Friday, March 16, 2012

VaYakhel - Bringing us Together - The Torah and Jewish Camp

I am amazed by how often the weekly Torah portion - the פרשת השבוע - coincides so perfectly with issues and events arising during the week preceding its reading (what we refer to in Aramaic as ענייני דיומא - current events or topics of the day).  While there are weeks where we clearly stretch to make such connections, there are more weeks where it is beyond just coincidence that there is a correlation between what is going on in the world and what is going on in the parashat hashavua.  This week falls into the latter category.  Let me explain.

This week, we read parashat VaYakhel whose opening verse teaches us:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם

Moses then convened the whole Israelite community and said to them:
Exodus 35: 1

The majority of the parashah deals with Moses telling the Israelites what needs to be included in the building of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, as instructed by God.  This is followed by the Torah recording that the Israelites carried out Moses directions in exacting fashion. In between the first verse of VaYakhel and the people carrying out Moses’  instructions, however, are three important directions about how the work is to be done:

1.  The Israelites are told that they can work on the project for six days a week but must have complete rest - Shabbat - on the seventh day. Exodus 35: 2 - 3

2.  To the extent that their hearts are moved to contribute, our ancestors are instructed that everyone should bring gifts for the construction of the Mishkan. Exodus 35: 4 - 9

3.  Skilled artisans and craftspeople are directed to come forward and  build the Mishkan. Exodus 35:10 - ff

In other words, before the instructions for what is to be done can be told to the people, they need a set of core principles and work rules:  You have to take a break, you have to imitate God and rest and recharge on Shabbat; everyone has a portion in the project, in this case the building of God’s dwelling place in this world, and as such, everyone needs to  contribute materials for the project to the level that they are able and at the level they are moved to give; and finally, people with special skills have an added  responsibility to actualize the vision, to make it happen.  Once these principles are made explicit, the Torah returns to the telling of the actual construction of the Mishkan.

This past week, I had the privilege of attending a הקהל - a convening - for the entire world of Jewish camping, The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s (FJC)  2012 Leaders Assembly.  The largest gathering in the history of the field, over 650 professional and lay leaders, funders and friends of not-for-profit Jewish overnight camping met in New Brunswick, New Jersey to celebrate our field and to dream about where we might go in the future.  From a small start up organization started by FJC founders Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner and led by Rabbi Ramie Arian to a mature thirteen year-old organization led until recently by one of my mentors,  Jerry Silverman, now President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America, honoring its most recent President, the exceptional and visionary Dr. Skip Vichness, FJC has helped put Jewish overnight camping on the agenda of the broader Jewish community.  As a result, the Jewish world now knows and recognizes what those of us in the field have known for decades:  
  • The more summers spent at high impact Jewish overnight camp is one of, if not the best guarantors of continued involvement in and lifelong commitment to Jewish community, Jewish living, and Jewish learning.  
  • Jewish camp is a key investment in the future of North American Jewry and merits significant financial support from the Jewish world to make it possible for every Jewish child to attend camp, regardless of their family’s ability to pay.
  • New programmatic initiatives at individual camps and camping movements are worthy investments because they work and can often be replicable in other Jewish educational settings.
  • Graduates of Jewish overnight camp are disproportionately represented at every level of  professional and lay leadership in the organized Jewish community.
  • Graduates of Jewish overnight camp are among the most innovative and creative contributors to new initiatives in the Jewish community.

In other words, Jewish overnight camp works.

Of the many takeaways from Leaders Assembly 2012, a few stand above the rest. First, Jewish camp must be built around and embody Torah, broadly defined and in all of its forms.  Just as Torah stands at the center of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in the Beit HaMikdash, The Temple in Jerusalem, Torah must be at the heart of the Jewish camping experience.  For Jewish camp to have the type of impact it can have on individuals now and on Jewish  Peoplehood in the future, experiencing fun, meaningful Jewish living and learning must be at the center of the experience. Shabbat is one of the best examples of how this happens in every Jewish camp.  We each observe Shabbat differently but that observance dictates the rhythm of life at camp, enhances the nature of friendships and connections within the camp community and brings us closer to The Divine.

Second, increasing the number of Jewish camps, supporting new programs at existing camps, and increasing the number of scholarships and incentive grants that make it possible for every child to attend a Jewish overnight camp should be an obligation of the entire North American Jewish community.  Each community should contribute to the level it is moved to contribute.  Given the high return on the investment communities receive from Jewish camp in the form of energized, knowledgeable, committed Jewish children and adults, however, it is reasonable to expect that all communities will be inspired to contribute at the highest possible levels.  It must be understood today that Jewish camp is not a luxury for the few or a scholarship gift to those in need; rather, it is a required experience for and investment in the future of North American Jewry.  Every Jewish child merits such an  investment.

Finally, the field of Jewish camp requires outstanding, visionary professionals to design and build our camp communities anew every summer just as skilled artisans were required to design and build the Mishkan.  FJC investments in professional development programs like ELI: the Executive Leadership Institute for senior camp directors and Yitro for assistant directors are advancing the profession of camp director by exposing senior professionals to best practices in everything from customer satisfaction to development and implementation  of institutional vision.  Returning from New Brunswick, I am invigorated by the conversations I had with fellow directors and by their visions not only of individual camps but of the Jewish future as well.  Moreover, I am inspired by the  many emerging adults involved in the most innovative, transformational, new projects in the Jewish world, all of whom grew up in and are still deeply involved with the Jewish overnight camp they attended.

As the field continues to grow, as Jewish camp becomes more and more central to insuring the vibrancy of the Jewish future in North America, a few challenges remain.  To secure the future impact of Jewish camp on the broadest possible audience,  I believe we must  focus our attention on the following:

Make Jewish overnight camp affordable for families who are already investing in their children’s Jewish education by sending them to Jewish Day School.  Jewish overnight camp is as important for students of Jewish Day Schools as it is for every other Jewish child.  It is at Jewish camp where Day School students get to make Judaism their own just as it is for their peers who attend supplementary Jewish educational programs.  The financial investment these families make is substantial, often exceeding $60,000 to $80,000 or more annually for a family of three children.  Such families should not be penalized for making this investment; rather, they should be equally if not more supported and incentivized.

Celebrate brand diversity within the field of Jewish overnight camp.  Every camping movement is different and every Jewish camp is different.  We have different goals and intended outcomes.  We meet different needs.  In a Jewish world committed to pluralism, we need to celebrate difference rather than attempt to homogenize it away.  Every camp is not going to be right for every child or family and every camp does not seek to accomplish the same things.   I hope celebration of brand diversity becomes a core value for the entire field of Jewish camping, from our individual camps and movements to individual funders and foundations to our central voice in the Jewish community.  

invest in those camps that serve as the research and development (R & D) camps for the entire field. Certain camps throughout North America unofficially serve as  R & D laboratories for the rest of the field.  Camp directors share generously programs and approaches developed at our camps and benefit from those developed at other camps.  Financial support from beyond individual camp boards is as required for the research and development function in camp as it is for the adoption and replication of such programs at other camps.  We need increased support for this crucial aspect of our work, research and development, to insure long-term vibrancy not only for Jewish camping but for other Jewish educational settings as well.

Thank you to the FJC for a great Leaders Assembly 2012, for helping put Jewish overnight camp on the agenda of the entire Jewish world, for helping make it possible for all of us to “Reach Beyond the Bunk” and touch an ever increasing number of Jewish souls, and to the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jeremy Fingerman, who was the counselor-in-training for my cabin during my first summer as a camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin in 1977 for being among those who helped me make it through that first summer, and for his leadership today.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 2, 2012

כל דבר מזכיר לי - “Every Thing Reminds Me...” Thoughts on Parashat Tetzaveh - Shabbat Zachor

Annually, one of my last  stops in Israel is at the duty-free music store in Ben Gurion Airport.  I like to pick up a new recording of Israeli or Jewish music or at least listen to the new options they are playing for other shoppers.  This time, my mission was to buy the first season of “S’rugim” which translates as “Crocheted” and is a reference to young religious Israelis and their daily life experiences.  The salesman helped me find what I was looking for and started suggesting additional options. He clearly had me sized up and pegged to my age cohort and brought me new and classic recordings of Shlomo Artzi, Shalom Chanoch, Sarit Haddad and Arik Einstein.  He paused, looked at me again and said, “I bet you would love this new recording from Yehuda Poliker.”  How did this guy know?  Was it the bit of gray showing up in my hair?  

The fact is, I love the music of Yehuda Poliker.  I first heard it in 1990-1991 when I studied in Israel during my rabbinical school year.  Poliker’s music was a soothing balm during the stresses of the first Gulf War.  They served as  the uplifting tones that energized me while working with recently arrived members of the second aliyah from Ethiopia.  The only rock concert I ever attended in my life was Yehuda Poliker live at the Roman Amphitheater on Mt. Scopus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Poliker’s music is haunting, inspiring, energizing.  Drawing on his family roots from Saloniki, Greece, Poliker weaves together rhythms and tones, as well as lyrics, from Greece, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  His music touches my soul in a very deep way.

The salesman brought over the new recording.  Titled כל דבר מזכיר לי, “Every Thing Reminds Me...” the CD is a combination of love songs and life songs.  On almost all of Poliker’s recordings, at least one title is sung in Greek.  This new CD begins with the title song in Greek and ends with the same song translated into Hebrew.  כל דבר מזכיר לי is a powerful, sad song of longing.  In everything - every moment, every image, every place -  the singer sees and feels and longs for a lover who is no longer.  It is not clear if the lover is dead or just gone but she is definitely no longer there.  The power of זכרון, of memory, is so intense you can feel and hear it in the singer’s voice.  What is not clear is whether or not the strength of memory is holding the singer back from moving forward with his life or if there is just an intense sadness as he navigates the tasks of daily living.  When is memory a blessing and when is it a curse?

Memory is at the heart of this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim.  On Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, the maftir aliyah is read from a second Torah scroll and is taken from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.  אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיך -וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹקים. וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ היְ אֱלֹקֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הי-אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח

Remember What Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.  How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.  Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven.  Do not forget!

As we prepare to remember and blot out Haman and Zeresh, and to remember joyously our ancestors Esther and Mordechai, the special reading for Shabbat Zachor with its admonition to blot out the memory of our historical enemy, Amalek, serves as the context-setter for Haman as Amalek’s midrashic descendant.  I find the language of this reading confusing.  After all, the Torah commands us to “Remember” what Amalek did to our ancestors while simultaneously commanding us to erase or “blot out” the memory of Amalek from under Heaven.  Is it possible to remember and blot out at the same time?  If so, how? Finally, what role does the phrase ”...when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you...” play in explaining the apparent contradiction between commanding memory and commanding the blotting out of memory?

One possible explanation is that until such time as the Jewish People lives in complete safety from all enemies in all places, when ultimate Peace is granted from the Heavens, that we are obligated to remember that there are ongoing threats to our existence.  Perhaps by being cognizant of these threats, we will work harder to create conditions favorable to achieving the Messianic Era and the World Peace that comes with it.  At that time, we will blot out the memory of hatred for it will be irrelevant for all eternity.  According to this explanation, memory serves as a motivator not to achieve the negative of slaughter but to bring about the positive condition of Peace in the world.  The retaining of the memory of a national homeland in The Promised Land ultimately led to the positive outcome of the establishment of the modern State of Israel.  Remembering Gilad Shalit while in captivity provided the energy and motivation to achieve his release even at the highest of prices.  Memory of this sort can link people together across cities and countries and ideologies in order to reach achievements that might have seemed impossible otherwise.

If the above explanation provides me with an understanding of the positive power of memory, however, I am still left with the question of its negative consequences.  Memory preserving hatred leads to ethnic cleansing, to vengeance on the individual and national level.  Memory in the form of longing for that which is lost and never to return, be it love or a loved one, can paralyze a person, preventing them from moving forward into a new and more positive phase of life, to finding love anew, to find new motivation for purpose in life.  Finally, the power of Memory can prevent innovation and change.  “We have always done it this way”, if more than just a sweet recalling of prior experience, serves to block change when it is demanded because the world changes or required because certain conditions change.  When memory serves to stagnate and stifle, it leads to whithering and extinction.

Salo Baron z”l, the dean of modern Jewish historians, argued against what he referred to as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” a scholarly viewpoint that he believed was mistaken as it looked only at the various periods of persecution of the Jewish people while ignoring any and all positive periods or events in Jewish life, thought and culture.  For Baron and his disciples, remembrance of Jewish history must be far more than the book “Every Day Remembrance Day,” a work that lists all of the tragedies that befell Jews on each and every day of the year.  Jewish memory has to include positive achievements in economics, in theology, in art, in science, etc throughout history.  On this Shabbat, as we remember what Amalek did to us, as we keep fresh in our mind what the modern descendants of Amalek, in all of their forms, attempt to do to the Jewish People and to the world, I also encourage each of us to remember and be motivated by our positive history and memories, by positive achievements and accomplishments, and that these memories help us to discover new inner strengths to change the world and ourselves in positive ways.

As I prepare for Shabbat, the music of Yehuda Poliker plays from my iPhone and yes,        כל דבר מזכיר לד “Everything reminds me.”  The sounds and the smells, the tastes and the tasks of getting ready for Shabbat remind me of what I love about Shabbat.  They remind me of sweet Shabbatot in the past.  And they stir thoughts about the sweet Shabbatot to come - those in Chicago, those on Lake Buckatabon, and those in our Jewish national homeland, Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.