Meet Andrew, Ava, Petal, and Trey, Jewish Spiritual Guides of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / August 2, 2023

I visited GatherDC’s 2023 Beyond the Tent Retreat on its final day at Pearlstone Retreat Center, dropping by to see what this tentpole of GatherDC’s work – ten years running! – was all about. I was immediately fascinated by the facilitators, a group of community members (and Gather’s very own Ava Gurman) who’d volunteered to take what they’d learned in past years and pay it forward, serving as conversational shepherds for small groups of Beyond the Tent attendees. A week after the retreat, we convened over Zoom to talk about their successes, the challenges of being “experts,” and the process of creating community.

Left to right: Lane, Summer Education intern; Noa, Engagement Director; Trey, BTT facilitator; Andrew, BTT facilitator; Rabbi Ilana; Petal, BTT facilitator; Ava, Community Manager and BTT facilitator; Melanie, Community Coordinator. Posing in front of a tent at Pearlstone Retreat Center.

Left to right: Lane, summer education intern; Noa, GatherDC’s Engagement Director; Trey, Beyond the Tent facilitator; Andrew, Beyond the Tent facilitator; GatherDC’s Rabbi Ilana; Petal, Beyond the Tent facilitator; Ava, Community Manager and Beyond the Tent facilitator; Melanie, GatherDC’s Community Coordinator.

Samuel: What made you want to facilitate this year’s Beyond the Tent Retreat? 

Andrew: I’ve facilitated things like this in the past, but it had been a very long time and I wanted to get back into it. I had a good experience the year before (as a participant), so…pretty simple!

Petal: I’ve been reconnecting with Judaism over the last several years. I’ve been asking what it means to be a spiritual guide to others, and I thought that being part of this retreat would be a great way to dip my toes in the water of facilitating spiritual conversations. 

Ava: I have been working at Gather and wanting to teach our Jewish philosophy; you learn so much from teaching something that you wouldn’t get when you’re just trying to absorb it for yourself. After doing a Resetting the Table training, I’ve also been wanting to work on and use my facilitation skills. 

Trey: Like Andrew, I went on Beyond the Tent five years ago and had a wonderful experience. I wanted to pay it forward by being a part of conversations that had been moving and wonderful when I [attended] Beyond the Tent. My small group still meets, I’m still engaged with them, so I was interested in being able to share that experience and learn from the folks who I’d be facilitating. 

The facilitators sit, listening to a large group discussion.

Samuel: What felt really successful from your experience this year? 

Petal: This was really rewarding. I felt proud that, for each of the people in my small group, there was at least one moment where we shared a very genuine connection with one another, or there was a breakthrough in how they saw their Jewish journey and relationship to Judaism. There’s something very moving about seeing a whole group of people yearning to be in a community, and having them slowly realize that they are the community. 

Ava: In my breakout group, we actually had very deep conversations. That’s the expectation, but just because you say [meaningful conversation] will happen doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. I was excited to see the effect of the retreat, how it was able to let people have these conversations. 

Trey: My group was so engaged and willing to have vulnerable conversations. In the small group conversation around Jewish culture, participants who are Jews by choices shared the feeling of being outsiders. It felt like a success when they realized they are a part of the Jewish community and explored how to develop their own connection to Jewish culture.

Andrew's small group chats together in a reading nook.

Samuel: When you talk about building a welcoming community, what are the necessary ingredients?

Petal: We put a lot of pressure on ourselves thinking that we have to show up in a very certain way to be accepted as part of a community. If we flub or say something awkward, it’s like: Oh no, did I just ruin this friendship I’m trying to build? Lots of folks have shared anxiety around that, but just knowing of the shared intention to come together as a community allows people to extend one another a lot of grace and compassion. That consistency, and letting go of the need to be perfect, can serve as a strong community foundation. 

Andrew: I think there needs to be a leader that builds and maintains community. That’s what keeps communities together in many respects, and it’s something you realize when it is missing. 

Ava: A leader can just be someone who’s willing to put themselves out there and is not afraid of rejection or of nobody responding. My Mini Gatherings group hangs out all the time because there are people in the group who are willing to do this. It takes people who are going to put themselves out there to create a community.

That, and regularity. I’m in a book club that doesn’t have a “leader,” but we meet once a month and schedule the next month on that day. The structure is built-in. 

Andrew: Maybe the word isn’t leader. Maybe it’s a champion or champions who are willing to get the ball rolling. 

Petal: Community-building requires a risk-taker! Someone who is willing to take the first step and initiate, knowing that rejection might come. 

Petal's small group poses together.

Samuel: Building on this leadership theme…you were all in a position of being leaders and experts for the weekend. How did that feel? 

Trey: To be candid, I was very nervous about it. I said in an email to my group: I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know everything. You’re not going to have a satisfying answer to every question, and that’s okay. I think that’s a very Jewish thing; you [end a conversation] having more questions. It was nice to be able to facilitate…I also feel a little guilty because my group would have been fine even if I wasn’t there. They just kept going. 

Petal: I was also nervous. I was excited, then more nervous, and then more nervous. But I realized that I can only provide what I can provide, and that took some pressure off myself. I thought of a book I read many years ago that talked about ordinary wisdom, the idea that because we are all experts of our own experience, we all have wisdom to share. I had to sit with that and internalize that to empower myself as not necessarily an expert of Judaism, but an expert of my own experience.

Ava: I was confident going in. I work at Gather! But then we’d be moving in a certain direction in the conversation that I hadn’t planned for, and I struggled with whether to push conversation in the direction I thought I wanted, or to let it go. 

Andrew: I’ve done it before, so I wasn’t nervous. But, in many ways, it was more pressure than I had thought. People are looking to you to guide them or make decisions or say transformational things or have all the answers. But, in the end, you’re there really to simply facilitate. The best part for me is pushing participants to engage with each other in interesting and deep conversations so they come to the answer themselves.

Ava's small group poses together, holding Ava off the ground.

Samuel: What are you carrying forward? What’s your advice for someone else looking to start their own journey of deepening their connection with Judaism?

Andrew: Judaism is a process. It requires active input. Something like Beyond the Tent can be a beginning, and provide you with a framework, but you have to be willing to take more steps afterwards. 

Petal: Judaism is something you have to choose over and over and over. If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish; that doesn’t change. But for you to have a meaningful connection with being Jewish, it has to be something you do. My advice would be to choose it, and to do something, because doing anything to connect to your Jewish identity is better than doing nothing. 

Trey: My advice – and it’s going to seem promotional, since this is from Gather – is to reach out. Get a coffee, reach out to Rabbi Ilana. That’s how I went on Beyond the Tent, reaching out to the rabbi, and here I am five years later. You need to start somewhere and see where it goes. 

Ava: I’d second what Trey said. There’s so much out there in the Jewish DMV and Jewish world at large that it can be overwhelming. So reach out to the people or organizations that are doing that research and work, so you can figure out what works for you. 

Andrew's small group holds him up in the air.

Samuel: Alright, last one: if you were on your own Beyond the Tent Retreat, who would your dream team of facilitators be? 

Trey: Oh, God, Sam. My mind literally goes blank with these questions. 

Samuel: We could answer over email, later. Give us all a little more time to think. 

Andrew: No no no, I don’t want to do this later. Let’s get this over with now!

Trey [quietly]: Classic.

Andrew: Yeah, I’ve got no patience. The best answers are what comes top of mind! You need some deep, philosophical people as facilitators. I’m going to go with Gandhi. I’d also like Abraham Joshua Heschel, my favorite Jewish thinker. Then, Barack Obama and Albert Einstein. 

Petal: You stole one of my people! I’m going to borrow Einstein, too. I’d like him, Heschel, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Trey: My four facilitators are Dara Horn, Deborah Lipstadt, David Rose, and Theodor Herzl

Ava: I would also take Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Then, Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a Rabbi, Esther Perel, and Esther

The entire retreat gathers on the patio for a whole group discussion.

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