Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York is one of my favorite places in the world. A former Yiddish arts camp founded by the Sholom Aleichem (creator of Teyve, from Fiddler on the Roof) Institute, it was taken over in 1981 by its founders as a healing and holistic health and spiritual retreat for adults, and has continued to grow ever since. I first went to Omega in the early 1990s, and, with the exception of the years I was in India and China, have continued to return ever since.
This weekend I attended again, meeting my friend Greta from Michigan, and as always, came away refreshed and thought provoked by the lovely campus, wonderful discussions with new friends, and healthy and organic food.
Omega has grown a lot over the years since I first started going there, adding a meditation center, Ram Dass Library, and most recently, a state of the art facility for sustainable living and water reclamation. Operating from the end of April to the end of October, it offers more than 350 programs ranging from yoga to arts, crafts and spiritual studies.
This time I attended a workshop given by Sam Keen, a philosopher and graduate of Harvard Divinity school, of Calvinist background, who offered a workshop on “What’s Next–Planning for the Next Decade.” I thought that was a particularly appropriate workshop for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was a time to reflect on what Sam called “unused futures”–dreams we had as early as childhood that we may have put aside–as well as how we use the time we have, opening our minds to our wildest dreams and gradually whittling them down to what we will do, and reflecting on the gifts we want to share with the world. Many people in the session–about 30 altogether–were, like me, celebrating a milestone birthday–50, 60, or even 70. One woman who had written two mystery novels in her 60s was there now, at the age of 70, to figure out how to share her writing with the world and further express her creativity. A doctor in the process of winding down his practice was contemplating his next step–Doctors without Borders, a long held wish to be a standup comedian, or ??? Several others had either just retired or were on the verge of doing so. All held a fervent wish to find or act on a passion and contribute to the world. Sam himself, who turns 80 this year, was doing the work himself. As one person remarked, it is a luxury of our era (and perhaps of living in a developed country) to be in this position.
On a more somber note, during the evening we saw a documentary that Sam and director Bill Jersey had made in the 1980s, called “Faces of the Enemy.” I don’t recall seeing it then; it appeared on PBS, but it is as relevant today (despite the dated hairstyles) as it was 25 years ago. Weaving the story of a disturbed and unrepentant man who was influenced by the propaganda of the Christian Patriots to brutally murder a family of four because he was told they were Communists, with the images that Sam collected from history and around the world, it shows how societies have depicted their enemies by comparing them to animals, monsters, and even Satan. It lays out how ordinary people can become incited to hate and even kill, by repeatedly seeing images and hearing propaganda depicting the “enemy” as less than human. Most interesting to me was an interview with a Vietnam war veteran, who talked about the fine line in the military between motivating soldiers to kill without inciting them to bloodlust–depersonalizing the enemy without dehumanizing him. This documentary was created during the Cold War, when Russia and Communists were the enemy. Unfortunately, it is equally relevant today.