Friday, June 10, 2011

Parashat B’Ha’alotecha – Candles, Menorahs, and Mrs. Unickel

Sitting in shul two weeks ago, my last Shabbat in Chicago before heading to camp, I was not really paying attention to the pre-kiddush announcements. My mind was focused on the variety of details connected to starting the camp season, not what would be happening in shul over the summer. As images of Lake Buckatabon passed through my memory, my ears perked up when the gabbai asked that we all remember to congratulate the two families that had simchas in the main sanctuary. One name I did not recognize. The other, Unikel, was too rare and too familiar to me to escape my attention. What were the chances that I knew this family?

I walked into Kiddush and asked my colleague and friend, Rabbi Michael Siegel, if he would introduce me to the family. He walked me to the mother of the bar mitzvah and made the introduction. The conversation went something like this:

“Shabbat Shalom and Mazal Tov!” I said.

“Thank you. That is so kind of you.”

“My pleasure. I have to ask you a question. By any chance did your mother teach elementary school in the northern suburbs?”

“No. But my mother-in-law did. I get asked that a lot,” she replied. “She is standing right over there.”

“Well. Mrs. Unickel was my fifth grade teacher at Willowbrook. We were her first class at the school. She was such a warm and wonderful teacher. I have very fond memories of her class.”

I had not seen Mrs. Unickel since the late 1970’s. My last memory of her was from the very last day of 5th grade, of her saying goodbye to us, speaking with love of our class as tears filled her eyes and her voice broke slightly. She was a gracious teacher who invested in each of us collectively and individually, who pushed us to investigate and be creative, as well as to be accepting of everyone. She was a truly special teacher, the kind that you remember your entire life.

Walking across the room, I saw the same warm, beaming smile and welcoming eyes that I remembered from my childhood. How do you reintroduce yourself to a teacher you have not seen in thirty years? What do you say? Remembering that straightforward is best, I walked over and extended my hand. “Mrs. Unickel, Mazal Tov. I don’t know if you remember me but I am Lor...” Before I finished pronouncing my first name, Mrs. Unickel interrupted me: “Loren Sykes! Of course I remember you…” Warm hugs were exchanged as we caught up on thirty years of life in about forty-five seconds. There were many people waiting to share congratulations so I kept the conversation brief. “Mazal Tov again,” I said, as I turned to her son saying, “Just know that your mother was a fantastic teacher and as a student in her first class, I can tell you that her warm, welcoming, investing personality had a deep impact on me.” And that was that.

As camp comes closer and closer, I find myself thinking about Mrs. Unickel and her impact on us, they way she lit up while teaching and the way she lit us up as students. The Torah portion for this Shabbat, B’Ha’alotecha, opens with instructions for lighting the Menorah in the portable Tabernacle, from where to stand to how to light. There is intentionality involved in the sacred act of lighting the candles, of creating illumination in the Tabernacle. The Kohanim must be fully present and aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They have to focus on each candle as they ignite it and watch as the flame jumps from one wick to the next. They cannot move onto another candle until the one before them is fully lit. They have to pay attention to it and focus exclusively on that one candle at that moment. That is how you kindle a light. And when you tend to each one individually, the entire group of candles, the Menorah becomes one light.

Mrs. Unickel was one of the many teachers I had over the years that knew how to properly light a candle and create a Menorah, how to inspire students, to care for each one of them and invest in them. She knew how to pay attention to each student as if he or she was the only candle before her, all the while managing the entire class. She lit a candle in me, one of love of learning, of passion for discovery, of compassion for others. Through her own kindness, love of her work and of her students, along with her ability to both set high standards and have realistic expectations, she simultaneously became a shining light, the candle that lights other candles, and the kohen that stands fully present and focused passing the light from one candle to the next.

We spent this week kindling lights, the souls of the staff, as they returned to our summer home. Counselors who are now supervisors spent time re-nurturing mentoring relationships they had with former campers-now-turned-counselors. Staff members of every age, from recent high school graduates to doctoral students, kindled the fires of Torah in each staff member during our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot – our all night learning session that precedes sunrise services and the reading of the moment of Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Over the course of Shavua Hachanah, or prep week, we ignite nearly two hundred individual flames, focusing on each one until they burn as a collective candelabrum.

This coming Tuesday, nearly 480 candles, our campers, will arrive in Conover in the afternoon for the start of the 2011 camp season, waiting to be kindled with the warmth of Torah, of community, of exceptional role models, of love for Israel and for being Jewish. As we kick off the camp season, as I look at the staff seated at Shabbat Services, I will be looking and wondering: who here is going to be the Mrs. Unickel for a camper and for a cabin? Which staff member is going to properly kindle each individual candle while focusing on the entire cabin? Which campers will finish camp transformed for the better because they received the complete, undivided intention and attention of a counselor or a teacher? Who will be remembered thirty years from now for the good that they brought to the life of another Jewish soul?

Thank you, Mrs. Unickel for the goodness and kindness you shared with us thirty years ago. Thank you to this summer’s staff for taking up the challenge of being an inspirer for a love of Torah. And thank you all for entrusting us with your candles, your precious children, for the summer.

Shabbat Shalom.

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