Well Circles

Planning a Well Circle Retreat

My Well Circle had been meeting virtually for nearly a year and a half before we discussed wanting to meet in-person. Our gatherings around each new moon had become an important part of our monthly cadence — we wanted to give ourselves the gift of some wonderful in-person connection. Since we live all over the country, a weekend retreat made sense as a format for a gathering.

As a little bit of background, the only connection the nine of us had before we founded our virtual Circle was that we were all connected to Honeymoon Israel. Dozens of folks met during that initial program, and as we looked for ways to keep in touch afterward, there were nine of us who came together to form an ongoing Well Circle. We use a collective leadership model where each month, two folks work together to plan our Circle’s session.

As we began to plan our retreat, we worked to leverage this collective and collaborative style of leadership. Each and every one of us contributed, and no matter the level of effort, our retreat experience would not have been possible without all nine of us.

Below I’ll share our high-level process as well as discuss the two anchor activities that are rooted in our experience. I highly recommend using them to plan future Well Circle retreats, no matter the specific focus. I’ll also link to a planning template you can use to organize a retreat of your own!

The Six-Step Process

  1. Setting the Intention for the Retreat
  2. Defining the Budget & Timing
  3. Being OK with the Ambiguity of Collective Leadership
  4. Pulling Together the Components
  5. Enjoying the Moment
  6. Savoring the Follow-Up

Setting the Intention

We found it helpful to start our planning process by having a group conversation about what everyone envisioned for the retreat. Talking this through from the beginning helps ensure there is alignment. This intention is likely something you’ll need to revisit as the retreat becomes more real.

Our Circle has an official theme song, “Slow Down/The Mother’s Response” by Kohenet Riv Shapiro, which came from the Moon Manual for the month of Elul. We regularly refer back to this song, and it was at the heart of what we wanted our gathering to be about. We summarized our retreat intention in two words: inclusion and reflection.

We also threw out descriptive terms and captured them during a collaborative discussion. Our themes were: Renewal, Community, Sisterhood, Connection, Grounding, Intentionality & Levity in Personal and Religious Practice. And as it ended up, all of these were incorporated into the retreat.

Defining the Budget

It’s always a little complicated to get budgets and schedules aligned with a group of people. To ensure everyone felt comfortable sharing their needs, we did a confidential poll. It asked each person to share what they could afford to pay for the retreat and their weekend availability for the following 12 months. (To do this, we used Google’s free survey-making tool and emailed it to the group.) Our most compassionate Circle member reviewed and summarized the results.

After the survey, we had one weekend that worked for everyone and a defined budget that created the parameters for our planning!

It is important to note that not everyone will have the same ability to contribute financially. You may choose to split costs in a number of ways to allow everyone to join. Additionally, if your Well Circle is associated with an organization, there may be grants or other financial support that might be available to cover costs. Regardless, tackling this sticky topic is an important input that is essential to your retreat planning.

Being OK with the Ambiguity of Collective Leadership

This is where things got messy, but that was more than just okay. To say we had lots of ideas for what the retreat might be was an understatement. We had more than four pages of them! Since we are virtual and all over the country, we needed to come to a consensus about where we’d meet.

We picked New Mexico because it is a place many folks wanted to visit, and I live there. Since I was pushing the ball forward at that time, I suggested a spot that would fit our budget and ticked off a good number of our many ideas, and it was good enough for everyone. Plus, I knew I could make things happen on the ground so everyone would have a good time.

What inspired my choice was the desire to incorporate two activities. One is a mikvah, the Jewish tradition of ritual bathing, and the second is hitbodedut, the tradition of talking to G-d in nature. Thus, we went to a mineral-fed spa surrounded by hiking trails. Just the right sort of spot to easily incorporate these two activities.

I reached out to the At The Well team for some coaching as the retreat planning got deeper. They helped our group research how to lead our sessions. Most importantly, they reminded all of us that it is not about the perfect practice of any ritual but the intention.

All nine of us have different versions of imposter syndrome when it comes to our singing voices, Hebrew pronunciation, worry about offending or excluding others — you name it, we’ve got it. But what we also have is a safe space where that isn’t important. And with that as our touchstone, we each knew our presence and contributions would be welcomed. This is an essential part of collective leadership.

One thing we didn’t do that one of the members of my circle called out as an important lesson learned is that you need to acknowledge and discuss how planning a retreat will be something very different than what the Well Circle has done as a group before. This requires setting some new shared agreements about how you’d like to meet to do the planning.

For example, how many planning sessions will you have? Does everyone want to attend those, or is it okay for just a few folks to join? And even if you think you’ve figured this out, it is vital to check in again and make sure everyone is feeling good about how the process is going. Things may have come up for folks since the last time you met, and making space to share will ensure that you can talk through any issues, and you’ll be more likely to have a gathering that feels right to everyone.

Pulling Together the Components

I’m not sure how anything gets done in life without some sort of spreadsheet. We used this planning template, which I’ve made a bit more generic so others can copy it and use it to create their own retreat schedule!

Using the time box of a weekend, we worked together to plug in different sessions folks wanted to lead that surrounded our two grounding activities of Mikvah and Hitbodedut. We also had a super strong desire within our group to do something where we created something. Thus, we had a third activity that helped us set our schedule.

It was also very important to us to incorporate Shabbat since we spent the weekend together. That timing, plus our planned meal times, helped us figure out our schedule. And I certainly wouldn’t call the timing exact. We were forever 30 minutes off schedule and decided to move our Hitbodedut activity to make room for free time in the afternoon. It was also a great move, as I highly recommend doing that activity in the dark late at night (perhaps even post-margarita).

We also used the various tabs of our spreadsheet to share travel schedules, dietary restrictions, and our to-do list to keep the event on track. Our group text chain also kept everyone in the loop and our excitement for the event up. We highly recommend sharing photos and GIFs to build momentum!

We did not specifically define roles, but here are some that naturally came up during our process, if you want to try to assign them ahead of time:

  • Location Scout
  • Poll Master
  • Agenda Wrangler
  • Restaurant Reservation Point
  • Scheduler of the Planning Calls
  • Supply Guru

Enjoying the Moment

Nothing in life is going to turn out exactly as one expects. So flexibility, adaptability, and communication were critical to our group being able to enjoy our time together. Our Circle has repeatedly confirmed our commitment to collective leadership and inclusivity.

As a result, we regularly checked in with each other to see if we were on schedule. And when we weren’t (which was often), we decided together how we wanted to shift things. And if any one person wasn’t comfortable with something, we spent some time collaborating to find a solution that at least met everyone's basic needs. This was not a fast process, but it is what worked for us.

One woman from our Well Circle had a last-moment family emergency and couldn’t join us. To help her still feel included, we checked in on her over the course of the weekend and sent food to her family after they were all able to return home.  We removed her from the logistics text chain and felt her absence but still enjoyed our gathering. I share this mostly to remind those planning that things just come up. It isn’t about you. Remember to respond with warmth.

Similarly, one of our ladies was still nursing. She had her baby join the retreat. We arranged for childcare during the mikvah activity so she could be present and we could follow the rules of the resort. It seemed to be a lot to juggle, but baby and mama were warmly welcomed by the group, as we had all agreed to support them as they joined us. Did it get executed flawlessly? Not exactly, but it worked, and each person helped at one point or another, and we managed expectations on what would be required before the retreat.

Everyone also ensured that all planned activities were included, though some needed to be modified. During group reflection and discussions, folks understood that being off technology and actively listening was critical to a richer experience. We also left plenty of free time when phones could be used. The cutest use of our phones was to FaceTime and sing with kiddos at bedtime.

Savoring the Follow Up

Spending extended time together in this way will naturally bring your Well Circle closer together. Enjoy the jokes and unique bonds that are formed. Also, recognize they’ll be different for everyone; there is no “right” takeaway from your gathering.

As everyone settles in back at home, be sure to share some photos from the weekend. And if you have an activity that came out of your gathering that you think others would benefit from, consider writing about it! Inspiration is something to be treasured — and shared.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


What Is A Mikveh? My Jewish Learning

Hitbodedut & Jewish Meditation: How To, Breslov.org

On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine by Rabbi Léah Novick

Planning a Well Circle Retreat
Jo Stein
Jo Stein

Jo Stein is a member of a virtual Well Circle and is an all-around At The Well super fan. She and her husband Dan love finding ways to bring together their many communities around the world and are longtime supporters of radically inclusive Judisim. They are members of both The Kitchen in San Francisco and Mishkan in Chicago. Jo splits her time between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Chicago, Illinois — but on any given day she could be anywhere. Her Well Circle regularly asks, “Where are you this month?” Professionally Jo runs Gutenberg Capital and you can find her on Instagram as @jojonojojo.

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