections on the 2024 National Retreat

Rituals give us a predictable format and routine that we can count on; some we repeat day after day, or year after year. And within those predictable ritual moments, we create space for new experiences, ideas, and feelings. Relaxing within a familiar structure, we can show up to it over and over again as a slightly changed person each time, and so new things emerge.

I just came back from the Eshel National LGBTQ+ retreat, for the 14th time. With a few changes each year, the pattern of our weekend together is fairly simple, and basically the same from year to year. We create spaces for people to speak their truth, tell their stories, and hear from others who are doing the same. 

In my small discussion group we noted how we all have stories, and they are always remarkable, demonstrating our resilience as Orthodox queer people. We leave energized and inspired. For many this is the only Shabbat of the year that they can be truly whoever they are, and live in their truth.

This year, our theme was The Many Hats We Wear. We played with this theme throughout the retreat, both metaphorically and in real time. I learned alot about myself in the hats I chose to put on during the weekend, and about others there. I also learned about how hats in the Haredi community signal religious commitment and observance, and any deviation from the hat-wearing norms of those communities signals someone faltering from observance, thus a red flag. I saw how trying on different hats can both release someone’s inner secrets, and what hat we choose to wear helps express who we are or aspire to be. This weekend, many of us had the opportunity to wear the hats that get hidden in the back of our closet the rest of the year. Embracing our whole selves and expressing our identities proudly is part of what makes this retreat so transformative.

Even more powerful, though, is the power of our community. Throughout the retreat, I was surrounded by over 100 queer Orthodox Jews. Each of us feels like one of a handful, or even the only one, in our home communities. But at the National Retreat, it is clear: there are so many of us. And we are stronger together.

I hope that as we return to our daily lives, we will continue to take hope and inspiration from the National Retreat. It is crucial to remember that we are all unique, and that we are part of a community. I can’t wait to be together again.

Miryam Kabakov Miryam Kabakov