Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.
That expansive safe inclusive feeling is essential to Sukkot. The holiday, which follows the hopefulness of Rosh Hashanah and the solemnity Yom Kippur, has us sitting in huts for seven days of ‘our joy,’ as our tradition calls this holiday. Sitting in Sukkot is supposed to remind us of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Though the people of Israel complained pretty much non-stop during the trek, it was in many ways a pretty wonderful time. Despite living in temporary dwellings, throughout, they were guided by God’s presence; they were provided with ample food and drink in a dry, sparse dessert landscape. Outsiders attacked them but God assured their safety. And those who wandered in the wilderness knew God through miracles and revelation. Temporary and rough though it might have been, in many ways it was a time of joy and possibility like no other. Jews of many tribes lived together in peace, they had deep sense of the holy in their midst and their basic needs were more than adequately take care of. Being Jewish was perfect.
As the celebration of Sukkot nears, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a perfect Jewish space—even if only a temporary one. For my daughter that place has been summer camp. For my son, it is his school fall retreat. I’ve been blessed over the years to have many temporary Jewish spaces that capture the expansive, inclusive, joyful feeling that Sukkot is meant to inspire but one that has gained particular meaning for me in the last few years is the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp.
Every fall, Be’chol Lashon organizes a weekend of Jewish learning, living and sharing in the rolling hills just north of San Francisco. Like the Sukkot singing of my childhood, the diversity of this community helps me experience the Jewish world as inclusive and accepting. There are people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations. Some people come alone, others come with several generations in tow. There are many different kinds of religious Jews and secular Jews too. The scholars-in-residence have ranged over the years from Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin, to chef and Afro-culinary historian Michael Twitty, to this year’s Rabbi Gershom Sizomu from Uganda. This range embodies my belief that there are many ways to be a Jewish leader and help me to see the full vibrancy of modern Jewish life. Black, Asian, Latino and white Jews share meals having serious conversations about race as well as fun and silly discussions about pop culture. It is a safe space and one in which Jewish life is inclusive, expansive and vibrant. And though it is temporary, like Sukkot, the retreat gives me hope and inspires me for the complexities of daily Jewish life.
Literally and figuratively Sukkot are essential for Jewish life. We all need oases where we feel the pure joy of being Jewish in an accepting, inclusive safe environment. Just as the holiday of Sukkot gives us hope during the somber High Holy days, having a Jewish space that lives up to your vision of Jewish community—even if temporary—can fuel the fullness of Jewish life at other times. Creating or finding that space, can be as challenging as wandering in the dessert or sitting in a Sukkah with a space heater, but making the effort is definitely worth your while.
“How did the Jews become a global people?”
“They got pushed around a bunch.”
“They had to go to different places.”
Indeed. Looking at the diversity of faces in the room the global nature of the Jewish community was not in dispute but the process of migration, the economic opportunities, the persecution, the trade that is at the root of Jewish experience needed to be unpacked and understood. And thus began our conversations about the global nature of Jewish life and our adventures at the 2014 session of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jews have always been a people on the move. The word Ivri, Hebrew for a Hebrew person, comes from the word to cross, because the very first words uttered by God to the first Jews, Abraham were “Go forth.” And so migration is the starting point for our exploration of Jewish communities around the world. India, Yemen, Uganda, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bazil and Mexico each of these countries has a unique Jewish experience that adds texture and complexity to the collective Jewish experience. For modern Jewish kids, who have friends of all ethnicities and live in a connected world where travel and news make the distances seem small, the international nature of Jewish life is something they relate to.
Talking will only take them so far, so once we set up the framework, we began exploring the music, food, dance and culture of different Jewish communities. The taste of homemade hummus brings to mind the falafel stands of Jerusalem, while the quickly fried chapatti calls forth the tastes of Jewish life in Uganda. The fine metal work of our curiously small menorahs opens up the craftsmanship of Yemenite Jews. The modern Ladino music of Sarah Aroeste reminds us of the value of the many Jewish languages that have been spoken through the years. Making mosaics helps us piece together the complex culture that was Jewish life in the Golden Era of Spain. An exploration of Italian Jewish history brings to life not only the words on the page of Talmud but they way the debates got laid out on the page. Our global activities and crafts help bridge the divide between past and present and across geography. Encountering the other we learn to appreciate the diversity of our community even as we explore points of connection. This is the basis for camp and for the global Jewish curriculum we are developing at Be’chol Lashon.
And after we ran through the timeline of Jewish history from the ancient past to the present, all the campers, counselors and specialists added their own important dates to the chart on the wall. Because ultimately that is what it is all about, writing ourselves into the ongoing history of a storied people. That and of course a swim at the lake!
As summer approaches and we gear up for another terrific session of Camp Be’chol Lashon, I keep thinking about all the kids who—regardless of the camp they are heading to— are worried they might not feel like they “belong.” I relate.My own commitment to Jewish camping comes in part from my childhood experience where I was usually the only Black camper at a variety of Jewish camps. As a camp director, I am committed to making sure that all those in my charge feel connected. And recently, I got a real life reminder of just how important reaching out and connecting can be.
This winter I was honored to attend the Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Attending “Leaders” opened my eyes to the vast world of Jewish camping, meeting and greeting numerous Jewish camp professionals invested in the varying interests and needs of our Jewish youth.
As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.
After our welcome dinner and schmooze time, like many of the participants I headed toward the hotel watering hole for some group reminiscing. Being new, after a round of small talk, I found myself with a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks playing a game of ‘one-on-none’ at the pool table behind the bar.
A gentleman whom I recognized from dinner approached the table.
He had spoken to the entire group in attendance regarding “Leaders,” touching on the overarching theme of the conference; one field, moving forward. He spoke about his previous work with Campbell Soups and how transitioning to the Jewish camp community allowed him to invest in a community that provided so much, not only to him but also to his loved ones. I had shed my name tag but he approached me and with familiarity said “Kenny, it’s great to have you out here from the West Coast. I get your monthly newsletter and enjoy reading it from top to bottom. I love the work you and your organization and camp are doing collectively.” He hung back and played with me for a bit before heading out. As I placed my empty glass on the counter, as newcomers I got the feeling that we shared a sense of being on the outside. Maybe not, but by coming over he had made me feel so welcome.
I finished my second round of libations and billiards on the solo and made my way to my sleeping quarters. I soon realized I forgot to pay for my drink, and to remove any potential stigma of the Jew of color not covering his bill, I headed back only to find that my tab was covered. I suspected my new friend had something to do with this and went to find him in the program.
It turned out that the same gentlemen who went out of his way to check in and give kudos for the work I do is none other than Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. He is one of the greater movers and shakers in the field of Jewish camping.
The following morning at breakfast I sat with one of my former campers who now directs Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, California. As Zach and I sat among a few familiar faces, I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder followed by “’Morning Ken, it was great talking with you last night!” from Jeremy as he headed to his table up front. Zach’s look of bewilderment, as he questioned how on earth the Foundation for Jewish Camping CEO and I were on a first name basis so quickly, if at all made me realize that now I was an insider. Even though they say it’s lonely at the top, one could argue the same on the side or down through to the bottom
Experiences like this remind me that in today’s Jewish community we each have a responsibility to advocate for one another, take interest in happenings beyond our initial scope, and welcome the idea of making new connections. Diversity and inclusion was more than a topic of conversation or presentation. It is at the heart of what we build as programmers, lay-leaders, directors, staff and campers. We build life-long memories and experiences, where each member leaves camp eager to return the following year and often with companions eager to engage and become members too.
Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!
For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.
My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.
However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.
Israeli Maor Sanbata came to the United States this past summer to be a counselor at Camp Be’chol Lashon. Born in Ethiopia, his personal experience opens a new perspective on what it means to be Jewish.
Tell us a little about your childhood.
I was born in a small village in Ethiopia called Amder close to the provincial capital city of Gondar. Even though I was young, I worked as a shepherd. My family lived as Jews, observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays, and reading Torah.
My grandfather was a Holy Man, a Kes. He had a special way of talking to God. He could make miracles. I saw them with my own eyes. In our village the houses are built one next to each other in a line. And there is a fire for cooking in each house. Once, a young wild girl started a fire in her hut. There was no fire department and if it had spread it would have burned down the whole row of houses. My grandfather bowed down to God and prayed the fire would not spread. And it did not. Not to any other building. So strong was his connection to God.
How did you come to Israel?
I specifically remember the longing to go to Israel. I will never forget the stories my mother would tell me of a Holy Land flowing with milk and honey, and praying to go to Jerusalem one day. In 1991, my mother and father and three of my sisters and three of my brothers walked for a full month from Gondar to Addis Ababa. From there, we came to Israel.
When I came to Israel, I did not know one word of Hebrew. I had never been to school. Never. I did not know how to read or write. They sent me to school and for three years I did not understand anything. Anything. But I’m smart and hard-working. I became a commander in the Israel Defense Forces. After my release from the army, I decided that only through education could I play a key role in Israeli society. I studied law and now advocate for Ethiopians in Israel.
Why did you come to Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Despite academic achievement and integration, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my country and some of the Israeli public doubts my Judaism. I work towards a time when not a single person will be judged because of his or her skin color or outlook on life and that all human beings are treated equally before God that created us all.
I identify with the ideology of the camp, to accept who you are and where you are from and no matter what kind of family you come from – black, white purple – be proud of who you are and your identity. I connect with this approach. This is my approach.
What surprised you about coming to the United States and Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Well it is my first time in America so everything is surprising. It is also surprising that there is an organization like this, that wants to create unity between people but not be embarrassed of who you are.
What do you think that the campers learned from you?
Israel is a country for Jews of all colors. They also learned about my story and successes and struggles. It is not always easy to be Black, Ethiopian, Jewish or Israeli. Also they learned that wherever you are there are the same issues of acceptance.
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