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Jewish Journal

Back to the Desert

by Shelly Malmon

July 1, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Modern Jews must possess an ancient collective memory to stay out of the desert. I only had enough vacation days saved up for the Memorial Day weekend, not enough for 40 years of wandering.

But Arie Katz, founder of Orange County's Community Scholar Program, which sponsored this second annual retreat, promised that we would be on schedule. And I have learned to never doubt Arie. So we loaded up the car and headed for the desert.

Arriving at La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort, we unpacked into our beautiful luxury room overlooking one of the five swimming pools. This four-diamond resort is located in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in the contiguous United States. It covers more than 600,000 acres of rugged, pristine and diverse terrain with spectacular canyons, sand dunes and desert mountains. And now this panoramic but forbidding place was the temporary home of 40-plus Orange County Jewish families. I thought to myself, "How can anyone learn anything in this heat?"

I was wrong.

Rivy Kletenik, our weekend scholar-in-residence, writes and teaches on topics of Jewish interest throughout the world. Taking a cue from the western tableaux, her lively weekend discussions centered on the theme of "Wild Stories of The Talmud & Midrash: the Thin Precipice Between Life and Death."

A graduate of Pittsburgh's Hillel Academy, Jerusalem College for Women, Hebrew University and Touro College, Rivy was also recently selected by the Covenant Foundation to receive the Covenant award for outstanding Jewish educators.

Rivy's lectures were the icing on the cake of an extensive schedule complete with religious services, lectures, gourmet meals and separate activities for younger children. Before we began each morning, Josh Lake, our tribe's in-house naturalist, offered a sunrise desert walk to help us better appreciate our surroundings. (Confession: I never woke up in time to join the hike. Maybe next year.)

Shabbat was a beautiful sight: 120 Orange County Jews in the desert, from a dozen different congregations, shvitzing and celebrating Shabbat together as a unified community. Congregation B'nai Israel's Rabbi Elie Spitz led Shabbat services, as well as master songleader Dale Schatz to focused our ruach (spirit).

Our 4-year-old daughter, Adina, loved it. She quickly made friends with all of the other children and fell in love with the weekend's teen counselors. Her two favorites, sisters Jaclyn and Elena Bendroff, played with Adina during Shabbat free time and babysat her each night.

The weekend was spectacular, not only from an intellectual standpoint, but as a Jewish parent and communal professional. It was refreshing to see so many generations of Jewish families -- some with children, some without -- learning together, singing together and laughing together.

At the end of the weekend, everyone agreed to meet back in the desert again next year. And, just as Arie promised, the retreat ended as scheduled.

I've already put in for my vacation during Memorial Day weekend next year. Wanna join us?

To receive information about the CSP or sign up for next year's annual desert retreat, visit www.cspoc.org.

Shelly Malmon is the director of program operations at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Orange County. She lives in Irvine with her husband, David, and her daughter, Adina. They are members of Congregation B'nai Israel where Shelly is on the board of directors.

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