“Always thinking, you. Always thinking.”
A friend in graduate school mockingly accused one overachieving friend by telling her she was “always thinking.” Because she was “always thinking,” she came up with creative ideas and solutions to the most mundane and epic of problems.
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to join my half-time colleagues from the Union for Reform Judaism at URJ Biennial in San Diego, while representing both halves of my job – URJ Camp Coleman and The Davis Academy, a Reform Jewish day school.
Decked out in professional garb (so professional that someone who’d met me last summer didn’t recognize me until I fully identified myself and said, “I know it’s hard to recognize me, as I am usually covered in dirt.”) and armed with an open mind, I stepped into the convention center with wide eyes.
Not raised in the movement, I found it was just like when I first started my job as a Nadiv Educator with the URJ. I was once again being plunged into “Reform Boot Camp.” I found myself “always thinking” thinking like I think at camp. Thinking like I think at school. I was thinking about camp, about school, about partnerships, about old friends and new, about my life before moving to the URJ, and the challenges that continue present themselves in all of our lives. I ran into, met with, and learned from inspirational teachers and role models. I took great pictures and hugged long-lost friends from all over North America. I learned from people who I sought out as role models, and acquired new teachers and friends. Neshama Carlebach wrote about her aliyah to Reform Judaism at Biennial. I’ve been bouncing around in the world Reform Judaism since I started my job. There’s much to learn, and you have to constantly be processing the experience. It’s intellectual. It’s fascinating. And, there’s room for everyone.
So, I was “always thinking” about my big question: What’s going to come back to Georgia with me? There’s the stack of cards from the iCenter for Israel programming. The dance-it-out Shema. The slamming of poetry. The concept of audacious hospitality. The inspiration of every person’s voice in a service attended by 5000 people.
The day after Biennial, I was back at Davis, and meeting with the 3rd graders for Tefillah.
What’s the biggest service you’ve been to?
Was it Yom Kippur? Rosh Hashanah? A bar or bat mitzvah?
I went to services with FIVE thousand people.
Five thousand people.
Five thousand voices.
Every voice matters – your voice matters.
I hope, if nothing else, that I never stop thinking, that WE never stop thinking, and that the Coleman and Davis campers that I teach, directly or indirectly, are always thinking. Always thinking about who and why they are. And always thinking that every voice matters.
As winter sets in, you probably don’t feel like making as many trips to the grocery store and are getting sick of the question, “What’s for dinner?” Just like you will be packing your camper’s bags in only 6 short months in the hopes that they will be prepared for what is to come, you should be packing your kitchen for the winter and preparing yourself for the meals, snacks and holidays to come by stocking your pantry.
My friends and family often laugh when they look at my pantry. “There’s nothing to eat!” they inevitably exclaim. Other than pretzels, cereal and some nuts, they’re right — I don’t generally keep a lot of ready-to-eat food around. Even my fridge and freezer are packed with raw ingredients rather than bags and packages of snacks and meals. This isn’t just because I love to cook. Having a pantry stocked with raw ingredients and not pre-made foods can not only save money, but can also help you eat healthier by cutting out on preservatives and calories. See the “recipe” for a healthy pantry below and make sure to check back in the next few months for a new 3-part recipe series on recipes straight from the pantry!
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat pasta
- Other favorite whole grains
- Wild rice pilaf
- Dried lentils
- Whole wheat bread
- Assortment of canned beans (black, chickpeas, kidney, white)
- Red wine vinegar
- Cider vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
- Other flavored vinegar
- Frozen spinach
- Frozen peas
- Frozen artichoke hearts
- Frozen mixed vegetables
- Assortment of canned tomatoes
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Frozen berries
- Bread crumbs
- Veggie burgers
- Assorted nuts
- All-natural peanut butter
- Boxed vegetable/chicken stock
- Low-fat milk
- Cheese for snacking
- Parmesan cheese
- Low-fat/fat-free Greek yogurt
- Other cheeses
- Chicken cutlets
- Lean ground beef
- Ground turkey
- Other lean beef cuts
- Shrimp/other seafood
- Fish fillets
- Soy sauce
- Hot sauce
- Reduced fat mayonnaise
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Cooking spray
- Dark sesame oil
- Bay leaves, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, cumin, ground coriander, oregano, paprika, rosemary, thyme leaves, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, etc.
Have you ever felt immediately welcomed in a new place? Well recently, Gilad came back from a recruiting trip to a congregation here in Colorado beaming from his experience. We had never been to this particular synagogue before and therefore, didn’t know what to expect or how we would be received. But as soon as Gilad arrived, he was immediately greeted by a point person for the synagogue who welcomed him and invited him to partake in a lunch they were having. There she introduced him to some of the congregants to help him build connections and then some of the children came out to help him bring his materials from the car into the building so that he could set up for his presentation. Gilad felt so embraced by everyone there, so welcomed and included. This spirit of hospitality extended into his presentation, where the children and adults were actively engaged by participating, asking questions, and showing enthusiasm for the information that he was giving.
It is so fun and warming to enter into new environments where this is the experience you have. And this is exactly the kind of environment that we try to build every day at camp, starting from the moment campers arrive.
A few years ago on the first day of Session 2, I remember stepping into our dining hall for the first lunch of the session. The chadar ochel (dining hall) was bustling with ruach (spirit); the air was full of chatter, cheering, and a sense of anticipation for the session ahead. And as I waited in line for my food, a first-time camper approached me and said, “Miriam, I have not even been here a whole day yet, and I already feel like this is my home.” This moment stands out to me as a highlight of my directorship of Ranch Camp because it optimizing our camp mission and what camp is all about really. Ranch Camp has been my home since I was 12 years old and it is always a tremendous thing for me to hear our campers and staff talk about camp in these terms.
We all need a place to belong and thrive. A place to connect, to love, and to be loved. I am so happy to discover new places that make me feel like this in my community, and even happier to provide a camping atmosphere that creates this for the youth that we serve each summer.
*The title of this blog was taken from an Arik Einstein song. Arik was an Israeli music icon who passed away suddenly a few weeks ago, sending the country into a state of mourning. You can listen to this song here.
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I am not quite sure when I first started to understand the notion of homosexuality. When Billie Jean King was forced to come out, I distinctly recall asking my parents about it and them telling me that she was “with another woman” and that woman was telling her secrets to the world. I remember having this strong reaction about how unfair it was for someone to tell another’s secrets. As I grew older, most of what I learned about LGBT issues was tied to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. And then, as time passed, it became less of a “thing” I knew about and more of a reality in my life. There was a cousin, who was gay, and died from AIDS. A friend from high school who came out and we all accepted. A close girlfriend from Jewish sleepaway camp who came to me struggling with coming out and wanted my acceptance. In the course of 25 years, there has been a transformation from when being gay was this abstract thing in my life to being just a way of life. I am pretty sure that the planet around me has grown with me in this area too. I mean: same-sex marriage 25 years ago? People would never have even understood why it was a civil rights situation.
I am a pretty liberal person, probably more liberal than most. So it is not a real shock that much of this is totally a “non-issue” for me. However, I am always shocked by how much I have to learn and how completely encompassed I am in my own little world. When that friend from sleepaway camp came out to me when I was 22, I was surprised. She wanted my approval so badly and I was not sure why. And I didn’t know how to explain that my surprise was just surprise, not disappointment or judgment. It took us a few weeks and then everything was back to normal between us. Today I am still friends with her as well as and her partner who she has been living very happily with for over ten years.
When I got my Masters in Social Work and Jewish Communal Service, there were plenty of LGBT people there and also plenty of people who thought this was wrong. I was shocked by the ignorance of those who thought this was a moral decision. I considered myself an advocate of anyone who needed me to speak up. That being said, I was still pretty separate from the LGBT world.
Then I had the chance to go to a Keshet training. WOW. I was one ignorant person. I was the only “straight” person and I was completely lost in the conversation a lot of the time. I needed to know what letters stood for what, that there were issues like why getting married was a political and financial choice as opposed to just some loving decision, why parenting was different when everything was showing your child that your family was not the “norm.” I was able to learn that people were struggling with such simple issues that I gave no thought to: what to tell their grandparents about their partner, when to come out to certain people, what companies were innately against the family they loved, how going to a public restroom was filled with angst for people who felt trapped in another body. All of this was just stuff I did … and took for granted.
I felt out of place. But I am a question-asker, and ask I did. It became apparent to me that being an ally of others required more than my mere acceptance. It required me to stand up, speak out, say something, look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
That was five years ago, and I now consider myself an advocate for LGBT issues. It has changed what I let people say in front of me and how I parent. It has let me know that there are people struggling with issues that are so deep and so involved for them that I cannot understand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and let them know that my world is a place where I will not only accept who they are but celebrate it. I will not allow people to be anything less than welcoming in my presence. I will cheer the camper who needs to figure out how to come out to the bunk and I will gladly explain to a parent about the transgender staff member we have working for us.
I am so proud that the LGBT community answered my questions and gave me a safe place to ask them. I am even prouder that as the counselors and other staff at our camp talk about these things, it is almost a “non-issue.” I learn so much from these 19- and 20-year-olds who just see this as the most normal part of life. Many of them have no idea who Billie Jean King is and they certainly can’t see why sharing someone’s secret would be on the news. They are infuriated by homophobia and champion marriage equality. They give my daughter a chance to see things from such a different perspective that she truly has no idea that there are people who think it is wrong for some people to be married or have children. As she grows, I am thrilled to share my anger and disbelief at those people’s stupidity with her.
I know that many people say they are accepting or tolerant, but I want more from all of us. I want celebration of differences. I want people to be comfortable to ask and answer questions about differences. I want to be a person who lives and works in a place where friends and strangers know that I am supportive of all people. I am working toward this each and every day. Don’t get me wrong: some days I mess up on a pronoun or I say something that is completely heterosexist. But as time passes, I can feel the difference happening and I am so lucky to be in such an accepting community like Camp JRF where I can ask and have questions answered, where I am made to feel comfortable even in my ignorance, and where I am celebrating people who love and care for each other and themselves.
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Last August, when my son, Jonah, returned from sleepaway camp with a sunburn, an array of nasty-looking mosquito bites, and a desire to water ski again (though this time for longer than a nanosecond), he also had a deepening connection to ritual. At camp, he’d taken to the morning flag-raising ceremonies, the campfire singalongs, as well as the Friday evening Shabbat dinners. I’m guessing that’s what inspired him to insist, this fall, on fasting on Yom Kippur; it was a carryover from his summer of Jewish education. His effort not to eat was, for a 14-year-old with an enormous appetite, remarkable: he made it until lunch.
But then Jonah, who was diagnosed with autism a little more than a decade ago, has always had an affinity for ritual. In fact, one of the early signs of his autism, for me at least, was his habit of lining up his toys single-file from one end of his bedroom to the other. He would have done this for hours if we let him. He could always tell, too, when I switched one toy’s place with another in the line. And, under no circumstances would he tolerate the chaos of double-file or a semi-circle. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was a lot less interested in engaging in imaginative play with his tiny trucks and alphabet blocks and stuffed animals than he was in giving them an orderly world in which to exist. Which is, come to think of it, the whole point of ritual.
A point, I confess, I’m missing these days. After all, this was the year I deliberately passed on the apple slices dipped in honey on offer at my mother-in-law’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. It was also the first year, since my Bar Mitzvah, that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. My reasons were simple and admittedly childish: I was angry with God. The reason for that was simple, too. My beloved sister died this past August after contracting a mysterious illness and suffering for an excruciating six weeks in the hospital (Jonah came home from camp the day of her funeral) and I was determined to blame God. Childish, like I said, but once my initial anger subsided I had no need to see the world as an orderly place. I’d experienced this kind of thing before, decades earlier, when my mother and father died within two years of each other. When my sister died, I discovered the instinct to be vindictive was – like riding a bicycle – impossible to forget.
But now, it’s Hanukkah and Jonah is all in for the holiday, for the gifts, the candle-lighting, the dreidel spinning and the latkes; and I am doing my best to play along. Still, Hanukkah may be a good way for me to get back on the ritual bandwagon. As Jewish holidays go, it’s innocuous and undemanding. The emphasis is mainly on fun; the mood mainly lighthearted. No great physical, emotional or intellectual demands are going to be made on me. I also can’t help remembering that my late sister loved Hanukkah. She made mouth-watering latkes and, along with my other sister, devoted herself to finding and meticulously wrapping eight special presents for Jonah. It was just one of the many small ways she demonstrated her love for her nephew and also her acceptance of him, which was, from the moment he was born as well as the moment we learned he had autism, absolute and unconditional. So, for the sake of my son and my sister, I’ll put my holiday boycott on hold. The truth is I’ll be doing it for my own sake, too. And while I recognize it’s a lot to ask of any ritual to make the world seem less random, less cruel, it’s probably not the worst place to start.