Attending the Jewish Women’s Getaway at Camp Ramah Darom in the beautiful North Georgia mountains every November remains one of my favorite traditions. Time with friends, outdoor adventures and fitness challenges, along with many cultural and spiritual electives, make this a meaningful getaway. In this year of cancellations, I fully expected that this event would be postponed.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email in September with an invitation for a Physically Distanced Women’s Weekend. Pre-COVID-19, a group of us stay in a cabin, eat meals at closely spaced tables and participate in many indoor classes such as yoga and art. How would a COVID-safe weekend even work? I agreed to investigate it, mostly out of sheer curiosity. I signed up without realizing that the weekend would take place two days after the election. The timing could not have been better. While the world waited for the selection of a new president, I drove up to Ramah, unhitched from the constant news cycle with each passing mile. My drive from Atlanta calmed my news-driven psyche as each mile offered the color of changing leaves and the soothing terrain of the gently sloping North Georgia mountains.
Camp Ramah Darom is located on a 185-acre campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On arrival, I was greeted at my car to confirm my health status and review the safety measures that included masking, physical distancing and daily health assessments. Attention to safety would be the new norm. Surfaces were constantly cleaned and sanitized. Bathroom stalls, outside rocking chairs and benches were labeled as “sanitized” or “waiting to be sanitized.” Participants flipped the sign over after they finished. Bikes, archery equipment and art supplies were sanitized. The staff worked tirelessly; and that effort reassured all of us.
The group was small (there were 30 of us including staff) and the activity options began immediately. The group broke into smaller groups. Some of us took a mind-clearing short hike to a dazzling waterfall that quickly adjusted my frame of mind. Others chose to jump into the color-filled, physically distanced art classes led by the masterful Judy Robkin.
What I worried would be a disappointing COVID-safe affair transformed instead into a well-thought out, creative and engaging schedule with all the safety measures my nursing lens required. Sure, there would be no group cabin, but having a hotel room to myself became a luxury to which I could get accustomed. Some of my favorite activities such as the climbing wall and obstacle course could not be opened safely. However, new outdoor activities, such as archery and mountain-biking, perfectly filled in the gap.
The COVID-safety measures even moved me toward a new activity – art. Uncertain of my abilities, I had shied away from art activities in the past. But in a small group, I allowed myself the freedom to dabble in watercolors. Novice though I am, Judy taught me a step-by-step method. By the end, my artwork generated “oohs and ahhs” from my classmates. Even I was pleased. The effort brought on a flashback of a less then satisfying elementary school art experience. Now as an adult, I was hooked!
With limitations on the size of the group, the number of activities they offered increased. Archery classes were limited to two participants to ensure adequate physical distancing, but this allowed for ample instruction. My classmate hit the bullseye after being coached to envision something she wanted to “take aim at.” Later, we attended outdoor yoga classes held in a rustic mountainside pavilion. The pavilion was silent, without music, except for the sound of chirping birds and the rustling trees. The gentle lull of the natural world calmed us and facilitated total relaxation. That moment was a highlight.
While past Women’s Getaways have been held during the week, this one occurred over Shabbat. There is power in lighting candles with a group of women, even if we are wearing masks and standing apart. Yes, we ate dinner 8 feet apart in physical space, but we were communally close in our shared experience. Due to the pandemic, we respected each other’s space and boundaries. Some women chose to take their meals outside.
But the draw of coming to this place, even amidst this strange year and even with our small numbers, afforded us the communal spirit we were all seeking. We gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat on the basketball court, but the setting did not matter. Shabbat can be welcomed anywhere. Later at Havdalah, the blazing campfire drew us together in spirit even while we were physically apart.
As we gathered for our final experience, we took turns sharing in the format of John Krasinski’s YouTube show “SomeGoodNews.” Some shared deeply personal thoughts. Others shared funny antidotes from the weekend. One participant, who had never attended a Jewish Women’s Getaway, exclaimed, “who would have thought that during a global pandemic I would make new friends and lasting connections?” Who would have thought this, indeed? Well said, my new friend. Well said.
Caryn Hanrahan is a retired certified nurse-midwife and past board chair of the Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah.