Friday, January 27, 2012

Parashat Bo – Breakfast in Jerusalem

Walking up to Bagel Bite, a restaurant on the corner of Derekh Bet Lekhem and Yehudah Street, I noticed two things.  First, the restaurant was refurbished presumably for the first time since I ate there nearly twenty years ago.  Second, there were no tables available for inside seating.  The sun was still out and the wind not too intense so I thought to myself: “It’s much colder in Chicago than it is here.  What could be bad?” I chose one of the many empty tables and sat down to enjoy a breakfast of bagel, coffee and the Middle Eastern equivalent of the skillet breakfast known as shakshuka, two eggs cooked in a steaming skillet of tomato sauce, peppers, and onion.  Yochi, the waitress, brought me the newspaper to read while I enjoyed breakfast.  I sat, taking in the entire scene, breathing the Jerusalem air, and feeling at Peace.

Opening up the paper, I read an article about International Holocaust Rememberance Day.  I had not realized that the commemoration was today, January 27, set by the UN according to the date of the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz – Birkenau.  After all, we commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah so I never paid much attention to the recently declared official UN remembrance. Nevertheless, here I sat at a corner café in Jerusalem, in the heart of the Jewish State, at a moment of an amazing confluence of events:  It was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, erev Shabbat of Parashat Bo, and I, a committed Jew, was sitting having shakshuka in Israel. 

In Parashat Bo, we read the continuing saga of a recalcitrant Pharoah refusing to free the Israelites from slavery.  We are taught the mitzvot of the Passover Sacrifice, the Korban Pesah, the prohibition against eating leavened bread, and learn the reason for eating Matzot.  At the climactic moment of the parashah, after the final plagues of darkness and death of the first born of the Egyptians, our ancestors are liberated from slavery, from the torture of Pharoah and his minions, from starvation, deprivation, physical abuse and death.  Adonai is the liberator who brings B’nai Israel to freedom with “a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”  The symmetry between this week’s Parashah, the beginning of the Exodus and freedom, and the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz commemorated by the international community on this date is as inescapable as it is powerful.

Last night, I stood in the dining room at the Fuchsberg Center on Agron Street with a combination of shlichim, Israeli staff members, from the 2011 camp season, North Americans who have made Aliya, and camp staff members here for the year on Nativ - USY’s gap year program -  Kivvunim, another program, as well as those who are working in internships through the MASA program.  I listened to the North American’s stories of the first half of their year in Israel.  I learned about how the experience of being shlichim impacted the shaliach just as much as she or he impacted North Americans.  I heard about everything from studying for exams to relatively spontaneous trips to Rome to joint theater projects of Israeli Jews and Palestinians trying to create more positive dialogue between the two groups.  From updates to everyone about the 2012 camp season to news from the Chicago office, the discussions ranged from the mundane to the sacred, from the superficial to the most soulful.  At the time, I was unaware of the impending International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I was just enjoying time with Israelis and Americans in Israel while being reinvigorated by the palpable if unarticulated Zionist energy in the room.

Putting it all together this morning over coffee, a bagel and shakshuka, however, I realized the much deeper power of the meeting the night before, of the parashat haShavua, of the international commemoration of the Holocaust, and of the location of my breakfast.  In exile in Egypt, one half of the promise to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled: a mass of descendants almost impossible to count.  Yet, these descendants suffered horrible torture by Pharoah until they were redeemed, saved by God.  While they would not reach their desired destination for ages, they were on their way to receiving the second of the two promises to Abraham: a homeland.  While the Holocaust did not bring about the immediate establishment of the State of Israel (there is a modern scholarly and political argument about this position – some argue that the groundwork done by the early Zionist, by David Ben Gurion and others, would have come to fruition regardless and that the Holocaust actually made it more difficult while others argue that the shame of the Shoah on the international community accelerated the establishment of Israel and make a direct linkage between the two), many survivors emerged to freedom,  found a home with the yishuv and fought for the land promised to our ancestors.  Their actions led to the successful establishment of a national state for the Jewish People in our ancestral homeland.  And here I sat, a free Jew sipping coffee at a Jewishly owned coffee shop in the Jewish State, preparing for a week of work dedicated to hiring the best Americans and Israelis to inspire the next generation of Ramah campers to become committed, observant, knowledgeable Jews.

In the week to come, I will be sending blog updates of my trip, of my meetings, and of the exciting conversations I have throughout Israel.  As we leave the suffering of Egypt and as the international community remembers the Holocaust, let us all remember the beauty and power of our tradition, of our unique relationship with The Divine, of the beauty of Torah and Mitzvot, of Peoplehood and of God.  I pray that our knowledge, our values, and our way of living is a source of blessing and freedom for all of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Parashat Shemot: Roses and Thorns

Roses and Thorns

Just as this bush produces both thorns and roses, so too does the Jewish people produce those who are tzaddikim and those who are rotten.

Shemot Rabbah

Our sages were very close readers of text.  According to several schools of thought, there is not a single superfluous word or letter in the entire Torah. When something appeared to be superfluous, an opportunity arose to interpret the word or letter in order to learn either an ethical or halachic lesson.  The most famous of such interpreters was Rabbi Akiva who was reported to learn pillars of halachot from a single letter.  Close, careful reading of text can lead to some of the most fascinating lessons and conclusions.  This week’s parashah gives us an excellent example of this approach and, in so doing, teaches a powerful lesson about our people and about ourselves.

During his first Divine encounter, Moses meets God in a secluded place, alone on top of a mountain. There, as we know, God speaks to Moses from a bush that burns but is not consumed.  Moses is curious but does not look directly at the bush:

“ וַיַּרְא ה’ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר “מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה”-וַיֹּאמֶר “הִנֵּנִי

And when God saw that he turned aside, God called out to him from within the bush and said: Moses, Moses.  And Moses said: Here am I.
Shemot 3:4

There are many aspects of the verse that are curious.  For example, why does Moshe refrain from looking directly at the burning bush?  Why does God repeat Moshe’s name?  Why doesn’t Moshe just say, “Yes”? These and other more obvious questions are the subjects of much rabbinic commentary.

The rabbis, however, are particularly intrigued by one word in the verse –“מִתּוֹךְ” meaning “from within” – wondering why the Torah tells us that the Divine voice came from within the bush rather than just saying that it came from the bush.  What can we learn from this apparently extra word in the Torah?  Shemot Rabbah, a collection of midrashim, provides us with a rabbinic flourish of answers:

The bush is full of thorns and when birds fly into it, they get injured slowly by each of the thorns teaching that the era of slavery was one of multitudes of painful strikes.

Because of the way the thorns grow, a person can put their hand in easily and without injury but when they go to pull out their hand, they get cut and caught up in the thorns.  Similarly, our ancestors were generously welcomed into Egypt but when they wanted to leave, the Egyptians bound them up in their thorns.

These are just a few examples of how the rabbis explain the extra word.  Most of the midrashim on this verse fall into two categories: either they refer to Egypt and the pain it causes our ancestors or they refer to the greatness of Israel.  In discussing the nature of the bush that was burning, however, one explanation, provides an interesting, frank and balanced assessment of the Jewish people collectively and individually:  

Just as this bush produces both thorns and roses, so too does the Jewish people produce those who are tzaddikim and those who are rotten.

While we may be “עם אחד בכול הארץ” or singular nation, a light unto the nations or an עם סגולה, we are not completely perfect either as individuals or as a collective.  There are good people, there are lousy people and we all contain both a good and an evil inclination in our souls.  In the Torah, God refers to us as a treasured people but Adonai also refers to us as a stiff-necked people.  What happens, though, when people within a certain group behave in awful, hateful, biased ways?  Do we blame the collective?  Do we shun them?  Or do we give rebuke in a thoughtful and respectful way?  

What about ourselves?  When we make mistakes, it is possible for people to begin to view themselves as wholly rotten or somehow unworthy or good.  Yet, acknowledging only our positive characteristics leads to haughtiness and hubris.  In our daily, individual lives, we have to seek and find balance, to admit to both aspects of our souls, and to work to spend more of our time being tzadikim with the understanding that there will be times when we fall short.  And when members of our community behave in unacceptable ways, we need to call them out for it, to provide loving rebuke while avoiding demonization.

When we acknowledge both aspects of ourselves and our people, we emulate the humility of the bush, the humble shrub into which God puts the Divine Voice and shares it, for the first time, with Moshe who will be God’s partner in leading B’nai Yisrael to salvation and freedom.  Today, the need to lead, the need to partner in bringing about Divine salvation must begin with our own souls.  At the same time, we must work as a People to lead those who decrease God’s presence in the world to realize what true piousness and religiosity is, what true love of Israel and humanity is, to actually live it and not hide behind the trappings of religiosity from habit or from devotion to political ideology.  When we see that, we will know that the days of redemption are truly near.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Parashat VaYechi - The Bert B. Weinstein z”l National Ramah Winter Staff Training Institute

Standing in a circle on the emerald grass of the kikar, in front of the chadar ochel, we were warmed by the beautiful, shining sun and joyed by the Wedgewood blue sky.  Arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, we stood with eyes open or closed, rocking to the beautiful singing:

טז הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.

בראשית מ”ח: ט”ז

The Angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless the children, and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.

If we were at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, you would understandably think that we were singing in the chadar ochel at seudah shlisheet, the third meal that comes at the end of Shabbat, during the summer.  We were not, however, in Conover.  Instead, we were at  Camp Ramah in California for the annual Bert B. Weinstein z”l Winter Staff Training Institute.  The circle included staff members from all of our camps and we were winding down a fantastic week of learning and growing together. 

The seudah shlisheet song, very popular at camp, comes directly from this week’s parashah as part of the blessing that Jacob gives his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe.  As far as I know, this is the only reference to an interaction between three generations -  parent, child and grandparent - in the same scene in the Torah.  It is rare that a group of Ramah staff members can be together in camp to sing a favorite song taken from one of the winter parshiot during the actual winter.  What is more extraordinary was the strong feeling of the Divine Presence - the Shekhinah, or the Malach, the angel mentioned by Jacob - resting above the entire group, casting a warm, safe presence of love upon us as we brought to a conclusion this powerful week.

Over four days, different cohorts of Ramah staff members met, shared program ideas, strengthened skills in their respective areas, and gained deeper knowledge of and appreciation for the greater Ramah Movement.  The core group attending the Weinstein Institute consists of second and third year madrichim who commit to returning to camp in the upcoming summer.  Taking time from winter vacation is a statement about their commitment to Ramah and to growing professionally in order to more effectively mold the campers in their tzrifim.  In sessions devoted to serving as effective mentors for junior counselors, eliminating bullying in camp, Torah study, program sharing and more, madrichim get into the mindset of the summer, becoming spark plugs for others -  directors included -  with new ideas for the upcoming camp season.

This year, we added a track for Daber Fellows, staff members who commit to increasing the excitement for and use of Hebrew at camp.  Ramah continues to be one of the most effective settings to inspire people to want to learn Hebrew and Daber is designed to make sure that Hebrew is alive in camp outside of the formal study.  By grouping madrichim in aidot to work on Ivrit, ownership for strengthening Hebrew usage expands beyond the Hebrew department and the senior leadership.   Our three veteran Daber Fellows strengthened their own leadership skills in this area by running activities in the chadar ochel and a Peulat Erev for the entire Weinstein Institute.  Ramah’s ability to inspire a desire to learn Hebrew is embodied by all of our fellows but I want to share the brief story of one Fellow in particular.  Following her first summer on staff, this Fellow committed herself to learning Hebrew during her gap year in Israel.  When we met in February of last year, we carried on entire conversations “רק בעיברית” or only in Hebrew.  We did the same during the summer.  This staff member did not attend day school.  Her passion for Hebrew was the result of her summers at Ramah. 

The third cohort, also meeting for the first time at Weinstein, was for Tikvah Staff members.  I cannot fully describe how excited this group was to be getting together to share ideas and programs, challenges and opportunities with one another.  Tikvah literally brings hope to countless families with children with special needs across North America by creating space for children and families that are too often excluded from Jewish educational institutions.  Tikvah inspires staff members to become future Jewish special needs educators.  It provides opportunities for learning independent living skills.  Ultimately, it also opens the eyes of members of the “typical” Jewish community to the gifts that every soul brings to the world, regardless of a diagnosis or a challenge.  Tikvah is, in so many ways, one of the crown jewels of Ramah and it is a blessing that we now have funding to bring together Tikvah staff members for greater professional development.

Finally, several participants in the nascent Ramah Service Corps cohort attended the Weinstein Institute.  This National Ramah Commission program is making it possible for Ramah-style experiential education to be imported to congregations that want it.  The development of the Ramah Service Corp is one more way in which the impact of Ramah is reaching deeper into the Jewish world expanding beyond the summer and our own facilities into the broader Jewish world.  We look forward to seeing how this program grows, creating year-round opportunities for our Ramah graduates, and impacting ever growing circles of people of all ages.

One of the overarching messages of the week, emphasized over and over again by our National Director, Rabbi Mitch Cohen and Assistant National Director/Director of Ramah Nyack, is that Ramah seeks not to create a bubble of Jewishness limited to the summer.  We work to create a lifetime possession, an אחוזת עולם, for learning and living Torah.  We start as a setting that is a “blessing for the children” a ברכה לנערים who grow into adults who are proud to be called by our ancestors name, to be called Yehudim, Jews, and who increase the number of Jews and the amount of Torah in the world.  This week, I was blessed to see the next generation of emerging leaders and I know two things:  they will continue to grow in their commitments and will inspire the generation that follows them to do the same.  That is truly a blessing

Kol HaKavod to our Weinstein Institute Participants:

Madrichim and Madrichim Miktzoiim:

Debra Linfield
Ilana Lupovitch
Natlie Salzman
Judah Schvimer
Aliza Small

Daber Fellows:

Rena Forester
Elana Horwitz
Aviva Schwartz

Ralph Schwartz - Director of Special Needs Programming
Scott Rosen - Atzmayim Director
Nate Gottleib
Alex Kahn
Navah Kantor
Daniel Olson

Shabbat Shalom.