Martin Storrow is a resident of Moishe House West LA and an accomplished singer/songwriter. Last month, he attended Moishe House’s Shavuot Retreat at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, where he and about 20 other Moishe House residents and community members spent the weekend learning, getting to know one another and celebrating Shabbat.
“In honor of Shavuot, let’s go around and and each share one thing we hope to harvest this weekend.”
We were sitting in a shaded amphitheater, surrounded by trees. Zvi, our facilitator, was engaging and warm. But I was having trouble paying attention. I was distracted by the sun, the birds, the breeze. Mostly, I was distracted by the 20 or so people in our group, who were all seated in a semi circle around the amphitheater. I found myself noticing little details I might not normally focus on: hints of accents in peoples’ voices, the stylistic differences between a Portland beard and an East Coast beard (they’re like two different dog breeds!). I was noticing a couple in a long-distance relationship who had each come from different parts of the country to be at the retreat together and were now in their own blissful world. I was noticing a girl with the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen.
“Presence,” I said, when the discussion came around to me. “I’d like to work on being present this weekend.”
When I was asked to write about my experience at the retreat, I felt guilty that these were the first things I remembered. After all, we had incredible, engaging discussions about important issues: prayer, ethics, LGBTQ issues, direct service work. We studied Torah. We had a silent meditation overlooking the hills of Northern California. On top of all of that, the Friday night of the retreat had marked my mom’s yahrzeit, and I had said Kaddish for her for the first time in years. These were powerful moments. Yet here I was, thinking about beards and a cute girl. I could imagine a disappointed old rabbi wagging a finger at me, saying, “This is why we have a mechitza!” (For the girl, not the beards.)
We came from diverse backgrounds. We were Mexican, Russian, Canadian, Israeli and American. We were gay and straight, single and committed, liberal and conservative, observant and secular. We were businesspeople, rabbis, students and artists. And yet, we all became close. We had intimate, emotional conversations. We hugged and danced and stood silently with our arms around each other. We stayed up late playing music, sharing stories and passing bottles around. We grabbed flashlights and blankets and went stargazing. Some of us stayed up until sunrise.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the distraction I had felt so guilty about was actually the thing I should be focusing on.
We are a people who understand the importance of relationship. We look at the stars and immediately find ways to draw them together. We stand before a text and impulsively find ways of connecting great thinkers across the ages. We stand before each other and form constellations of friendship, romance, common interest and understanding. We are masters at turning distractions into sources of insight and connection.
And connection, more than anything else, is what we crave, especially at this moment in our lives. Most of us don’t have our own families yet, and it often feels like we are out there making our way in the world alone. Every time new technology comes out that makes it easier for us to ‘network’ without seeing, hearing, or touching each other, a little seed of longing is planted in each of us. So when we’re given two full days to put our phones and computers away, to break bread (or, in the case of Shavuot, to cut cheese) with the same twenty people meal after meal, to discuss and debate, to look at the stars together—something incredible happens. Even the distractions become more meaningful. Instead of checking my phone every five seconds, I had been noticing—really noticing—the people around me. Presence.
I don’t mean to downplay the academic aspect of the weekend. The program was fantastic, the facilitators were brilliant and the discussions were stimulating. I left with a greater foundation of knowledge about Shavuot. But the thing that separates Moishe House from so many other organizations is their willingness to create meaningful opportunities for young Jewish people to feel close with each other. For me, that’s what this weekend was really about.
One of the several names we have for Shavuot is Atzeret, which means pause. In one of our discussions, Zvi likened this pause to the space between an exhale and the inhale that follows—that tiny moment of emptiness, of uncertainty. How interesting that a holiday we associate with receiving the Torah—the most definitive text we have—could be linked to this idea of uncertainty. But sometimes creating a space for pause, a moment to acknowledge that while life may be uncertain, we are here together now, can make the difference between feeling fearful and being at peace.
I know that I am at the beginning of a long journey when it comes to my own personal understanding of Judaism. But for me, the human distraction doesn’t get in the way of the study. For me, the distraction is the study. Because each time we come together and pause to notice each other and to be awed by one another, we receive the Torah all over again. It’s the greatest harvest we could ever hope for.