Friday, July 24, 2009

Shabbat Hazon 2009

Before I could appreciate the back porch of the library at Ramah in Wisconsin, I had to spend time on another mirpeset – another porch. In the middle of the busiest area of camp, the triangle formed by the Chadar Ochel, the Mercaz or programming center, and the Bet Am, sat an old house with a porch that faced the bet am. I don’t know if the house was part of the fishing village and “resort” that predated the camp, but that is what we were told and it certainly looked old enough to have been from the early 1920’s. Before the house was moved to make room for the Amanut – the arts & crafts building to the staff housing area, before it became known as Bet Garr, where my teachers, mentors and friends, Ronnie and Minda, Yossi, Tova, Michal and Yaela Garr lived, the house was known as Bet Porten. It was the summer home of Dr. and Rabbi Bezalel “Buzzy,” his wife Debby, and their children: Shuey, Avi, Gabi and Nomi.

I was constantly homesick my first summer at Ramah in 1977. My first madrich, Scott Miller and my Rosh Aidah, Cheryl Magen helped me make it through that first summer in more ways than I could list here. So did Hazzan Leon Lissek (I was the kid who took Nusach as a chug) and Miriam Alon who ran the beit tefirah, the sewing room, where I made my first tallit. And then there was the Porten family. More specifically, Debby, who was the senior, and I think only yoetzet (advisor) at the time, would sit with me on her mirpeset and while I cried, a lot those first three weeks. I got to know her son, Gabi, and daughter, Nomi, who were still too young to be campers. Debby often reminded me of how we would sit and play shesh besh (backgammon) on that porch with the kids for hours. From that summer forward, until the mid-1980’s, Debby played a formative role in my life. She helped me get through that summer and many other challenges that I faced as a camper. And she always did it with a smile and an invitation to the mirpeset for another game of shesh besh.

Like many people that play a major role in our lives, time and distance diminish the frequency of contact but not the impact. So much of how I worked as a madrich I learned from Debby when I was a camper. In later years, I would have the opportunity to study a little Talmud with Gabi, to work with him, and to be a madrich in Nomi’s aidah for two summers. In one of my last visits with Debby in Israel, Debby was giving advice to a mutual friend that was prescient for me. She told our friend, who was contemplating leaving a position that every time in her own life that she left one job another exciting opportunity came along. I wish that I would have touched base more frequently with Debby. I heard about how she was doing through the Kolodner Klein family and through the Garr family. The last time I saw Debby, she was coming to see The Man of LaMancha in Jerusalem, where Becca had a starring role.

Debby Porten died this week after a serious battle with cancer. Ramah alumni shared stories of the impact that Debby had on them as campers or staff members. It was incredible to read some of the reactions that people had. So many people learned how to be Mentsches because of Debby, or learned what Jewish family life could be like just by hanging out and playing backgammon on the mirpeset. Debby’s legacy is in her own incredible children and in the staff members, the campers, and all of their children.

This week, we will commemorate the Fast of Tisha B’A, the Ninth Day of Av, which calls us to mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. For twenty-five hours, we refrain from eating, drinking, wearing leather-soled shoes, anointing (wearing makeup or perfume), and sexual relations. While many explanations are given for the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the most famous is that the Temple was destroyed as a result of sinat hinam – baseless hatred (see Talmud Bavli Gittin 55-56 for the complete story). Much time will be spent in programs in Jewish summer camps and in shuls talking about how we can treat the Other in a kinder way, how we can avoid the kind of baseless hatred that brought down the Holy of Holies.

On Tisha b’Av this year, however, I will spend a lot of time thinking about a woman who taught me how to make it through a summer, how to depersonalize things, what hachnassat orchim was about, and how to play shesh besh with her kids on the mirpeset. I will think of all the Porten children, now adults with many children of their own. I will think of Buzzy, my first recollection of him being his wailing voice crying out the Kinah (mournful prayer) “_ Oy me’Haya Lanu” at the end of the reading of Lamentations. We mourn on Tisha B’Av, and I will mourn too. But I will also remember an incredible teacher and person who helped me through the early days of my thirty-plus year relationship with Ramah. Who will you be thinking of? To whom do you owe an apology for hateful behavior or the speaking of lashon harah? And what teacher might you want to call, someone who really touched your life in profound ways, that you have not spoken with in far too long?

Free advice (it is worth exactly what you pay for it): Make the call this week for you never know when the opportunity might be lost.

May the Memory of Debby Porten be for a Blessing.

Shabbat Shalom and a Meaningful Tisha B’Av Observance to all.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic interviews Ambassador Michael Oren

The following short video of Jeffrey Goldberg interviewing Israel's Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, is absolutely incredible. Goldberg asks excellent, deep and challenging questions and Ambassador Oren does not shy away from giving answers of equal, if not greater depth. This is a six minutes well spent for anyone who loves Israel and considers themselves a Zionist, however they define the term.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Matot – Ma’sei 2009 - Travels

I was on the road so much the past few weeks that I even found myself enjoying the hour long NPR documentary about Willie Nelson, he of “On The Road Again” fame (despite my personal and intense dislike of both kinds of music – Country and Western). I could list my journey like a trip-tik from AAA:

And then I went from Indian Ridge, Marietta to Grovehurst, Marietta;
And from Marietta to Chattanooga; and I rested in Chattanooga for one hour;
And from Chattanooga to Nashville;
And from Nashville I travelled to Louisville, and it rained strongly;
And from Louisville to Indianapolis;
And from Indianapolis to the Skyway, which was slow;
And from the Skyway I traveled to Highland Park, where I rested one night;

And from Highland Park I traveled to Lakeview, Chicago and purchased a home there;
And from Lakeview I traveled to Conover, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and I was in Conover for six days; and on the day after the Sabbath…

I returned to Lakeview and met Rebecca and Amalya, and we met the movers and unpacked;

And then it was Shabbat and we rested…

If the above sounds both familiar and a bit thin on details, it is because it is very similar to the opening verses of the second of our two parshiot this week: Matot and Ma’sei, which are also long on place names and short on details as to what occurred in those places. The details are so limited that when mentioning the Sinai Desert, there is not even a mention of Mt. Sinai let alone the retelling or even noting of God’s revelation to B’nai Yisrael at Mt. Sinai. The filling in of the details is often left to the midrash.

If I stopped at the list I made above, you might have thought that nothing of interest happened on my drive. You would not have known that it rained for three solid hours between Nashville and Louisville so hard that you could not see more than ten feet in front of you; or that I stopped in Chattanooga to see my sister, Vicki, my brother-in-law, Jason, or my very cute nephew, Jordan; nor would you have known that it took me 17 hours to get from Marietta to Highland Park, Il instead of the 11 hours Mapquest told me it would take.

Often, I find that it is that which appears to be most mundane along these trips that turns out to be the most powerful and the most moving. It can be a sunset over the highway, or heron gliding past your car to land on a roadside lake. Or it can be a chance encounter with a person. I had many such encounters during the past month but want to share only one with you this Shabbat.

I went to the Amanut Building – the Arts Building – at Ramah in Wisconsin to see what was going on there. It was a beautiful day and from the porch that connects the art building to the woodshop, you could see the gorgeous lake, the island seemingly a finger’s length away. A young woman was teaching campers how to make their own tote bags, to personalize them, and to use them to tell a story. I was intrigued. After the activity ended, I asked Yali about her project. She showed me her portfolio and there was a photo of a Kate Spade Bag, black with embossed paisleys and other shapes. I asked Yali about the bag. What followed was far beyond my imagination.

Yali is young, energetic, vibrant, and so happy. Her smile is infectious and people tell me that you will never see Yali look any differently. The art staff and the aidah staff cherish her equally. The campers who work with Yali clearly love her. She is, I am told, a person with an exceptional work ethic and an incredible heart. And you would never know it but Yali is also a cancer survivor. She is 18 now and about to start college, an achievement that many take for granted, but my guess is that Yali never doubted that she would reach.

While Yali was fighting her battle with cancer, she had the opportunity to have a wish fulfilled through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. She wanted to design a bag with Kate Spade, and she did it! She wanted 50% of the purchase price of each bag, costing $325, to go to the Foundation, which it did. Yali explained the meaning of the various symbols on the bag and it was clear that this was an exceptional young artist with a brilliantly creative mind who saw that she was given a gift and wanted to make the world a better place. Details about the bag were presented on the Kate Spade Website:

"Yali’s “Carry On” purse and design make the statement that cancer survivors “carry on” courageously and elegantly with life in the face of their medical baggage. The design details illustrate Yali’s salute to cancer survivors. She chose to have the interior of the bag replicate a bandana, which many cancer patients use to disguise their hair loss during chemotherapy. The bag was, without a doubt, created with hope, strength and joy."

The Yali Carry On Kate Spade Bag is sold out, the last few of them being given to charity to raise funds for their work via auction events. But wait, that’s not all! Yali has now created a second Yali Carry On TM. It costs $25 and all of the proceeds go to the department of Family Services at Children’s Memorial Hospital. According to Yali, the design of this beach tote is:

“Creative… and … functional, but has deeper meaning as well. As Yali states “The brilliant colors represent the vibrancy of life; the bird symbolizes the freedom and beauty of expression. The wings of the bird, created by hand prints, remind us of our unique abilities to overcome challenges.”

If you are interested in purchasing a bag, please let me know and I will be in touch with Yali to find out how you can acquire one.

Yali may be 18 years old chronologicall y but her wisdom, courage and Simhat Hayyim, joy and appreciation of life, are far beyond her years and should be an inspiration to us all. She is the emobidment of the principle taught by Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous all the time!” And she is a true Mitzvah Hero, to use a term I learned from my teacher, Danny Seigel.

To learn more about Yali’s story, follow this link:

“And from Lakeview I traveled to Conover, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and I was in Conover for six days;”

And in Conover, I met Yali and once again a seemingly ordinary encounter turned out to be extraordinary.

Who are the extraordinary people you met this week? Think about that around your Shabbat table.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 10, 2009

Parashat Pinhas 2009

It is Friday afternoon and I am sitting “al hamirpeset sheli” – one of, my favorite porches in the world. I didn’t expect to be sitting here again and the path to this spot was long, winding, and challenging, but here I am, once again sitting on the back porch of the library, the sifriah, that overlooks beautiful Lake Buckatabon, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. There is a slight breeze, the temperature is just right, and the clouds blend with the aqua sky in a picture perfect fashion. It is good to be home.

The past three weeks alone have been crazy, absent any sense of inner Peace, of Shalom or of Shleimut – completeness. On June 24, we packed up the house. On the 25th, the movers took all of our worldly possessions, and on the 26th, we went and closed on the sale of our house in Atlanta. Thanks to our friends, Randy and Nancy, Natan and Ilana Gorod, we were not homeless nor were we wandering Jews. On June 29 – 30, my brief journey with the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School came to an end. And then, last Sunday, I wrote the last paragraph of the chapter of life in Atlanta that started in the fall of 1996 and came to an end on July 5th. On July 6th, I closed on the purchase of our new home on Pine Grove between Waveland and Grace in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, and then immediately left for Conover for a week of visiting and reconnecting at Ramah in Wisconsin.

I was unsettled, lacking balance and inner Peace, until I pulled into the parking lot of camp at 11:45 pm that night. And as soon as I turned off the car, got out, and took a deep breath of the Northwoods air, I felt the start of the return of shleimut, of balance, of quiet, and of sense of purpose. There will not be complete shleimut until all of us are together in Chicago – Elan and Mira back from there fantastic summer at Ramah Darom, and Becca and Amalya from the drive from Atlanta. But the return of balance and quiet, of purpose and professional fulfillment is on its way.

This would be a week to listen and to learn, to rediscover the camp that was my summer home for 20 years and that would once again become my summer home as of September 1. This would be a week to observe the similarities and the differences, from my childhood and from my previous professional time here. This also became a week for unexpected reunions with former campers who became staff members years ago and then became peers and friends, people like Diane Kushnir Halivni, Amy Israel, and Dorit Shiloah Boxer. I started to connect with the younger staff, who were not campers when I was here last, as well as a chance to see old friends who are still coming to camp. To list all the incredible things I saw, and learned, would take too much space and time, for now, as the sun is getting closer to setting and Shabbat will soon be upon us.

In my professional and personal journey this year, I spent much time missing a sense of Peace, hoping for its return, wondering where the places were that I might find it. The Slonimer Rebbe, in his work Netivot Shalom, writes at length about Peace in his comments on this weeks Torah portion, for the Biblical character, Pinhas, is giving the Covenant of Peace, a Brit Shalom, at the very opening of our Parashah. The reasons for the giving of that Brit are complicated and not the subject of my thoughts at this time, although they are compelling and worthy of consideration; rather, the Slonimer Rebbe uses the opportunity to identify three kinds of Shleimut – of wholeness – that are part of the Brit Shalom: Peace with Yourself, Peace with your fellow human beings, and Peace with God. According to the Slonimer, Shabbat is the ritual manifestation of all three levels of Shleimut and thus a taste of the world to come.

I am truly blessed to be at a physical place, Lake Buckatabon and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and at a time – the arrival of Shabbat – to feel the return of those levels of shleimut:

Inner calm -the knowledge that I am at the right place personally and professionally;

Wholeness with people – back at a place where I know I can make a difference and where I can be impacted upon by others; and

Wholeness with God – here, along with only a few other places in the world, first and foremost the Land of Israel, as well as the Waterfall at Ramah Darom – the sense of the Divine Presence is palpable, there is a feeling of closeness with the Shekhina that I have not felt in a long time.

I hope that in your travels, you are fortunate to find a mirpeset – a porch – that you can dream from, build from, and create from and I hope that each of you has or will find a place and time where you achieve the Covenant of Peace at its fullest – Wholeness with Self, with Others, and with the Creator of Wholeness and Peace.

Shabbat Shalom.