Friday, June 29, 2012

On (No) Pork & (Yes) Beans & Jewish Camp

 “It’s so nice to be in a place where you don’t have to ask if there is pork in the beans!”
                                                                                                         Geoff Rice
The Northwoods Ramah Theater Company

This week, members of the Northwoods Ramah Theater Company arrived at camp for the start of their annual workshop.  After dinner on the first night, Jonathan Adam Ross, known as JAR in camp, came to share the above quote about beans with me.  We could not stop laughing!  Being at camp for the summer, it is easy to forget that we take for granted that which cannot be assumed outside of our Jewish summer bubble. In the midst of all of the great friendships we build at camp, with all of the incredible fun we have, we live full Jewish lives and experiences in such natural ways that we sometimes forget to even notice they are happening.

Take a few glances at the photos on the website and you will see a week full of fun.  We had inter-aidah basketball and softball games, as well as a fantastic Zimriyah.  On Wednesday, it was so hot that we had an all-camp water battle on the lower kikar.  Our first group of Kochavim chanichim went home until next summer and our second group arrived on Wednesday.  There were friends walking arm-in-arm.  There was laughter. There were smiles everywhere throughout the week. There was all this and even more fun.  Plus, there was so much Jewish learning that just happened all week long.

Here is an example of how we weave Judaism into the camp experience in a way that pays dividends for life.  My wife, Rebecca, teaches a Yahadut (Judaics) class to campers in Machon on Kabbalah and the Body.  Becca takes the practice of Yoga and combines it with classical concepts from Kabbalah, including the 10 Sefirot, to help campers discover the power of personal practice while exploring Jewish mysticism. Because Becca was out of camp for a few days visiting other camps on behalf of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I was the substitute teacher.

Yoga is not part of my personal daily life and I was not going to be teaching campers how “Warrior II” speaks to concepts like Tiferet and Netzach.  Instead, it was my job to teach campers about a different approach to Jewish mysticism, one from the Talmud.  Oy!  How can I, who cannot even do downward dog for more than three seconds, compete with handstands and arm balances and Lurianic Kabbalah taught by my entertaining, thoughtful, talented and energetic wife?  Even worse, in a world that tells us that teens are not interested in actually studying Jewish text, in a world where people are saying that “all toys now have to have some electronic gadgetry or kids won’t be interested,” is it possible to make a text like Hagigah 14b and the story of Rabbi Akiva, Ben Zoma, Ben Azzai and Acher come to life?  

But here’s something we can’t take for granted – our campers actually are interested in engaging with challenging Jewish texts.  Many of them will sit for 45 minutes and explore the implications of an obscure aggadah from the Talmud on life and, yes, even on their yoga practice.  So, I had the privilege of sharing a different kind of Jewish mysticism, Ma’aseh HaMerkava and other Talmudic mystical ideas, with a group of campers.  Together, we struggled to understand how Rabbi Akiva could exit the journey in Peace yet come to such an awful end in a later aggadah.  Today, the same campers studied with Dr. Rebecca Schorsch about the Kotzker Rebbe and the concept of Hitboddedut, self-seclusion or meditation.  I am certain that Dr. Schorsch was equally impressed with the campers, with their depth of thought, and their interest in the topic.  

The preciousness of the gift of learning in camp, the importance of not taking it for granted, even appears in this week’s parashah.  At the end of Hukkat, there is a short passage about the Israelites wandering in the desert that mentions three different locations as stops along the way:

וּמִמַּתָּנָה, נַחֲלִיאֵל; וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל בָּמוֹת

And from Matanah to Nahaliel and from Nahaliel to Bamot. Numbers 21:19

These three names are dripping in meaning in Hebrew, a fact the midrash does not fail to notice.  Matanah means a gift.  Nahaliel is an inheritance from God.  Bamot means high places.  The Mechilta notes that there are four places referred to as inheritances: The Temple in Jerusalem; the land of
Israel; the Torah; and the People of Israel.  

Another way to understand these names is that they represent a progression of learning:  A gift that is given, in our case Torah, becomes an inheritance when it is thoroughly studied and digested, thereby raising us to higher and higher places of understanding of self and relationship with God.  This is exactly what I see happening at camp all the time.  Parents give children the gift of a Ramah experience, the gift living Torah in a vibrant community of peers. Campers learn Torah in every possible setting, from formal classes to activities, from Israeli music on the radio to doing tzedakah in active ways.  Campers make Torah and Judaism their own.  Then, they discover more about themselves, about their friends, about their People and about God.

At camp, we can’t take fun for granted.  We can’t take friends for granted.  And...we cannot take living Judaism for granted either. If challenged in an authentic and compelling way at their own intellectual and spiritual level – at camp and throughout the year - our campers come to own their Jewishness in a deep and meaningful way.  Torah becomes their inheritance - one that you have given them – and they will take that inheritance to an even higher level. That is the incredible gift that you have given them.  Now we have to make sure that none of us take it for granted.

And, finally, we can’t take for granted that all summer long we live in a place where we don’t have to worry about finding pork in our beans!

Shabbat Shalom,

Loren Sykes

P.S.  A very special welcome to camp to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and his wife, Gail.  Jeremy is an alumnus (Nivonim 1977) and was my CIT during my first summer at Ramah Wisconsin in Sollelim 1977.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to have you both here for Shabbat!

Friday, June 15, 2012

On Names and Beginnings

Shabbat Shalom, 

The building blocks of creating community begin with names. This is true for camp and for life in general.

The first days of camp are filled with learning new names. Chanichim (campers) learn the names of new friends. Madrichim (counselors) learn the names of chanichim. Roshei Aidah (division heads) learn the names of all of the chanichim in the aidah. Specialty and education counselors, as well as department heads, learn the names of all the campers they see during the day. Every person has a name with a meaning. 

Walking around camp on arrival day, I saw circles of happy young campers playing name games. Their madrichim created all kinds of fun, silly, energetic games to help campers meet one another, learn names and make first friendships. These games build strong esprit d’corps in the tzrif (cabin) and make it a safe place for everyone to be himself or herself, to belong and to feel included.  Every person has a name they like to be called. Now, for the first time, they get to choose what name they want to be known by in camp.  

During these first days of camp, the limudei Yahadut (Jewish learning) staff, led by our new, fantastic rosh, Tamar Cytryn, initiated a creative program for campers to learn about their own names. Based on a work by the Hebrew poet, Zelda, the new program is titled, "L’kol ish yesh shem," "Every Person Has a Name". Over these first days, campers are discussing BIG, name-related questions. Big questions, in distinction to hard questions, are those that lead to conversation and storytelling; require no expertise in order to join the conversation; and have no right answer. Some of the questions campers are thinking about during Yahadut classes at the start of camp include:

What is the meaning of your birth name?
How did you get that name?  
How does a person “earn” a name?
Are there names that you are called that you really like?
Strongly dislike?
By what name do you want to be known this summer?
What name do you want to earn for yourself this summer? 
What kind of person will you need to be in order to earn that name?

Today, when campers met in their limmudei yahadut classes, they created name collages that will become large murals in their chadarei ochel (dining halls). I have not yet seen the paper quilts they are creating but I know that they will be incredible to examine. On the wall, we will see the initial ways that campers view themselves at the start of the summer. We will see images of how they want to contribute to the camp community. We will see in pictures and words their personal goals for the summer.

On Friday of each week during limmudei Yahadut, campers will engage in what we call Cheshbon Nefesh, personal reckoning or accounting. They will think about how they did the previous week in achieving their goals, whether or not the person they were during the week matched up with the person they wanted to be, and they will create a new paper image of the name they want to earn for the quilt. At the end of the summer, I believe we will see a magnificent quilt of personal reflection and achievement, of growth and soulful beauty, of the reflection of God’s image in each member of the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin community.

The beginning of our parashah, Shlach Lekha, deals with names, some infamous and some famous. The opening narrative is about the spies that Moshe sends to investigate the Promised Land. Most of the names become infamous because they are spies who return, present a beautiful image of the land, and an incredibly pessimistic outlook about the ability of the Israelites to conquer the land. Only two spies, Joshua and Caleb, become famous in a positive way for they represent the opinion that the Israelites, with God’s help, will conquer the land of Israel. The Torah does not tell us anything about the mindset of the spies as they set out on their mission. The Zohar speculates that the princes were concerned about their own standing in the future, that they would be replaced once the land was conquered, so they came back with a negative report in order to preserve their own power. The Midrash HaGadol believes that Joshua and Caleb did not travel together with the other spies because they believed from the outset that the mission was achievable and did not need to see the land at all. Regardless of their goals for the week, all but two of the spies ended their trip with negative names. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, came out of the experience viewed as better people.

The concept of doing a weekly Cheshbon Nefesh, taking a weekly reckoning of the names that we earned and the names we want to earn, is a process that all of us can and should do. As our children are thinking about what names the want to be known by at camp, Hannah the Brave, David the Kind, etc, we can do that for ourselves. We can ask our children at home what names they want to earn in the coming week, and, at the end of the summer, we can ask our children what names they hoped to acquire during the summer and hear the stories of their achieving success.

Shabbat Shalom.

To read the poem by Zelda in English, go to

Friday, June 1, 2012

To Give and To Take

אדם צריך שתיהי לו מילה
קצת מקום בעולם
אהבה לא נשכחת
וקול אמיתי לתפילה
ורגע מושלם
כדי לתת ולקחת
לפחד מהפחד.

A person needs to have a word,
A little place in the world,
Unforgettable Love,
A real voice for prayer
And a moment of completeness
In order to give and to take,
And to not be afraid of fear.
Shlomo Artzi, To Give and To Take

Sitting at a picnic table in front of my house, under the bright blue sky, the bald eagle soars overhead as I listened to music with three roshei aidah.  We hear the words of Shlomo Artzi’s song לתת ולקחת, To Give and To Take.  The refrain lists five things a person needs - a word or voice, a place, unforgettable love, a real, prayerful voice, and a sense of completeness or integrity - in order to truly give and receive and to face fear without being afraid.  We listened a second time to the refrain and then entered into a conversation about tefilah, prayer.  Among the questions raised were:
  • How do we balance individual needs in prayer with communal needs?
  • Can every text be viewed as a prayer or is there something about liturgical poetry that puts some things within the realm of prayer and some things outside that realm?
  • What is the meaning of a real or truthful voice for prayer?
  • What does it mean that a person needs a word or a voice in the context of prayer?  Is that a reference to fixed liturgy or to the need for personal prayer?

As the conversation proceeded, as we went deeper trying to answer one question, we arrived at more questions than answers.

Daniel Olson, rosh aidah for our Atzmayim program, pointed out that the five precursors for successful giving, receiving, and confronting fear are, in many ways, the same things we needed to have successful, powerful tefillot in camp and in life:

אדם צריך שתיהי לו מילה
A person needs a word...

The traditional language of the siddur provides us with words, with a language for conversation with God and with ourselves.  They give us poetry and imagery that link us to our history and to the worldwide Jewish community.  At the same time, each one of us needs our own words to convey wants and desires, hopes and aspirations, thoughts and feelings.  As educators, we constantly struggle with the balance between the creative and the traditional, the communal and the individual, as we think about tefillah in camp and for ourselves.  What words do we need? Halakhically? Personally?

קצת מקום בעולם
A little place in the world
What is the setting for prayer, individual and communal?  How do we make our prayerful places, our מקדשי מעט , appropriate settings for tefillah. In camp, most davvening places are multipurpose spaces transitioning quickly from tefillot into stages for theater, into studios for dance, into practice rooms for music, etc.  The atmosphere of the place can help put us in the right mood for intimate conversation with God and with self or it can convey a sense of “get this over with quickly” because someone needs the room for another activity.  Our job is to insure that where we pray is conducive to prayer, that it is warm, that it inspires us to take our time in self-reflection and connection with The Divine.  And then, as we learn from the beginning of this week’s parasha, Naso,  just as was the case with moving the portable Tabernacle, the Mishkan, we need to break the room down in a respectful and careful way, treating all of the ritual objects with kavod, with respect.

אהבה לא נשכחת
Unforgettable Love

I asked the shlichim to translate this phrase for me and they said that the best translation was “unforgettable love.”  In the context of tefillah, I think Shlomo Artzi is talking about unconditional love or אהבה שלא תלויה בדבר, love that is not dependent on anything.  In tefillah, no matter what we say in our hearts, we need to remember that we are loved, somewhere, somehow, unconditionally, be that God’s love, parental love, etc.  Camp is a place where everyone needs to know that they are valued and respected.  Tefillah, with its language of thanks, provides us with the opportunity to be reminded of the sources of love and hope and blessing in our lives.

וקול אמיתי לתפילה
A real voice of prayer

For many people, camp is the place where they first discover their own prayerful voice.  Encountering the siddur, struggling with the literal and personal meaning of the prayers, helps us find our voice for talking with God and with our souls.  From the moments when we pray with our internal voice to the times we sing out with our peers, camp can be the place where people first enter conversation with God or the place where they start to discover who they are.  How do we create the atmosphere, the trust, required for campers and staff members to feel safe exploring these aspects of self?  What is a real voice of prayer?  Is there a difference between communal singing and prayer?  If so, how do we know when we are doing one and not the other?

ורגע מושלם
A moment of completeness

A personal sense of integrity, a sense of wholeness, of authenticity helps bring people to deeply prayerful moments.  Recognizing who we truly are, what we truly believe, helps motivate us to act, to give genuinely and to receive genuinely.  Walking around camp with other people, you often get gifts that open up parts of your soul, that lead to deeper understanding and that lead you to be able to face challenges and moments without fear, without worry of the “if only I...”  I often hear people say that camp is the only place where they can truly be themselves.  Tefillah can be a time for feeling this sense of completeness, of integrity, of perfection which prepares you to give and to receive.

As the staff builds over the course of the week to come, we will continue the conversation about tefillah in camp.  We will seek to build an inspiring community that is steeped in our traditional siddur.  We will work to maintain the proper balance between the voice of the community and the voice of the individual in the conversations that take place at camp between us and God.  At moments, our prayers and our souls will soar without fear, like the eagle, to the Heavens.  At others, they will be the still small voice in our souls reminding us that we are loved.  They will remind us that to give and to receive, we must be authentic in our voices, in our words, in our actions.  Finally, we will be blessed to achieve all of this in our מקום בעולם, on the shores of Lake Buckatabon at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

Shabbat Shalom.