Friday, March 11, 2011

Vayikra – Transitions

For 36 hours this week, I was sequestered in Tarrytown, NY thinking about Jewish transitions with a group of leaders, philanthropists and staff members. A guest of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I was once again inspired by the questions raised by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF), by their exceptional approach to hachnassat orchim, and by their desire to improve the Jewish world. Every conference and convening by CLSFF I attend pushes all of my buttons and makes me uncomfortable – all the buttons that need to be pushed and the kind of discomfort that comes from dealing with difficult questions and thinking about them outside of my comfort zone.

We wondered aloud, in small and large groups, about how to make Jewish transitional moments for those leaving high school and entering college, as well as those making the post-college transition, more seamless and easier to navigate, more welcoming and user-friendly. Are there intentional and positive ways we might help people engage all along the way, to help each soul move along the paths of her or his own Jewish journey? What kinds of inter-organizational partnering might be possible and necessary? What are the roadblocks and stumbling blocks, the assets and liabilities? And to what extent is each organization responsible for helping steward people along even after they leave the organization’s direct orbit?

On Thursday morning, we started our day with an exceptional and stimulating limmud session with Rabbi Will Berkowitz of Repair the World. He wove together a rich and varied group of traditional Jewish texts with Jewish texts of another kind – those of Bob Dylan, from a song about longing to return to a more innocent time, before tough transitions. In a room full of diverse backgrounds and opinions, we had a Jewish convening with serious, moving, and intellectually challenging Jewish learning. It was directly connected to pushing us in our own fields to think about making transitions easier. The learning was amazing and it was the way things should be.

These conversations reminded me of a class in rabbinical school with Dr. Neil Gillman on liminality in Judaism – how we mark transitional times with ritual and prayer. During the course, we looked at everything from birth and death rituals to prayers such as Kiddush levana – the sanctification of the moon, which is recited every month. These liminal moments are examples of transitions that are filled with great possibility and great trepidation. To ease the transition, we concretize the emotion into ritual.

The connection between ritual and transition is brought to the forefront this Shabbat, when we start a new book of the Torah, Vayikra. This week, we literally transition: We are out of Egypt and have created a meeting point for the community and God. Now, we focus on the method by which our ancestors communicate with the Divine – with ritual sacrifice to mark times of joy and thanksgiving, daily routine, sins and mistakes. Vayikra opens with words of communication: ויקרא – to call, וידבר, spoke with, and ואמרת , and you will say to them. Rituals are the vehicle for human-Divine communication and the centerpiece of community, in this case in the form of animal sacrifice.

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice ends. Rather than reinstituting sacrifices in another location, they are replaced entirely by our Rabbis with public and private prayer: New rituals created when former ones could no longer be performed. Today, we face the question of creating rituals for transitional moments that did not exist in the same fashion hundreds and even thousands of years ago. We have rituals for so many life transitions yet, very few to mark those arising between bar/bat mitzvah and marriage. Are there rituals and prayers, broadly defined, that can be created and be authentic and powerful, not contrived or hokey, that can speak to and in the voice of those making the transition? Can these be points where the Jewish community fills the space and helps people move to the next stop on their Jewish journey?

The question we pondered this week is about far more than ritual. It is about our future as a Jewish People. In a world where individuals affiliate differently than in the past, where people don’t join but engage at different touch points, how can the entire Jewish organizational ecosystem (traditional organizations and new frameworks included) work together, put aside turf issues and launch out of our silos, in order to strengthen the Jewish People by supporting the individual. Is it possible? Can we do it?

We can and we must. For so many of us, camp is our major Jewish touch point . It is where we have our rebbes, those who serve as our coaches and mentors, those we turn to when we seek guidance, who help us make choices during transitional moments. These rebbes may, in fact, be rabbis and cantors but they can also be madrichim, roshei aidah, and peers. We have to make it a priority to connect people with the activities and organizations that speak to their souls, that energize their activism, and stir their hearts. To do that well, all of the rebbeim have to be knowledgeable about and connected with the panoply of opportunities, leaders, and groups doing meaningful work, be it service work or spiritual work. We have to connect with the folks at Moishe House and Avodah, Repair the World and B’nai (put in the name of any synagogue). And we must recognize that our work is not over once someone stops coming back to camp. We at Ramah must continue our efforts to create programming for alumni in their 20’s and beyond.

As we transition from Shemot to Vayikra and as I transition from CLSFF and Tarrytown back to Chicago, I am more convinced than ever that Jewish camping in general and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin can and do play a central role in helping people move along in their Jewish journey at the critical transitional moments from teenager to college student, from college student to emergent adult. And with all that we are doing, there is more we can and should do and the need to do it in broad partnership. So, I invite you to join me in thinking about these questions as I was invited by FJC and CLSFF. And as graduation season is not that far away, make it a point to identify specific ways that you personally can help someone making one of these key Jewish and life transitions in the coming months.

Thanks Jeremy Fingerman (CEO of The Foundation for Jewish Camp and Nivonim 1977 Camp Ramah in Wisconsin alumnus) for inviting me to join you at the Jewish Transitions Convening. Thanks to the entire Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation Staff for an excellent convening and for pushing the buttons that need to be pushed.

Shabbat Shalom.


Laurie Tishler Mindlin said...


Your comments about change and focus on young adults are right on. So happy to learn from you, once again.

Laurie Tishler Mindlin

Laurie Tishler Mindlin said...


Your thoughts about the Conservative movement decrease in spending on young adults and camping are so right on. Just as we transitioned from animal sacrifices to communal prayer, we need to leave the less meaningful behind and find new ways to connect to G-d and our people. Lest we lose the next generation and the future of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Kol tuv,
Laurie Tishler Mindlin

Rabbi Loren Sykes said...

Thanks Laurie! We need to keep shouting this loudly and clearly to the Jewish world! Kol Tuv.