ג שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ, כָּל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ: שַׁבָּת הִוא לַיהוָה, בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.
ויקרא כ"ג: ג
On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of the Lord throughout your settlements.
Completely drained from jet lag, I made my way down the stairs from my room to the hotel lobby at Kibbutz Shefaim on Israel's Mediterranean coast. The exhaustion dissipated immediately upon my entry into the reception area as I encountered a mass of hundreds of young, excited, energetic Israelis arriving to start the Jewish Agency for Israel's (JAFI) Summer Shlichim Training Program. Just beneath the surface of all the anticipation, a nervousness permeated the lobby as participants tried to imagine how this week would feel, what they would leave with, and what challenges would lie ahead.
The summer shlichim training seminar is a five day marathon of lectures, activities, meetings, and dialogues all designed to start making individual Israelis into groups of shlichim, representatives, of the State of Israel. From lectures on the nature of North American Jewry to positive confrontations with their own Jewish identities, participants are challenged to begin seriously considering who they are as Jews, as Israelis, and as shlichim. What Israel do they want to bring with them to North America and with what Israel do they want North Americans to connect? As the week progresses, so does the process of strengthening the group. It is amazing to see them come together.
On Friday morning, the directors traveled to Nordia, a small community near Herzliya, named for Max Nordau, an early Zionist leader who was a proponent of "Muscular Judaism," focusing on the physical and corporeal in place of the intellectual and perceived physically weak Jew. There, we met with several of our North American Staff members in Israel for the year as well as our veteran shlichim. Together, we discussed the meaning of the year in Israel and its impact on them. I learned about who felt closer to the land of Israel, the people of Israel, or the State of Israel. The conversation was fascinating. The opinions ran the gamut of each position and each staff member was passionate about their position while respecting everyone else's position as well.
The best, and most intense part of the Seminar, however, is Shabbat. Along with the Shabbatot of Hanhala Week, Staff week, and the first and the last Shabbatot of camp, this is one of my favorite Shabbatot of the year. For six days, I travelled, sat in intense conversations, met individually with new shlichim and veterans, got up very early and went to bed very, very late. Now, Shabbat was arriving, "a complete rest, a sacred occasion..."
The verse in Leviticus instructs us that we are to do no work on Shabbat, that the day is to be one of complete rest. Our Sages of Blessed Memory interpreted the prohibition against doing work to be a reference to the 39 forms of labor required in the construction of the Portable Tabernacle and not to all kinds of effort. As a result, the fact that this was a "working Shabbat" for me was perfectly fine. No laws of Shabbat were violated in the observance of this working seminar...
The Shabbaton is designed to give Israelis a taste of what Shabbat at camp is all about. For the more religious among the group, Friday night tefillot can be very confusing. On the one hand, the niggunim (tunes) that we use are very familiar. The seating, however is not. For many, this is the first time they will attend a mixed seating service. There is a disconnect between the familiarity of the tunes and the foreignness of the seating. This dissonance is only reinforced on Shabbat morning, when women actively participate in tefillot.
For the more secular among the shlichim, the entire Shabbat experience can be overwhelming. For many, this is the first time that they are attending Kabbalat Shabbat. The language is somewhat familiar - it is Hebrew after all, albeit Biblical Hebrew - but everything else is foreign. If that is not enough, Shabbat can really be viewed as: Pray, eat, meet, sleep. Wake up, pray, eat, meet. Then: eat, meet, pray again. Followed by: meet, eat, pray yet again and then say havdalah. Often on Friday night, some shlichim leave tefillot overwhelmed, teary-eyed, wondering whether or not Ramah is the right place for them. It is at those times that the director gets to be involved in some of the most meaningful conversations of the year. What does it mean to acknowledge a spiritual side? How can a rich, textual, powerful inheritance that is, in so many ways, perceived to be off limits to all but the most religious, belong to "secular" Jews as well? How can a shaliach be a role model for North American campers when this is all so foreign to them? As a director, I cherish these conversations because they can have incredible impact on the person and it is our form of dual shlichut: we give Israelis who feel disenfranchised the opportunity to start taking back their heritage. And for those who feel that the inheritance IS their own, this is an opportunity for the director to begin opening up the world of different approaches to Judaism.
The last time I attended the Seminar, as the director of Camp Ramah Darom, I heard from my Rosh Mishlachat that one of the shlichot left services crying and that she had lots of concerns about whether or not she should come to camp. She was reluctant to discuss the subject with me and I waited all of Shabbat for her to approach me. Finally, after Shabbat, the shlicha came to see me and told me the following:
When she left Kabbalat Shabbat at the mid-point of the service, she went to her room and cried. She called her father, a very secular Israeli, and explained what had happened, her feeling overwhelmed and frightened, and her sense that this was not the right place for her. At that point, her father apologized to her! You might think that he was apologizing for encouraging her to be a shlicha; rather, he was apologizing for his own choices. He grew up very, very religious and due to a crisis at age 17, he completely cut himself off from being religious. He apologized to her for "denying her the right to choose!" He never exposed her to what could be positive in our tradition and he was apologizing.
The shlicha came to camp and Ramah opened up an entire world of spirituality, depth, and soulful nourishment that had not been part of her life prior to that summer. Here, in living color, was the power of Ramah impacting emerging adults in Israel just as it does in North America. While there were no such crisis with the shlichim for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin at this seminar, there were very intense conversations that will continue throughout the summer.
In our parashah, we are taught that we are to observe Shabbat בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם , "in all the places where you dwell." Our dwelling places, be they in Israel or America, in Columbus or Conover, can and are powerful places for building Shabbat community, for enjoying complete rest, for reconnecting with people and with God. It is one of the most beautiful gifts bequeathed to us by Our Torah, by God. And it is one of the most powerful experiences that summers at Ramah can provide to each one of us, both in camp and during the year. I hope that as we enter this Shabbat, that the depth of conversations and connecting that I experienced at Kibbutz Shefaim, will resonate at all of tables, and at all the places in which we now dwell.
Our new shlichim and our veteran shlichim, as well as all of our North American students in Israel for the year and those who have made Aliyah in recent years, are eagerly anticipating their arrival to camp, to Ramah Shabbatot, and to learning and growing with our campers and staff members. It was a privilege to be able to spend time with them. They are a great group and we can look forward to fantastic staff members with intense Israel experiences this summer. To meet our new shlichim, make sure to check into our blog regularly and watch the introductory videos. And then come to camp and introduce yourselves by name to those whose names and faces you already know.