“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.” – The Kotzker Rebbe
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), was a Hasidic Rebbe who was known for his caustic character and sharp wit. As the story goes he once asked his disciples, “Why don’t we do sins?” Knowing their teacher they should have known that this was a Klutz Kashe, a foolish question, to which they were never going to get the right answer. The students replied, “God does not want us to do sins,” “It is prohibited by the Torah”, and “The Rabbis do not want us to do sins.” The Rebbe snapped and summarily rejected each answer. Finally the Rebbe said, “We do not do sins because it is a waste of time. Rather, we should be using our time to do mitzvot- good deeds.”
Recently there has been flurry of writing on the “Body Talk” guidelines at Eden Village Camp. Many of the articles (including The New York Times, Slate, Kveller, The Forward) and just about all of the responding comments and blog posts explore the merits and risks of these guidelines, a warranted discussion for any parent. It should be noted, however, that the articles failed to mention that the camp does promote healthy body-awareness through sports, music, arts, nutrition education, and integrated conversations about body image, social pressures, and self-esteem. According to Eden Village Camp’s “Body Talk” guidelines,”the temporary respite from all the body commentary, together with… sessions and informal conversations on body image, allow for important sharing and insight about how one feels about one’s own body or the pressure one might feel to look a certain way, and where those messages come from, and tools for going home and being a lighthouse in a world that’s usually really different from camp.” The absence of this crucial nuance from this discussion has resulted in a conversation that has spiraled from valuable to hypothetical and misinformed.
It seems that we have fallen into the trap of the Kotzker’s Hassidim. Have we missed the point? Have we gotten lost in the merit or risks of “Body Talk” instead of focusing on having conversations that matter? What are the conversations that we want to be having?
In Jewish thought, we do not treat speech lightly. Words change lives. In Judaism, words are the very media of the creation of the world. There are so many examples that this world is broken. Each of us needs to do our part in fixing the world. What good conversations are you a part of that will lead to actions that will help fix the world? For thousands of years the discourse of Jewish life has been and needs to continue to be about making the world a better place. We need to demand of our girls, our boys, and ourselves to focus on having important conversations. It is not a question of morality; it’s a question of how we use our time.
How could I try to hide in plain sight? Well if I was well camouflaged I might use any combination of materials, coloration or illumination for concealment. In the wild I might do this by making myself hard to see in my environment or by disguising myself as something else. In terms of education I might do a great job by simply not announcing what I am doing as educational. I was thinking about this during a recent conference for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Thanks to generous support of the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations with contributions from The Marcus Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter brought together representatives from 27 camps to have their staff explore how they might animate Israel in their camps for their campers.
It was in this context that one of the fellows remarked, “I used to think that there are Jewish camps that taught about Judaism and other camps that were fun. Our camp is a fun camp. And now I get it. You are asking us to make learning about Israel fun.” All of these mostly college aged fellows came together with many Israeli counterparts to enhance the Israel educational programming at their camps. The goal is to get them serious content through activities and materials in a way that they can customize to fit naturally in their camp environment. I am confident that fellows get it. Israel education can happen with rich content and subtle complexity, but at camp it needs to be camouflaged as fun.
Camouflaged education might be the essence of Shavuot, which begins tonight. The premise of our getting the Torah was our promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. We received the Torah at Sinai because we said, “na’aseh v’nishma- We will do and we will hear/understand.” (Exodus 24:7) If we needed to study it in a formal setting first we might never have committed ourselves to the venture. There is a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric out there today, especially on our college campuses, and it gives me peace of mind to know that we can create a utopia of Jewish camp in which Israel education can hide in plain sight.
Tomorrow on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Arik Einstein z”l. Einstein, who passed away at the end of 2013, was from Israel’s “Greatest Generation” that built the country. His 1971 classic song Ani Ve’ata became the anthem of optimism for a young nation. I do not recall ever learning the song for the first time, but I am sure it was at camp. It is strange how knowing something by heart means that you hardly ever give it any thought. Inspired by his passing, I decided to take a closer look at this song.
What did Einstein mean when he wrote “You and I, we will change the world”? Why does he need someone else to help him make change in the world? It is popularly understood that we need large groups of people to make change in the world. About this conception the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In terms of bringing about change, quality is more important than quantity, but we always benefit from partnership and support. In the wake of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut we take pause to think about the founders of the state. That small group of people jumped in where others had just talked about it and made the modern miracle of the rebirth of a State of Israel a reality. The sacrifices were serious, but it is noteworthy that none of them did it by themselves.
It was at summer camp where I first formed my connection to the Israel. It was also there that I forged a relationship with a small group of people that thought “You and I, we will change the world.” Maybe a meaningful thing to do on Yom Ha’atzmaut would be to reconnect with your bunk age group. It might be time for a check in to see where we can support each other in making the world a better place.
We come together for Passover to celebrate our ongoing liberation from slavery. During the seder we will speak at length about the exodus from Egypt, but how did we, the descendants of Jacob, get there? Before we ask how did we end up as slaves we need to ask how did we end up in Egypt?
This story starts with Joseph and his brothers. Annoyed by his being different, they sell him into slavery. Through a turn of events Joseph ends up in a position of power in Egypt. Forced by the famine in the land of Canaan, his brothers unwittingly come before Joseph seeking sustenance. Sitting before them, he is faced with a choice as to whether or not he will keep his identity closeted. The text reads:
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone in Egypt finds out about his identity. Through Joseph’s coming-out they were all witness to the unfolding of God’s plan. What started off as a family tragedy was transformed into a divine national comedy.
In modern times we can hear resonance of the Passover cry for justice in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). I believe that we can hear a corollary to this in the sound of Joseph’s tears. There is an inextricable connection between personal and national revelation. While Moses led us out of Egypt we were not truly free until we experienced God’s revelation at Sinai. Joseph’s personal revelation to his brothers was a precursor to God’s coming out to the nation at Sinai. While we need to seek justice for everyone, we should rise to the challenge of realizing that we will not understand the collective revelation until we are all free to express all of who we are as individuals.
A few months ago I went to a benefit hosted by Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the camp at which I grew up. There were some people there who I had not seen for 20 years. Stepping into that room it was as if we were all back at camp. One hug later it was as if no time had passed. We were family. For a moment there I had a sense of what Joseph and his brothers must have felt so many years ago. Camp avails us of the opportunity to expand our idea of family. There in the presence of our camp family we can give voice to hidden parts of ourselves. There we can start to articulate what we aspire to become in our lives. How can we provide our children with that safe place to reveal all of who they are and who they might become?
At your seder, as the Jewish world sits as equals sharing food, I hope that more of us find safe space to share ourselves with the collective. May you have a very revealing and meaningful Passover.
Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education? In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?
So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.
It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.
The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.
I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.
On their surfaces, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a few banding together to beat the elements, and the power of having faith in community. We camp folk know that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. When they recaptured the Temple they found one small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. The third miracle of Hanukkah is that the story of the second miracle of the oil overshadows the first miracle of a civil war.
Now we turn our attention to Thanksgiving. It is a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year. This is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached Plymouth Rock.
But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There we read:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.
Like the third miracle of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrims, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the recreation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers.
We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its true origins. Camp in its essence is a self-made community built on rituals, traditions, and history that is created by its members and need not be based solely on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real. I hope you have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.
He was bubbling over with excitement. He had heard so much about this place. This was his first time away from home. And somehow he knew that his life was going to be different after coming here. While he knew that he was going to miss his family, he was excited to make new friends, and yes he was excited to possibly meet a special someone. As they arrived he could not stay in his seat.
I am sure that this story rings true for you if you remember going to camp for the first time. All of the excitement, all of those expectations of what that summer has in store. As the bus lurched forward you felt yourself opening up to the people on the bus. You were hardly able to sit in your seat as the bus pulled off the main road and you saw that first sign for your camp. You had never been there before, but as you pulled in you knew that you were home.
While this is my story of going to camp for the first time, this definitely echoes what I heard from my eldest son after his first summer at camp, or at least what I got out of him. Similarly, the story of Rebecca that we read in last week’s Torah portion says:
Then Rebecca and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. Now Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell off the camel. (Genesis 24:61- 64)
Rebecca was that first happy camper coming “home.” She fell in love at first sight. Just as I fell in love as a camper. It was not with a person – those crushes and relationships came and went. It was not with that place, even though it will endure in my memory as a place filled with kiddusha, holiness. I fell in love with who I was at camp.
Many years ago my camp supervisor mailed me the following story:
Once there was a Rebbe who had a Yeshiva. His son studied in the Yeshiva. One day the son took off the afternoon to go walking in the forest. The father said nothing. But over time the son took to taking off every afternoon to walk in the forest. At this point the father realized that he needed to confront his son. The Rebbe said to his son, “I hear that you are walking in the forest every afternoon. Why are you doing this?” The son replied that he was looking for God. The Rebbe was puzzled and asked, “Did I not teach you that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Abba, I know that God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”
When and where in my life was I more open to being all of whom I aspired to become? It was when I got off that bus for the first time, and it was at camp.
While I love the place and I love that time in my life, I realize that I owe a lot to my counselors. More than what I saw in them as role models, it was what my role models saw in me when I tumbled off that bus. They shared with me a glimpse of the person that I am still working on becoming. And that is why I fell in love with camp.
This past Sunday I convinced my sons to join me out back to put up our Sukkah, ritual dwelling for Sukkot, arguing that it was just a really big Lego set. They were happy to build and play until we got to the s’chach, the cut organic material used as the roof of the sukkah. The boys just did not understand it. The s’chach, as compared to all of the other Lego pieces, did not click or tie into place. So I went on to explain that while it needs to be porous enough so that we can see the stars, minimally the s’chach must be thick enough so that it provides more shade then sun light in the Sukkah. Of course they asked why?
Just five days after the solemn day of Yom Kippur, we are off to one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, is commonly referred to in our liturgy and literature as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. I began thinking and questioning the so-called happiness of Sukkot. Traditionally on this holiday we read the book of Kohelet. The author of this book retells his investigation of the meaning of life and the best way to live your life. Kohelet proclaims all the actions of humanity to be inherently fleeting, futile, empty, meaningless, temporary, and done in vain. This sentiment is well-said in the most quoted line from Kohelet which reads:
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet 1:9)
Learning that life is senseless seems like a real downer for a holiday of happiness. This juxtaposition is only highlighted in that we read this just after Yom Kippur, a day during which we appealed that mercy would win out over justice. If Kohelet is correct, we will never be able to change. Despite our best efforts to repent and atone, we are stuck and should be judged in light of the fact that will never be able to renew ourselves.
Then it all came together for me.
Kohelet is right; nothing is new under the sun. The difference is that just after Yom Kippur we escape the sun under the shade of the Sukkah. There we find shelter from the harsh judgment of the world. If we spend a serious amount of time practicing being the people we aspire to be, we might be able to achieve it throughout the rest of the year. We see a similar dynamic in the shelter of summer camp. There we are able to immerse ourselves in an Eden of our own design. Is there any greater joy then the promise of a better future?
A couple of years ago I was walking to synagogue with my two boys on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and I wanted to engage them in a discussion about the holiday. At the time Yadid was seven and Yishama was five. To get the ball rolling I simply said, “Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin. So besides celebrating a new year, it is also the time when we reflect on how we might want to improve ourselves in the coming year.” At this point I felt a huge urge to just tell the boys how I wanted them to improve. I know that I am not alone. I want my children to be the best they can be so if I love my children so much, how could I stay silent and not tell them how to improve? It seems so clear to me what they need to change to be the mensches I so desperately what them to become, so of course I should just give them a list, right? I decided that instead of going in that direction, I would shift the conversation and said, “So since today is the day we work on our improving ourselves, let’s start. Tell me what you think I need to be working on to be a better abba (father).”
Wow, what a difference! Not only did they give me amazing feedback that I use until this day, but without any additional prompting they started giving each other feedback. What a blessing to be part of this conversation. Holding back my own voice at this moment created room for us all to grow and improve. I know that this internal voice of the overbearing parent is coming from a good place, but I also know that it does not always get the desired results. So, where did I learn this?
Upon reflection, I realized that I learned this technique as a junior counselor at Jewish overnight camp. It was there in the context of managing a bunk of children that I learned how to create an ideal learning environment. It was there that I learned how I might get more bees with honey then vinegar (another important message for Rosh Hashanah). I also learned the important difference between being authoritarian and authoritative. Seeding power actually creates space for other voices. So years later as a father I knew that suspending my own need to share my love created space for us all to share our love with each other. I cannot say I got it right that year as a JC, but I deeply appreciate the space of camp and what it taught me. Someone else who was more experienced could have done it better, but in the spirit of Jewish camp, they got out of the way to make room for an 18-year-old to find his voice. I in turn learned how to make room for my campers and eventually my own children. Jewish camp is magical. Yesterday’s campers are today’s counselors and tomorrow’s parents. If it was not for camp I am not sure I would have been blessed with the loving, powerful, and thoughtful critique from a five-year old. Jewish camp has cultivated in me the desire, skills, and confidence to be a more accessible and loving parent.
Shanah Tova -May we all be blessed to make more space for more loving voices this year.
It is interesting that as we are in the final countdown to Shavuot we start the reading the Book of Numbers. In Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar, the wilderness. With Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, what is the significance of our “entering the wilderness?”
In the Midrash we learn, “There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). This Midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). Shavuot coming means that the end of school is close at hand. And with the end of school, the camp season is around the corner. This Midrash seems to be lived out at Jewish camp.
Camp is an amazing place where our children will make s’mores and memories by a camp fire (the fire), take the deep water test (the water), and go on a physically challenging hike (in the wilderness). Jewish camp is amazing on another level though. There, our children will be led by extraordinary role models who will ignite our children’s passion (the fire). There they will be part of building their own immersive purpose-driven Jewish community (the water). And there, we hope their experience will set them on their life journey to have a community of people to travel with along life’s path (the wilderness). As we are getting ready for Bamidbar and Shavuot I hope we are all also getting ready for camp, they are all profoundly revealing and edifying.
Chag Shavuot Sameakh – have a great holiday and enjoy packing for camp!