We find ourselves living at an interesting time on a couple of levels. Having just participated in two wonderful Seders with my family commemorating the Exodus from Egypt we are getting ready for the last days of Passover commemorating our salvation at the Red Sea. Having just been liberated from slavery, our ancestors found themselves witness to the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. One can only imagine the elation. In response to this, Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in the two songs sung at the sea. This has become the gold standard of expressing gratitude and religious freedom.
On this the Talmud Sanhedrin says:
The Holy One, blessed be God, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. For Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Yonatan’s name: What is meant by, “And one approached not the other all night”? (Exodus 14:20) In that hour [When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea ] the ministering angels wished to utter the song of praise before the Holy One, blessed be God, but God rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me! (Sanhedrin 39b)
The Egyptians slavers are finally getting their just due, yet God experienced no pleasure in the process. Why was the angels’ song censored, while the Israelites songs were not? A song of salvation is great, but rejoicing in someone else’s suffering is just wrong. Someone who truly cares for God’s honor would not rejoice when the wickedness of man gave God no choice but to blot it out. In the imagination of the Talmud from a divine perspective true freedom is only realized in a reconciliation process. It seems in light of their recent salvation the Israelite song might be explainable if not excusable. But the Talmud seems to pointing out that singing at this moment might be inappropriate.
Is the experience of happiness inherently contextual and only understood relative to others? What about our nature is so prone to take joy in others suffering as compared to our own happiness? While the freedom of religious expression is laudable and surely deserves praise and even song, why must it be coupled with reveling in the suffering of others let alone causing suffering?
It was my first Shabbat at a new camp – Camp Interlaken JCC – and I was still feeling out how this camp was going to be different from all other camps (a little Passover humor). Future (now current) Rabbi Benjy Bar-Lev started the cheering and chanting. Kids jumped out of their seats. They were bursting with excitement, as Benjy put it, for their VERY BEST FRIEND THE TORAH!
I sat grinning and wide-eyed, thinking to myself that this man is a genius!
Fast forward to a handful of years later. I’m standing in front of an outdoor amphitheater filled with hundreds of campers and staff, or wrangling a “gymagogue” filled with middle schoolers. I announce that it’s time for OUR VERY BEST FRIEND THE TORAH! I get some giggles, and most participants smile at my nickname of the holy scrolls.
I love the Torah. I love the stories, the scrolls, the craftsmanship, the history, and the magic! In my job, many Torah-related opportunities have presented themselves. I wanted to share a few vignettes about how OUR VERY BEST FRIEND THE TORAH has found its way into my #nadiviated life.
- Working to document, catalogue, update, and maintain the sacred scrolls that are in the care of URJ Camp Coleman.
- Embarking on a comprehensive cataloguing and updating of records with the Memorial Scrolls Trust Torahs that are in the care of NFTY-STR and URJ Camp Coleman, including an in-depth foray into the history of how the scrolls came to be in our care, spanning decades of Coleman & Southeastern liberal Jewish history.
- Helping to unroll the scrolls with the Davis Academy community on Simchat Torah, every year (always making sure to wear my Bible Belt & surgical gloves, as in the photo above).
- Checking every b’nai mitzvah student’s Torah reading in preparation for their school reading and ceremony, and preparing the scroll for their milestone ceremonies.
- Teaching Torah regularly, sometimes with the help of a simple prop:
- Student: Morah Sara Beth, is that your kefiyyah?
- Morah SB: Nope, it’s in the wash again. It’s a regular scarf, but I’m using it as a costume. Can you tell who I am today?
As we approach Pesach, I have been thinking about one of the names of this holiday – z’man heiruteinu – the time of our liberation. For our teenagers, what does it mean in these modern days to really feel and experience liberation? From what do our teens need or seek liberation? Where is Mitzrayim (Egypt) and where is the (possible) Promised Land(s) in their lives?
While, I would certainly not want to compare the lives of our teenagers to the hardships our ancestors endured in Mitzrayim. However, we might want to also think about the idea of Mitzrayim from its Hebrew root which refers to a narrow, confining place. It also refers to straits or distress. We know that the teenage years are challenging with difficult pressures from school, peers, family and society. Compounding these pressures are the physical, emotional and intellectual changes our teens experience. These pressures and changes can sometimes create feelings of being limited, trapped, shuttered and distressed – in a sense, being in a state of Mitzrayim.
Just as we experience Pesach each year, we know that the process of moving from Mitzrayim to liberation is a perpetual one – we always exist between those conditions and circumstances in our lives that confine and limit us and those forces and experiences which liberate us and allow us to live to our potential. The challenge is to continually see ourselves as if we went out of Mitzrayim and to do the hard work of actually participating in our own liberation.
Jewish summer camps like Tel Yehudah, an intentional community of Jewish teens, offer important possibilities of liberation for Jewish teens. There are reasons that so many Jewish teens from all different camps, are counting down the days until camp, and not all of those reasons have to do with being done with homework or the great food at camp. The following are some of the forces that our teens might feel liberation from this summer:
Liberation from the Market Place: Our teens are constantly bombarded with messages about what they need to buy, wear, look like, download, etc. Camp offers a break from the perpetual pressures of an economy and society driven by the need to always have the newest gadget or fashion. Besides buying a soda or ice cream at the canteen, our teens have an opportunity to put away their wallets, avoid television commercials and exist with the material items they brought with them. It is a time where our teens can be freed from the pressure of feeling that they need something new and can appreciate the community and natural environment in which they live at camp.
Passover is about so much more than just a seder, and with time off from work and school, we want to encourage everyone to make the most of the next eight days. Take some time to do some good- below we share eight mitzvot to add some extra meaning to this Passover!
1. Yesterday, April 2, was International Children’s Book Day! Ask your seder guests to bring any children’s books they are ready to retire to donate to a children’s hospital or other CBO’s in your neighborhood. Learn more about International Children’s Book Day here!
2. Learn more about the mitzvot of Shabbat here!
3. Recycle all of the bottles and cans left over from your seder and donate the money to the charity of your choice. You’ll not only be doing something great for the environment, but something great for others as well!
4. It’s spring cleaning time! Have everyone in your family pick one or two items from their closet to donate.
5. Talk to your family about how they incorporate tzedakah and mitzvot into their everyday lives, whether it’s donating a portion of their allowance or volunteering once a week at their local food bank. Check out this article for some inspiration!
6. Take some time to learn about the meaning and importance of saying sorry to loved ones. It’s a lesson that they will be able to take with them wherever they go!
7. In true camp fashion (see what we did there?), invite your friends and family over for a tie-dye party, and donate the clothes that you made to a local charity. You’ll be letting those in need look stylish and you’ll get to do a mitzvah!
8. Write a letter of support to an Israeli soldier. Show your solidarity and wish them a happy Pesach!
How many will you do this Passover?
Why do we eat Matzah on Passover? As we read in the Haggadah:
Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)
So when the time came for them to leave they did not delay, but that final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus. Moshe came and told the slaves of the plan to leave Egypt. It seems as though the Israelites were surprised by the exodus. Or is it that they doubted that it was possible? You would think that they would have prepared some provisions. Maybe some bagels for the trip- they travel quite well. Can you even imagine what our Passover brunch spread would have been like? But that is not the case. We are stuck eating Matzah.
It seems that Pharaoh was not alone in doubting that God would redeem the people from their bondage. While we call it the bread of affliction, the affliction in question seems to be procrastination. The slaves procrastinated in getting ready to leave the world they knew. We all can relate. On a mundane level we all run late and wait until the last-minute to get things done. But on a deeper level we are all a little slow in working to be the change that we want to see in the world. As the expression goes, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” we should liberate ourselves from habits of being a “ProcrastiNation”. As quoted by MLK in his moving Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We must believe, plan, and move swiftly to free our world from injustice. Eating Matzah reminds us not to delay.
During Passover, take the time to look at the things we procrastinate about. Is it in our work or our daily routines, or is it in something bigger? This coming spring, will we do more to bring Jewish culture and values into our everyday life? Will it be through attending services, signing our children up for camp, or having shabbat dinner? However you choose to do it, keep in mind, with a little planning, it could be bagels over matzah.
Looking to change-up your seder this year? Archie Gottesman, FJC board member and self-proclaimed Marketing Jewru has spent the past few Passovers writing, compiling and curating a fun Haggadah based on readings and songs she has found on various websites, traditional Haggadahs and other sources. Archie, besides being an advocate for Jewish camp, is the Chief Branding Officer of Manhattan Mini Storage, rebranded self-storage with ads like: Why Leave a City that has Six Professional Sports Teams, and also the Mets? and NYC: Tolerant of Your Beliefs, Judgmental of Your Shoes.
She is passionate about helping others see how much fun, joyous and meaningful Judaism it can be. Check out her version of a Haggadah and let us know how it enhances your seder.
Need some tips on how to enhance your seder? Archie suggests these simple steps to host a seder that will seriously impress your family and friends:
- The Seder Police: There are none. Yes, there are certain traditions to a seder. In fact, the word seder actually means “order,” and there is a specific order that you are supposed to follow. But if you’re the Seder Leader (SL), you are the master of the table. So if you want to have a rip-roaring seder, do whatever feels right. Personally, I think most Haggadahs are deadly dull. So many people take control and make their own Haggadahs. Feel free to download mine below, or make your own at www.haggadot.com. (But for God’s sake, don’t wait until the day before Passover.)
- Watch out for Too Much Hebrew (Aka Don’t Play “Who’s the better Jew?”): You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re at a seder with like 15 people, and there are only four of them who know the words to some Hebrew song, and the rest of you sit there uncomfortably while they stumble through it? Me too. And it makes me feel like a bad Jew, wondering “Why didn’t my Jewish education prepare me for this?” This is NOT the feeling you want to elicit at your seder. So if you’re going to include Hebrew, make sure your guests understand it, or keep it to a minimum.
1. Havdalah makes you emotional.
Something about a campfire, slow and spirited prayers, and the smell of spices after a rel
axing weekend creates an atmosphere of strong emotions. You can’t fight it. Just give in.
2. The friends you make at camp have become your friends for life.
It’s simply a known fact. It’s rare in life to become so close to that many people in such as short period of time, so it’s no surprise that five, ten, fifteen, infinity years down the line, the people that were in your bunk are still the people you call your best friends.
3. Temporarily unplugging doesn’t make you nervous or anxious.
Most days you are glued to your phone or in front of your computer, and sometimes both simultaneously. But after so many summers of disconnecting from devices, taking the time to unplug is a welcome gift, not a source of anxiety.
4. For some reason, you have leadership skills.
Whether it was as color war captain, a bunk counselor or simply gaining the confidence to become the leader you are today, these skills have helped to shape your character, and you are definitely grateful.
5. You embrace the outdoors.*
*…but only at camp
You can’t necessarily call yourself “outdoorsy”, but you definitely understand how rewarding a beautiful view can be after a hike. Sleeping in a tent however, is still strictly an at-camp experience.
6. You’ve conquered fears.
Whether it was performing in the camp play, conquering the ropes course or finally having your chance to shine during the all camp talent show, you definitely tried something new at camp. Your biggest fear quickly became your biggest success.
7. You’ve mastered the art of teamwork.
Whether it took place during Color Wars, supporting a fellow camper during a bout of homesickness, a camp vs. camp sports rivalry, or an overnight in the woods, being a team player is a major part of who you are. And it’s a skill that has gone on to help you in just about any situation in which you find yourself.
Today was about Torah and today was about midrash.
I have been teaching our 3rd graders about the Torah readings we’ve done in the last several weeks. Today, we had Fashion Five Minutes (Fashion Week? I wish! Each second with these kids is precious, and we have precious minutes on Monday mornings!). We watched the g-dcast video about Tetzaveh, talked about holy clothing, and the squad of 3rd graders sketched holy garb. Some recreated the g-dcast animation, some drew pictures of a favorite dress, and some drew a particularly swirly kippot. Boom. Midrash.
I popped into a 5th grade Torah service. My colleague taught them how to chant and the whole class reads for their invited guests and family. They’re like grasshoppers to me – they seem so small, but they’re actually looming large, chanting like the middle schoolers they will be so very soon. Also, they read the story of the spies in parshat Shlach Lecha. Beautifully. And soon, we’ll be sending them over to the middle school. Boom. Torah.
After that, it was off to iPod Tefillah, a program from URJ Camp Coleman that I’ve modified to great reception at both camp and school. After a student group chose “Brave” by Sara (Beth) Bareilles (can’t help but love her – what a great name!) as a good example of the themes in Mi Chamocha, I confirmed that they knew that the midrashic character from the crossing of the sea was headed up by Nachshon, the bravest Israelite to escape from Egypt. The answer came, loudly, from a Coleman camper who’s a student at Davis. Boom. Midrash.
Next, I set up lunch packing for our 8th graders. Each grade has taken time out of their own lunch to prepare and pack lunches for the Zaban Couples Center at The Temple in Atlanta. Students instruct each other on the best way to make their sandwich, help me pack up boxes of lunches, and bring them to the car so they can be dropped off, and given to people who truly need them. Each student is instructed to make a lunch that they would like to receive – do you want apple or berry juice? Do you want a green or a red apple? And, most importantly, what kind of a note would you like to receive in your lunch to add a spark of happiness to your lunch break? A 6th grader wrote “You are beautiful in every single way” and an 8th grader scrawled “This is the best sandwich I’ve ever created!” Both show love in the student’s own unique way – and we were all loving our neighbors as we would love ourselves. Boom. Torah.
I shot over from lunch packing to the lower school building to listen to some 5th graders reading Torah, followed by a practice of the seder play that our 2nd graders are doing. Boom. Torah. Boom. Midrash.
It is truly rewarding to work with these kids. Teaching children at all times, when I’m walking and when I’m sitting.
When my children were in Kindergarten they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. Five years ago, at the Purim Seudah, or festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim in school. He learned that, Haman’s punishment (for attempting genocide) was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story. This year at Purim, like every other year, I will try to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman. It struck me this year that I have been acculturated to expect Haman. He is a stock character in our history. As the adage goes, “What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than you are supposed to.” I am thankful that Yadid was not taught of Haman and his sons being put to death, but I realize that in retelling the story of Purim, we have normalized anti-Semitism. From a young age Haman is not excused but he is to be expected.
I was reminded of a Sarah Silverman piece in which she corrects her niece who was astounded that 60 Million Jews died in the Holocaust. After correcting her that it is 6 million Jews, not 60 million, her niece responds “What is the difference?” There is a difference, “Because 60 million would have been unforgivable.” We make fun, but it is astounding to realize that the expectation of anti-Semitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long. As if anti-Semitism is normative, if not normal. That’s black and white.
You might argue that the hatred of Jews is a central theme of Jewish history. You would be correct. But when is it appropriate to share this with our children? Why would you want to raise your children to think that being hated is expected? Isn’t it black and white?
It is particularly scary raising Jewish children in a world in which there is a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, ISIS is on the rise, and Iran is inching closer to having weapons of mass destruction to aim at Israel. In my mind part of the problem is that we have made it normal to hate the Jews. In each story in our history, we are left trying to figure out who loves us and who hates us. It is a sort of pornographic horror- we hate it, but we just cannot pull ourselves away from it. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, the global audience enjoys watching anti-Semitism. Purim is a time of grey, not black and white. Esther is the queen and also the object of hate. It is the time when we confuse Haman for Mordechai and blessings for curses.
The rest of the year we need to know what is good and what is evil- black and white. Hating people for their religion, racial identity, gender identity, orientation, or ethnic identity is simply wrong and there is nothing normal about it. How will our children understand the horrors of anti-Semitism without trivializing it? We need to confront evil beyond making bad people “pick up the poop.”
Difference is part of life. This is true for everyone, but particularly the case when disability is part of our lives, whether our children have a disability, or we have disabilities ourselves. As parents of children with disabilities, it’s irrelevant whether our experience more closely resembles the classic 1987 description entitled Welcome to Holland, which describes life as though everyone around you landed in your planned destination of Venice, while you landed in Holland. A more contemporary description, which compares life to speeding through a hilly town with busy streets, in a car without functioning brakes vs. another experience entirely. Regardless, our lives are different from most of the community. The weird looks, lack of understanding, and the reality that the lives of our so-called peers seem foreign to our reality, are each completely exhausting.
For children with disabilities, their experience as “different” may seem equally, if not more, frustrating during the school year. The special classes, taking tests physically separated from other students, and often with separate instructions than their “typical” classmates, getting individualized help or other accommodations often further reinforces that they’re different. Regardless of how helpful or even necessary these accommodations are for academic success, they can still reinforce negative social stigmas. It’s no wonder then that both children with disabilities and their parents feel overwhelmed. Any opportunity to escape this reality and experience how “others” live. To fit in and belong, even if it’s only for a few weeks, sounds spectacular to parents and children alike. Thus, summer camp, a predominantly controlled environment, not governed by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which legally require the disclosure of disabilities, seems like the perfect opportunity to be discrete and seem “normal.”
On the surface, nondisclosure of nonvisible disabilities seems like a perfect solution. If your child can pass as “normal”, they should be treated normally. Consequently, fit in and therefore, avoid the stigma of difference. The problem is that disabilities don’t disappear. Disabilities, even those most often associated directly with learning, don’t only affect people while they’re in school. Even when settings change or labels are hidden, disabilities always remain.