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.
Let’s be clear. I can make any conversation into a conversation about art. Especially when it comes to the Torah and art at camp. Parah Adumah? Let’s talk about the color red! Miriam leading the people in celebration? Kikar dancing! Moses with two tablets? Sculpture! But really, those are stretches. That’s what makes Vayakhel-Pekudei so exciting for me. It’s not just easy to make a connection between the story and “art,” it’s explicit.
We read about the nomination of Betzalel and Oholiav to design the Mishkan and lead it’s construction. And the Torah goes into great detail about the materials used (acacia wood, dolphin skin, crimson wool, etc.). So here I could talk about the different materials our campers get to create with in the art room and the wood shop: clay, mojpoj, paint, pine wood, woodstains, etc. And the Torah talks about the skill of the lead designers, how their talents are divinely inspired. Here I could talk about kavanah, and how every piece of art made at camp, from a 11 year old camper’s painting to a 16 year old camper’s original song, is done with Jewish content in mind, with a sense of Jewish intention behind the art. And of course, the Torah talks about portability – this is not going to be a permanent fixed structure. That is an easy bridge to the art work at camp being ephemeral, meaningful in the moment as a memory, and then lost to a blank canvas, which resets for the next session, the next summer, the next camper with an idea for expression.
But those things are not what makes this parsha so clearly about art at camp. In Chapter 36, Verses 1-7, we see that Bezalel and Oholiav were overwhelmed by the amount of things Israelites brought to contribute to the project. People brought their gold, their wood, their fabrics. They all wanted to be a part of what was happening, they all wanted ownership. And THAT is what Jewish summer camp’s philosophy of artistic creation is really all about. You go see group of campers perform Beauty and the Beast, and you’ll notice: the younger campers standing up with grey cardboard ovals on their heads, performing as ‘spoons’ in “Be Our Guest”; a 14 year old camper on violin, a special needs camper on drums, and a member of Sports staff playing the saxophone in the orchestra; the oldest campers running the tech booth. The list goes on and on. At Jewish summer camp, like our Israelite ancestors before us, we take communal ownership of our art. To me, this way of creating art is what I’ve always known from camp, it feels natural. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Torah tells us it’s genetic.
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.
Discussions such as the chatter above were floating around the Davis Academy Middle School before experiential Tefillah last Monday morning. Tefillahpolooza featured the prayerful stylings of 13 different teachers. It included teachers both Jewish and non-Jewish, academic and dramatic, texty and crafty. There was something for every multiple intelligence: songwriting, sports, movies, drumming, dramatics, photography, meditation, Torah and gratitude were all covered.
So how did this come to be? As the Nadiv Educator at the Davis Academy, I’m part of a dynamic Judaic Studies team. We work together and spend plenty of time pondering and discussing (as, of course, is tradition) how to make Tefillah engaging for our students. Tefillahpolooza was piloted – and enjoyed – last year, so this year, we turned it up to 13, so to speak. Thirteen teachers were lined up to do something instead of last year’s seven. We tapped teachers from many different departments and three administrators took time to facilitate sessions. It was all in at the Davis Academy, and the options were delicious:
- Banging on Things (Drumming & Spirituality)
- Judaism is Texty (Literature, Movies & Religion)
- Our hiSTORY (Storytelling & Judaism)
- Spirits Soar & Spirits Roar (Slam Poetry & God)
- Make Note, Give Notes (Gratitude & Attitude)
- A Day in the Post-Life (Chaye Sarah Parsha Discussion)
- Get Up, Stand Up (Active Amidah)
- #PhotoTefillah (Photography & Prayer)
- Meditation Service (Spirituality & Prayer)
- Crafty Judaism (Arts & Judaism)
- Ein Kleine Prayermusik (Music and Prayer)
- What are the #miracles in your life that you are most #thankful 4? (Daily Miracles)
- Sporty Spirituality (Athletics & Spirituality)
What was the result?
For me, it meant sharing some activities I’ve done at camp or the Foundation for Jewish Camp‘s Cornerstone Fellowship (that’s Chana Rothman’s “Banging on Things” and Jon Adam Ross’s “Get Up Stand Up” in the lineup) with colleagues as they developed their own lessons. It meant talking about religion and spirituality with a number of teacher from different faith backgrounds. It meant being consistently wowed by and grateful for the thoughtful colleagues I work with at school.
It means trying to figure out how to expand the service choices given at camp in order to mimic the small-group magic of 20+ kids learning to meditate while sitting on the floor.
It means that gratitude for daily miracles were blowing up on Twitter while a Torah timeline was being sketched in a Language Arts classroom. It meant, for one student, it meant that God was HERE, and he taped that very word to the front of his shirt to prove the point.
It meant, as another student wrote, that s/he “thinks that prayer is a way of communication and kehillah (community).”
It meant that we were formed thusly, for 40 minutes, with 13 choices, over 200 students and teachers, many ways to communicate…and that we were one whole community.
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.
In addition to beginning to plan for the upcoming 2014 camping season, Gilad and I find ourselves also busy preparing to become new parents in approximately three months. We recently started Jewish Baby University (JBU) classes through the JCC, which are not only helping us gain important knowledge about items related to delivery and infant care but perhaps more importantly, giving us an opportunity to discuss how we want to create and maintain a Jewish home.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, a community leader, Ranch Camp parent, and JBU instructor, led a session for the group that Gilad and I found to be very interesting and I want to share it with you here. In the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)*, there is a list of things that parents are obligated to do for their child after birth. Interestingly enough, basic necessities such as providing food, shelter, care, and love for a child are absent from the list. Perhaps the Talmudists felt that these were items likely not to be neglected by parents and therefore unnecessary to mention. Instead, “spiritual care” items are listed related to the obligation to provide a child with knowledge about values, morals, and a sense of shared history or collective memory (Torah). This is interesting in and of itself but then, there is something completely unexpected and even more interesting – included at the end of the list is the obligation to teach your child how to swim! Fascinating.
At first glance, teaching your child how to swim might seem very out of place. However, upon further reflection, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. Certainly, there is great value in literally teaching a child how to swim after all, humans have lived next to bodies of water for tens of thousands of years and certainly this is a matter of basic survival. However, I think the rabbis had a larger intent in mind when writing this. After all, learning how to stay afloat in inhabitable, dangerous, and/or difficult conditions is what life is all about really. And the teaching does not say, “hold your child afloat when swimming” or “make sure your child wears a flotation device at all times when in water,” no, it indicates that we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. And I think this principle is perhaps the essential function of effective parenting.
Gilad and I were really taken by this concept. I think it resonates so strongly with us because of what we feel camp provides to children each summer. There are so many “hard skills” that campers learn every day at camp such as swimming, archery, horseback riding, and mountain biking that will help them to survive, thrive, and be healthy, active adults. But within each activity and social interaction at camp, we are able to impart “soft skills” such as confidence, resilience, and cooperation that gives them a secondary set of competencies that are invaluable in leading a successful and independent life. As parents, I think this is what we all ultimately desire for our children and together, through skills we teach at home and in places like camp, we can successfully fulfill our obligation to teach our children how to swim.
*Kiddushin 29a: A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.
The other night we had our traditional second night game of Capture the Degel (flag), which pits adom (red) against kachol (blue). All the campers run back to their cabins after dinner to dress in their team colors and mentally prepare for the game at hand. Then everyone gathers at the designated “Center Line” to rally their team and begin to play. Capture the Degel is definitely a camper favorite and is an activity that is greatly anticipated and looked forward to by all. Perhaps it’s the sense of competition, or the ability to roam around camp with a sense of freedom but also with purpose, or maybe its that the game arouses a deep-seeded sense of tribalism within our human psyche. Whatever it is about this game that makes it so beloved, a camp session would not be complete without it.
Although it might not appear so at first glance, Capture the Degel is a great teaching-learning opportunity within our camp environment. To begin with, the game is all about teamwork. Even though it seems like it is each man for himself out there in the field, you are not striving for personal glory but rather for team honor. There is a common goal (to find and capture the other team’s degel) but each person must do their part, and sometimes make personal sacrifices, in order to achieve the ultimate goal at hand. This game also reinforces our summer theme of kehillah (community). As opposed to most of the activities that we do at camp during a session, Capture the Degel divides the camp into two teams and this means that campers of all ages, banim (boys) and banot (girls), get mixed together and have a chance to interact. It is really neat to see our youngest campers side-by-side with our oldest campers and witness how they support and encourage one another during the game. Smaller campers are often faster and more stealthy than their older camper peers, while older and more experienced campers can offer strength, stamina, and strategy. In this way, everyone has a sense of value and worth and each individual is a commodity to their team.
Last Shabbat we read the portion Va-etchanan, where we read the Shema and Ten Commandments. It’s an incredibly important parasha that has informed the fundamental principles of modern human society. It speaks to the oneness of G-d, of each individual who was made in G-d’s image, and outlines how we should treat one another. Activities that we do at camp, like Capture the Degel, give children a hands-on opportunity to live and experience these principles first hand, making them stronger as individuals and making us a tighter kehillah.
Miriam and Gilad
Shavuot is a holiday often easily overlooked- many of us may not even realize that it has already passed! Shavuot commonly falls after the Hebrew School year has ended, and many of us associate it only with Confirmation ceremonies. In the most basic sense, Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates God giving the Torah to the Israelites. However, Shavuot is also ripe (pun intended) with significance for today on many other levels.
After the Land of Israel was conquered and divided, the nations of Israel established an agricultural society. In order to show gratitude to God, they were commanded to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as a sacrifice on Shavuot. Each family brought a basket of the seven species described in the Torah: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. In fact, one of the many names for Shavuot is hag ha bikkurim, The Festival of the First Fruits.
As the weather gets warmer and camp gets closer, farmers markets will likely start to pop up in your community. Depending on where in the country you live, the first fruits of your local harvest will be different. However, as a general rule, asparagus, strawberries, lettuces and peas are commonly among the first things to pop out of the soil in most of the Northeast. Consider using the concept of the first fruits of the festival of Shavuot as an inspiration for your own first fruits celebration. Make a trip to the farmers market with your kids before camp and plan a menu based on the first fruits you find in the market. Speak with one another about the benefits of local produce (hint: it’s fresher, more nutritious and better for the environment) and talk about how we can connect to our local agriculture just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago.
Here’s one recipe to get you started, but don’t feel limited- let the market speak to you and enjoy the kitchen creations that result!
Whole Wheat Linguini with Mint Pesto and 3 types of peas
1 lb whole wheat linguini
1 cup snow peas
1 cup sugar snap peas
½ cup frozen peas
¾ cup packed fresh mint leaves
¾ cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove
2 ½ tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup roasted unsalted pistachios
¼ cup shredded Parmesan
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- Fill a large pot ¾ of the way with heavily salted water and bring to a boil. Cook linguini according to package directions
- While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking, take the ends off the sugar snap peas and snow peas and cut them in half
- Chop the mint, basil, and garlic in food processor until finely chopped
- Add the pistachios and pulse until they are well chopped, but not powdery
- Slowly stream in the olive oil
- Set aside in a small bowl and mix in the Parmesan by hand
- 2 minutes before the pasta is done add the snow peas, sugar snap peas, and frozen peas
- Drain the pasta, reserving 3 tablespoons of the cooking water
- Combine the herb mixture with the cooked pasta and peas and reserved pasta water. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately
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!
According to Jewish Law it’s the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this custom serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva, Tanna of the middle of the 2nd century, who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b)
It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect.” Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4). It would be surprising that even just one student of this great Tanna did not learn such a basic lesson. So what is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?
It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. When his students first met his wife he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to her. But here is the issue: while living apart from his wife for all of those years, Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them?
On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should we treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect, we need to model it.
It is in light of this that we see the real power of Jewish camp as an educational institution. As the adage goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” In school we are told a lot of things, but in camp the staff members model the most important lessons. And on the highest level we are all asked to get involved in creating the community.