Keeping men involved in community activities might be a challenge in many congregations, but at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield, one program has proved a steady winner: the Men’s Club annual retreat.
The first was held in 2004; the eighth took place earlier this month, Sept. 9-10.
Sixteen men between the ages of 40 and 85 gathered at Camp Louemma in Sussex County for a Shabbaton that included religious services, a campfire session, and discussions focusing on the theme of father-son relationships.
“It was one of our very best retreats,” said Mike Hamerman, the main organizer, “because the men truly shared their thoughts and feelings. And because of that sharing, an even greater synergy occurred that enhanced the social and spiritual bonding among them.”
A 34-year member of the temple and a former president of the men’s club, Hamerman has seen for himself the difficulty in keeping men — especially the younger ones — involved in synagogue activities.
“They’re willing to help out with limited-time, one-off activities — like distributing food parcels, or coming to a fund-raiser,” he said, “but they’re too busy to take on more time-consuming responsibilities.”
Eight years ago, the idea for the retreat came from the temple’s religious leader, Rabbi Douglas Sagal, who discussed with Hamerman, who was about to become leader of the men’s club, ways to strengthen the bonds between the members.
“He suggested a retreat, complete with rabbi and song leader,” said Hamerman. “That first one was so successful that we continued with them,” always focusing on fellowship and religion.
Hamerman has been the organizer since its inception, assisted by Len Traiman, the congregation’s treasurer, and David Gelber, another former men’s club president.
For this year’s retreat, the temple’s Cantor Martha Novick recorded her chanting of that Shabbat’s Torah portion. With assistance from Dave Buckman, she provided copies to the four volunteer Torah readers.
At the retreat, song leader Barry Merer, armed with his guitar, led the singing — religious and otherwise.
On Friday evening, a campfire session included toasting kosher marshmallows provided by Hal and Arlene Pugach, the directors of Camp Louemma. On Saturday afternoon, participants napped, read, hiked, or went kayaking.
Prayers and discussions were led by Rabbi Marcus L. Burstein, Union rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Burstein is a part-time pulpit rabbi at Temple Har Shalom in Warren, but grew up in Westfield attending Temple Emanu-El. He knew many of the men as mentors and family friends.
It was the third year that he has worked with the retreat, and it was his idea that the men take father-son relationships as their theme this year.
“Not everyone is a father,” he said, “but everyone is a son and a grandson.” On Friday afternoon, participants shared memories of fathers, grandfathers, or other relatives.
During Shabbat services, Burstein invited people to interrupt services with any questions that came to mind, and a number of the men brought up issues that have baffled or perturbed them for decades.
“A lot of light bulbs were coming on,” Burstein said. “I really couldn’t have asked for it to go any better than it did.”
Men’s club president Stan Biner of Fanwood has attended every retreat. “I look forward to them,” he said, “to the camaraderie and the chance to hang out with people one doesn’t get a chance to hang out with during the year. We have fun, and talk, and pray, and read Torah. And we learn something new each year.”
Still, organizers said persuading new people to take part in the retreat is a challenge. All but one of the men on the retreat had previously taken part, said Hamerman.
“If they come once,” he said, “they want to come to every one after that.”
Hamerman was delighted by the feeling of spirituality, especially so close to the High Holy Days.
“It’s that goodness that I see — the holiness — that keeps me doing this,” he said.