What is the value of one Jewish neshama keeping a full Shabbos?
This is the question J-Life Chicago addresses, bringing over 70 unaffiliated young professionals and 40 community members together every year at its Annual Shabbat Retreat.
J-Life Outreach, established in 2009, engages Jewish young professionals, connecting them with eternal values that are as relevant today as they have been. J-Life has its hands full: the vast majority of Chicagoland Jews remain disconnected from Torah-true Judaism and millennials disenchanted with the traditional structure of religion at large.
Still, there have been exceptional inroads with families that arrived in America from Russia in the late 80’s and early 90’s; these young minds are driven to succeed in their personal lives, their professional lives, and, with J-Life, in their spiritual lives as well. The organization runs 2 weekly events in their downtown and Wheeling locations, hosts scores of Shabbos guests, sends missions to Europe and Israel, and has dozens of weekly chavrusas. The opportunities to connect abound.
But J-Life only has one Shabbat Retreat.
This year, on February 28-March 1, they took over the Crowne Plaza Northbrook for J-Life’s fourth retreat, which draws young adults from Chicagoland and beyond for a full Shabbos experience. Some come to meet their bashert, others come to reunite with old friends, some are just looking for some connection to their heritage – and all walk away engaged, enlightened, and inspired.
Torah personalities, educators, and even a relationship coach, converged from as far as Detriot (Rabbi Leiby Burnham), Milwaukee (Rabbi Benzion Twerski), Philadelphia (Mrs. Aleeza Ben Shalom) and even Leeds, UK (Rabbi Shalom Kupperman), to deliver fifteen interactive sessions and classes to the students. Topics ranged from intellectual topics such as Science and Religion: Clash or Complement and Beyond the Smokescreen: An Exploration in Truth, to real-life advice, as in The Relevance of Shabbos in 2020 and Mastering the 10 Relationship Strategies to Succeed.
It wasn’t only the students who were riveted by the presentations; dozens of community members came away inspired. These families join to meet the engaging educators, connect with the young attendees, and enjoy an easy weekend getaway in a hotel complete with full catering and babysitting.
The Shabbos meals, interspersed by stories, song, and lchaims, allow students and lay leaders to bond and grow with animated discussion and Shabbos ruach. One young lady turned to a community member in the middle of Shabbos lunch, saying “My hands are literally shaking from not checking my phone. Shabbos simply doesn’t happen for me anywhere else.”
One of the highlights of the weekend was the Motzei Shabbat game night with casino-like competition, which drew even more students and community attendees. Live music, hor d’oeuvres, dimmed lighting and a healthy dose of competitive spirit made the evening a resounding success, with energy running strong to past midnight. Top winners received prizes generously sponsored by PKHart Jewelers, Shallots Bistro, and Evita’s Steakhouse.
A weekend that starts as a group of disparate individuals leaves it as a community, a cohort, a family.
J-Life used the Shabbaton momentum to launch a new Prague & Poland trip, with nearly a dozen of the Shabbaton attendees signing up to spend a week exploring their heritage.
Was the weekend successful? We’ll let you decide, based on a comment of a young professional on her way home: “Well, one thing is for certain. After a weekend like this, I want to spend the rest of my life with a Jewish husband.”
Note: J-Life has always been a community-based organization. Volunteers, excited to bring Torah learning and Torah living to the dozens of attendees, run everything from the childcare, wait-staff, food coordination, and after-Shabbos live music. Special recognition goes to the Stesel and Goizman families for their unending investment of time and energy to the ongoing success of the Shabbat Retreat.