Friday, July 9, 2010

On Camp and Pluralism

As I walk around each day, I am amazed by the richness of the patchwork quilt we create every summer here at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  At any given moment, there are literally thousands of things happening.  On the sports fields and at the agam (lake), in limmudei Yahadut (Jewish learning) and on the kikar, campers and staff members with diverse backgrounds and opinions interact constantly, discovering new things about other people and learning how to listen to and value the other.  In many ways, camp is one of the few places where a variety of Jews of very different opinions can learn to value the other even while deeply disagreeing with them, whether the issue at hand is as mundane as which sports team is better or as sacred as the status of Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, on Shabbat afternoon, I walked around camp and passed by a heated discussion.  Some of our shlihim (Israeli Delegation) were sitting on the kikar wildly gesticulating and arguing.  As I listened and tried to understand what the argument was about through the cacophony of Hebrew, I figured out that the topic was Jerusalem and its future status.  It sounded initially like one of the Israelis was arguing in favor of dividing Jerusalem and the other was arguing against such a division.  Upon closer examination, the argument was actually about why the person against dividing Jerusalem did not want to discuss the topic with her friend, the other Israeli, at that moment.  At first, I thought that she was being somewhat intolerant.  She simply could not bear to listen to someone with a different opinion than hers.  What I came to understand was that she simply did not want politics to be part of her Shabbat afternoon.

One might argue that such a response was actually disingenuous, that in fact this was another example of one Israeli not being able or willing to listen to a different Israeli opinion.  After all, it is far too common today for people to surround themselves exclusively with friends that agree with them on everything, or who look more or less like them,  or for people to go out and throw rocks or burn tires to disturb those with whom they disagree than it is for people to actually put themselves in a position to engage with and hear the other.  What became clear to me about this conversation was that the person simply wanted to make a separation between her Shabbat conversation and her weekday conversation.  In fact, she was engaged in the debate regularly.  She just wanted a break.  We need to celebrate both diversity of opinion and, at the same time, respect the need for having lots of different kinds of discussions at different times during the week.

Last week, campers in the Nivonim spent the day in small groups designing a new camp. They were told that they could receive a major grant if their proposal was selected.  All morning long, the groups argued about what their camp would be like and they needed to learn how to respect multiple voices and to include them in their proposal.  It was incredibly rewarding to hear the proposals and to see just how much the chanichim love this camp, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in that their proposals essentially presented this camp.  At the same time, each group had a few twists in their proposals and it was clear that the group had spent a lot of time hashing out differences and making room for different voices.

Next week, Machon will have their Israel simulation.  They will spend the week learning about different voices in the history of Zionism and then, in back to the future fashion, will revisit the First Zionist Congress based on what we know today.  They will discover the rich diversity of opinions that have characterized Zionism since its outset and they will learn a little more deeply about how to listen to others.

We can and should be incredibly proud of having a summer home where a variety of opinions and approaches to Jewish living, learning, and thought can coexist; where there is a clear ideology and observance (Conservative Judaism) and yet there is room for vigorous debate.  This is a camp where a clearly Orthodox Jew (my dear friend, Noah Greenberg) can come and teach campers, females and males alike, to make their own kosher tefillin (made out of heavy parchment), and make no special requests for food or minyanim, regardless of his own personal theology.  And this is a camp where campers join in tefillot with females, some of them rabbinical students, some of them roshei aidah, and some of them just plain old people, who wear tallit and tefillin each morning and then ask them about what they do and learn why they so do.  This is a place where campers can interact with their teacher both in the classroom and on the yoga mat, in the shiur and on the basketball court.  This is a place where rabbis whose Conservative congregations use different siddurim, where some are defined as fully egalitarian while others self-define as not, can send their campers to experience something different than what they have at home.  And this is a place that encourages open, respectful conversation and difference of opinion.  

As we prepare to enter the month of menachem Av and the Fast of Tisha B’Av approaches, we are reminded that the midrash teaches that the Bet HaMikdash, The Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed due to baseless hatred among Jews for other Jews.  Camp is a key place where we create a living model for campers of what Jewish pluralism can be.  It is a place where campers learn to respect and give an open ear to an idea or opinion that is different than their own.  Camp is a place where they can truly value another who looks different Jewishly than they do, who speaks differently, and who believes differently than they do.  And when that happens, campers are not drawn over to the other side. True - encountering the other fully and openly can be a daunting task at the outset.  But, in the end, the camper discovers more about themselves and become more confident in their opinions.  In that way, through exposure to diversity, to the rich tapestry that is camp and that is the other, we in fact “grow strong and grow strong”  חזק חזק as individuals and “are strengthened” as an entire people ונתחזק!

For another approach to expressing diverse opinions and valuing the other, enjoy Michal Sandel on Michael Sandel on “The Lost Art of Democratic Debate” on TED. com  at

Shabbat Shalom.

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