‘Spavuot’ offers day of teaching and escapism

Craig Taubman vividly remembers when Bill Kaplan first showed him around the grounds of the Shalom Institute, neatly tucked into the vast Santa Monica Mountains of Malibu.

For Taubman, it was, quite simply, serenity.

The open spaces, the chirping birds, the sweeping views. It instantly took him away from the life of go, go, go, to a momentary retreat, a “transformative experience,” as he calls it.

It was a feeling he and Kaplan hoped to share with others on May 20 for the first “Spavuot” event — part of their Big Jewish Tent series — and it most certainly worked.

“I have not checked my BlackBerry even once the entire time here,” said Mark Weinstein, a real-estate developer from Los Angeles who attended the event with his wife. “I would say that is the biggest period of time — aside from an occasional vacation — that I haven’t checked it in a while. That’s a big thing for me — I took the day off from technology.”

With the incessant buzz of the wireless world silenced — actual chirps replacing electronic ones — camp participants instead were able to focus on various workshops that addressed mind, body and soul. For the mind, there were poetry and storytelling classes. For the body, running courses and gardening instructions. And for the soul, seminars with local rabbis and health professionals.

Kaplan and Taubman conceived the Big Jewish Tent series in 2010 as a follow-up to their Jewish County Fair, in September 2010. Spavuot was just one of four events planned for the series — and like the others, it was timed in conjunction with a Jewish holiday, with Shavuot beginning Saturday evening, May 26.

“We’re all caught up in our daily world, running around like crazy, technology everywhere, TV, movies — and we end up feeling drained, and a lot of people don’t know why,” said Kaplan, who is executive director of the Shalom Institute. “We need experiences out in the environment like this to nourish [the] soul. To go and do.”

Backed by more than 80 sponsors, Spavuot featured more than 20 volunteer instructors, with the day broken up into three sessions over its six hours. In addition to the array of seminars and workshops, there was also horseback riding and zip-lining for those wanting to experience nature, and massages and a mikveh tent for those in need of rejuvenation.

For some, the simple experience of returning to the camp-like atmosphere of the Shalom Institute made the day memorable.

“Camp was a very special thing for me,” Weinstein said. “I was raised in a Jewish home, but there wasn’t a lot of history and observance; Camp Hess Kramer was one of the places that defined my Judaism and led me to the Jewish life I have now. Coming to camp is always a great reminder for me of that.”

Kaplan and Taubman hoped to combine the relaxed atmosphere and holistic healing with Jewish learning, with local rabbis conducting seminars and hosting workshops on topics ranging from the reading of the Torah to discussions on issues men face in today’s society.

“One of the key components of Judaism is that life is for the living — that the reward is in this world, we’re not focused on the world to come, so getting the most out of this experience, and acknowledging the blessings around you — that’s Jewish spirituality,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana. “I don’t know why people are dialing into that now, but my sense is that it’s because we’re all running crazy, running ragged.”

“There are so many Jews out there now involved in yoga, Pilates, health and wellness,” Kaplan said. “What if we could create that for us? … Combine things that [people are] doing in the secular world and balance it with spirituality?

“Things are getting faster and faster and faster,” Kaplan added. “And this slows you down.”