Creating a virtual retreat while sheltering at home by Eric Yegelwel

On March 20, 2020 Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker ordered state residents to stay at home except for essential workers. The order came as Illinois recorded its fifth death and 585 confirmed cases of Covid 19. All gatherings of more than 10 people were banned. The Midwest Regional retreat was scheduled to be held at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois from May 1 to May 3, 2020. When it became apparent that the Covid 19 pandemic would not be ending anytime soon, they decided to change their plans and arrange for a virtual retreat. During the course of organizing the retreat, the Midwest region extended invitations to both the KIO and Tristate Regions to join them creating the first ever Tri-Regional Virtual retreat. The retreat was held during the weekend of August 1 and 2. Initial reactions from those who attended the retreat has been overwhelmingly positive.


The planning of the retreat began only eight weeks before the retreat was scheduled to be held. The planning committee met almost weekly on Zoom. The first order of business was to decide on programming. The intent was to be fun, engaging, interactive, educational and include FJMC related programs. The hope was that with less obstacles in the way to attend a virtual retreat (i.e. no cost and no travel), more men would be able to participate in all or part of the retreat. There was also a discussion whether to include ritual in the retreat program. Some previous regional virtual retreats had decided not to include ritual due to the limitations of Zoom. The consensus of the committee was to include ritual as this has always been an important and traditional part of previous FJMC retreats and conventions. After a basic program outline was agreed upon, they realized that a Sunday morning retreat would not provide sufficient time for all the programming that was planned. It was decided to make the retreat a two-day event. The retreat started on Saturday afternoon, August 1 with a Torah discussion lead by Dale Levy (VP of KIO). One hundred and five men were signed up for the retreat. The formal retreat began Saturday evening with a D’var torah lead by Rabbi Morris Zimbalist of Congregation Beth Judea, Long Grove, IL. This was followed by an innovative Icebreaker on Zoom hosted by Brandt Rosen (Midwest). An HMV session created by Creighton Cohn and Mark Givarz entitled “Besides that, how’s 2020 been so far for you?” was extremely well received. The breakout sessions were led by many men who had limited previous experience leading HMV breakout sessions. They were mentored by those with more experience. The Saturday evening session was concluded with Ma’ariv/Havdalah by Rabbi Alex Braver of Congregation Tifereth Israel of Columbus, Ohio.


The Sunday morning program began on August 2 at 9:00 AM (Central). David Singer led a Mindful Meditative Shachrit service which for many was a completely new experience. He incorporated mindfulness into the liturgy in order to help develop greater focus in prayer and open one’s heart to God. Following services, Mike Berman of NBC-TV Sports Chicago spoke about sports in the era of the Covid 19 pandemic. He shared some interviews he had previously broadcasted including one with Chicago Fire forward CJ Sapong whose mother is an ICU nurse in Virginia. Mike also had time to answer many questions from those who were attending the retreat. Hazzan Steve Stoehr taught attendees about Chevra Kaddisha. As an unexpected added bonus, Moshe one of the FJMC brothers from the Abayudaya community in Uganda joined the retreat and provided an update on his community and how they are faring during the worldwide pandemic. Danny Mandeau, Doug Sagerman and Steve Lessman previewed of the FJMC Convention which is planned to be held in Chicago June 30-July 4, 2021. Jimmy Tran delivered an encore presentation of the Home Beer Brewing Program which he had previously presented at the Western Region Virtual Retreat. Lastly Jay Englander along with his son Noah closed out the retreat with the traditional FJMC singing of Hinei Ma’tov.


The feedback for the retreat so far has been extremely positive. The hope is that the next retreat will be held where everyone can be together sharing the same physical space. L’Shana Haba’ah B’Chicago!

Eric Yegelwel currently serves on the Midwest Regional Board as a Vice President. He was Chairman of the Tri-Regional Virtual Retreat. He lives in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. He is a physician who practices gastroenterology.