At spas around the world, activity menus focus on the body, offering the likes of hiking, exercise, body treatments and tai chi. Occasionally, spirituality can be explored in a special class or workshop. Long before the spa frenzy began filling travel columns nationwide, Jews recognized the value of spas and retreats. But these oases focus on the mind and heart, with the purpose of refreshing one's spirituality and peace of mind.
As kosher retreats are becoming increasingly popular, Jewish travel is taking on a greater spiritual dimension. Jews seeking growth, transformation and activities have been vacationing at Jewish spiritual retreats, a.k.a. Jewish spas, where spirituality is infused daylong. From the moment of arrival, creative Jewish expression is nurtured in a variety of ways. Some offer experiential prayer services where participants sing, dance or drum along. Others offer contemplative campouts, ripe for informal discussions and reflections, which tend to be led by a group leader. Jewish singing is encouraged, and retreats offer yoga, meditation, nature walk, and additional recreational activities such as sports.
Elat Chayyim (www.elatchayyim.org), a well-known Jewish retreat nestled in New York's scenic Catskill Mountains, offers weekend, weeklong and holiday retreats that join participants with rabbis, Jewish scholars and artists. Once there, partakers fill their days with recreation, prayer and workshops. According to Rabbi Shefa Gold, who teaches "Kol Zimra: Chant Leader's Training," "this energy has the potential of being focused and directed as a healing force."
Couple work is also encouraged on such retreats. Efraim and Rosalie Harris-Eisen lead a special workshop on spiritual intimacy for couples. Designed to facilitate couples to apply Jewish wisdom, text and mysticism to bring out the best in their relationship, the instructors say "couples leave 'Spiritual Intimacy' with renewed commitment, passion and compassion."
Another interesting workshops worth noting is "Torah Through Yoga." Many people practice yoga solely for the health benefits, which include increased flexibility, relaxation, improved posture, balance and muscle tone. But yoga's spiritual benefits are an integral part of the practice. Courses that blend Jewish thought with ancient practices of yoga are thought to help release emotional tension, confusion and restriction. The act of stretching and releasing tense muscles, and becoming more aware of oneself and one's environment, has been shown to have therapeutic affects.
Isralight (www.isralight.org), a popular Jewish organization in America and Israel, offers plenty of spiritual retreats at various locales, year-round. Their Web site terms their retreats "a holistic Jewish experience," and their retreats blend recreational activities such as hiking, tennis, mountain biking, swimming and volleyball with Jewish expression via song, meditation, music, prayer, yoga and yes, even massage.
Basia Wolfe of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., frequently attends Isralight retreats with her husband, Mottel.
"People are transformed by these retreats," she said, "they understand how Judaism is so deep."
According to Wolfe, guests and retreat staff tell stories by a bonfire and sing along with a guitar "until the wee hours of the night." Wolfe also enjoyed the ropes courses, boating trips and "bonding-trust group activities" and sums up the Isralight experience as one that shows Jewish people that they can find a deep spirituality in their own religion without looking elsewhere.
Jewish spas are not just about Shabbat services in the woods. Luxurious pampering and kosher cuisine can be found en masse at several spas, such as Kosher Health Institute and Spa, located at Hilton Head, S.C., and operated as a partnership between Kosher Expeditions (www.kosherexpeditions.com) and the Hilton Head Health Institute (www.hhhealth.com). The focus of some Jewish spas center less on attaining spiritual transformation, and more on transforming one's health, weight, diet and longevity. Through up-to-date research on kosher nutrition and weight loss, fitness and body image, blood pressure and stress management, the Kosher Health Institute and Spa provides a personal program tailored to an individual's needs. It differs from a traditional spa in that guests are provided with structured learning to motivate them for serious life-management strategies. Kosher culinary instruction and nutritional consultations are designed to keep guests on track long after their stay.
In line with a traditional spa's carte du jour, kosher spas offer various therapeutic massages, aromatherapy and reflexology. The aromatherapy massage uses essential oils from plants such as lavender and rosewood that are considered to have not only botanical properties but also provide a mystical healing element that brings about greater calm or energy.
By helping people reach a state of contented relaxation, mental calmness, and spiritual awareness, the solutions to life's quandaries and its perennial questions start to come into focus. In this age of self-exploration and expression, it is no wonder that Jewish retreats and spas hold such appeal.