Friday, August 26, 2011

Sight and Vision, Blessings and Curses, the Present and the Jewish Future

Throughout the summer, I often wrote about what I saw while walking around camp. From campers sitting and talking with one another to various activities, from staff members diligently doing their jobs to the beauty of a Northwoods sunset, much of what I wrote about had to do with the sense of sight.  As a parent of campers at another Ramah Camp, Ramah Darom where I served as the founding executive director, I know how hard it is to get a real sense of what is actually happening with our children.  I have to see what is going on in Clayton, GA via the words of others.  I have to paint a mental picture, that is, I have to imagine, through their narrative prose.  In the end and despite its power, I know that what I “see” in my mind based on what I am hearing will be lacking in many ways.  It will not be the reality that my children are experiencing; rather, it will be my interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of what they are seeing.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh which begins by discussing blessings and curses.  There are, undoubtedly, times when “seeing” is a blessing:  

  • The sight of two friends walking arm in arm around camp, engrossed in deep conversation;  
  • The eagle soaring through a clear, Wedgewood blue sky, over the sapphire blue of Lake Buckatabon;
  • Watching the camper who was terribly homesick at the start of the summer talking with his madrich about what he is going to do in camp when he returns next summer;
  • Observing campers in Machon, laughing uncontrollably, while playing a game called “Sumo,” a game which I cannot begin to explain but is clearly fun to them!
  • Glimpsing the tears of two girls as they cling to one another on the last morning of camp;
  • Or seeing our child or children the moment they get off the bus, the sense of relief we feel when we know that they are home, within our eyesight once again.

“Seeing” these kinds of moments are rewarding, they are a ברכה, a blessing.  They provide a visual sense of accomplishment, a way of confirming that we actually achieve what we set out to do in the first place.  The power to observe things in camp, as in life, is the ability to learn and grow, to evaluate and improve.  

At the same time, “seeing” can be a curse, a קללה.  Like it or not, sight is subjective.  Most of what we see is not black and white or a question of fact; most things we see, rather, are questions of interpretation.  Moreover, the interpretation of what we see is dependent on so many variables: how we feel on any given day; what our knowledge of the context we are observing is; how we understand the cultural norms and expectations of a place; and other factors.  Sometimes, we learn something from what we see because we like it, even if it is clearly wrong.   As a camp director (and also as a parent), I sometimes have what I call “snapshot moments,” where I walk into a situation and take a snapshot of that moment and draw conclusions based on that nanosecond of observation, not taking into consideration what might have happened just before I walked into the room.  I see the picture I took at that second yet I get the bigger story wrong.  

Let me give you what I think is a perfect example of how seeing demands interpretation.  This summer, Sima Sayag introduced campers and staff members to an emerging art form: Staged Photography.  The photographer looks at an iconic image and then reinterprets it visually by using actors or models to recreate the image.  There are staged photographs that are near imitations and others that are radical reinterpretations of the original iconic image (To see one example of staged photography, follow this link to see the work of Adi Ness at the Israel Museum ).  At Camp, staff members and chanichim alike chose from a wide-variety of iconic Israeli photographic images, reinterpreted them, and then staged photos of those images.  Sima mounted an exhibition of all the photos, along with explanations of what the camper orstaff member saw in staging a photo of the original icon.  It was a truly amazing process and project and we are pleased to share the images of this project with you.  A different photo, along with the original iconic Israeli photo, and an explanation will appear in each edition of HaMirpesetShelanu throughout the year.

Finally, Hebrew has a different word for vision than for sight, חזון instead of ראייה . Vision is the ability to see future possibilities using imagination or wisdom.  Choosing to send your child to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is part of visioning your child’s Jewish future.  You knew they would have fun.  You knew they would start to develop or strengthen lifelong friendships.  And you knew that they would be enveloped in a beautiful bubble of daily Jewish living and learning.  When you made that choice, when you put them on the bus or the plane this summer, after you perhaps shed a tear or two, what kind of Jewish soul were you imaging would emerge from the bus after twelve days or four weeks or the full summer?  What kind of adult Jew do you imagine, do you hope for, after all of your child’s years at camp, as campers and staff members, are complete? And once you answer those questions, here is one more:  what are you doing to help make that vision a reality throughout the year?  

Sitting back in my office in Chicago just off Michigan Avenue I can look out the window and see the Chicago River.  When I want a break, I take a walk to Millenium Park and see thousands and thousands of people.  Yet, in my mind’s eye, I am already spending much of my time seeing next summer, the 2012 camp season, filled with smiles and laughter, powerful prayer and discussion, and the growth and strengthening of the Jewish future.

Shabbat Shalom.

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