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Not 10 for 2. Instead 2 for 12.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks going on a camp tour. Rabbi Marder and I visited our Congregation Beth El kids at the NJ Y Camps, at Nah Jee Wah, Cedar Lake Camp, and TAC. I went last week to see a few of our kids who are at Young Judea Sprout Lake and at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. On Sunday, I visited with our community members at Camp Ramah in the Poconos as well.

I went to see the magic of Jewish camp, to see the joy that these kids were experiencing while at Jewish camp, joy that we understood and wanted to replicate at Beth El, by having our own Beth El Goes to Camp retreat.

While at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Rabbi Ethan Linden, camp director,  made an important point. All those who work in the camping world have a slogan: 10 for 2. You live 10 months of the year for the 2 months of summer. Those who work year round at camp, work hard for ten months to present a meaningful product over 2 months. Campers put up with school and winter and all that comes with living at home, for 2 months in their happy place, in the utopia that is camp.

As marketers, that is what you want from consumers, for them to yearn to come back, to count down the days until next summer, in the same way that people await the next blockbuster superhero movie to hit theaters, or wait in line to buy the newest iPhone. Camp should be on their mind in the same way.

But as educators, 10 for 2 is a failed model. Because that means that you put all your love and energy into the two months of the summer and then after the summer, that joy and impact stays at camp, remains in the summer, until next summer that is. Maybe it should instead be 2 for 10, or 2 for 12, that the experiences one has over the two months at camp carry with them for the whole year.

ramahpoconosSometimes, we don’t realize the impact in the moment itself, it is only after the fact, when we look back, the memory of the moment is what has the lasting impact. I remember when I’d come home from camp, long before these days where camps would post hundreds of pictures a day online, and the first thing I’d do was go and drop off 20 rolls of film. I’d anxiously wait from them to be developed and then sit and look through picture-by-picture. I’d Looking back at time and place of the memory and better understanding the impact of that experience.

That is what is going on in Parashat Ma’sei, the last Torah portion in the book of Numbers, and originally the last portion of the Torah. Before editors added on the book of Deuteronomy to the biblical canon, Torah ended with a reminder of all the places the Israelites traveled and stopped along the way, a reminder of those places that were inhabitable, a reminder of how quite remarkable it was that the Israelites survived wandering for 40 years.

And for those 40 years, they complained a lot. They made a Golden Calf, they wanted better food to eat, purer water to drink. At times they wished they had never left Egypt. They were “home sick” if you will. And yet, looking back, as we retrace our steps, and retell the story, we come to realize the impact of the journey. The journey, the wandering, defines us as a people, and we weren’t even there for it.

Nachmanides points out that a recounting of the Israelites’ wanderings in these uninhabitable lands only highlights their faith in God that they continued to wander and trust in God. Clearly the experience of their wandering was quite different than how they experienced it in the moment.  The impact of the 40 years of wandering, the Israelites’ metaphorical 2 months at summer camp, was felt more when they returned home, in the recounting of their journey, than during the journey itself.

And that’s our goal as well. Not just for our children who go off to camp, but for all of us, whatever we do and wherever we find meaning. We may not appreciate it in the moment itself, but if done well, the impact is everlasting after the fact, as we continue to recount our journey, even as we continue to figure out our destination.

May every summer be the experience of a lifetime. And may each summer camp experience impact our children’s lives for the entirety of their lives. When they return home, may they reflect on camp and appreciate the holiness of that experience and make those experiences a regular part of their lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be a Sanctuary

Parashat Masei makes mention of the Ir Miklat, the Sanctuary City. Upon assigning and distributing the land of Israel to the different tribes, the Torah mentions that among the land distributed to the Levites, there should be six cities among the forty-eight towns, that are designated as Sanctuary Cities. While these cities are meant for the unintentional murderer to seek refuge from the Goel Hadam, from the relative of the deceased who seeks bloodshed as revenge, these cities of refuge hold a deeper meaning. It suggests that even when someone may no something that is deemed illegal (either by Jewish law or the law of the land), we have an obligation to protect them from the penalty of their actions which could be hurtful and life-threatening.

The New Sanctuary Movement has taken inspiration from the biblical concept of Ir Miklat, suggesting that houses of worship and religious institutions should become houses of refuge for undocumented immigrants, protecting them from the punishments of ICE and unjust and inhumane policies.

The Rambam though interprets that all of the forty-eight cities of the Levites were seen as cities of refuge (MT Rotz. 8:9). While he makes a distinction between those that the Levites resided in and those that they didn’t, the meaning of his teaching is clear: we have a responsibility in our communities to create sanctuary for our neighbors. We cannot build sacred space unless our communities are seen as safe space for all who reside in it. The Levites were spiritual figures, as they participated in ritual. There was a belief that living among the Levites, these spiritual leaders, elevated one’s kedushah, one’s holiness. Rambam reminds us that part of that holiness is protecting those who are most vulnerable and seeing their lives as equally holy.

At a time when immigrants – documented and undocumented – are living in constant fear because of xenophobic policies and enforcement of those policies by ICE, may we take inspiration from this Torah portion. May we strive to create sanctuary for all in need and may our sacred spaces always be safe spaces.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Dream Fulfilled

In 1903, Theodor Herzl, the father of the modern Zionist movement, asked his family to promise him that when the Jewish people returned to their ancestral homeland, he wished to have his bones buried there. A year later – 1904 – he died and was buried in Vienna. In the summer of 1945, when the State of Israel was still in its infancy, a parade was held as his bones were exhumed from Vienna and reinterred atop what has become known as Har Herzl, a national cemetery where past Prime Ministers, Presidents, military leaders, and historical figures have been laid to rest. Har Herzl overlooks the city of Jerusalem. Atop this cemetery, you can see the ancient city and the modern buildings. You can see the busy and bustling streets brought to life. Atop this mountain, you can see Herzl’s dream fulfilled.

In the middle of Parashat Pinchas, God tells Moses:

Ascend the Mountain of Avarim and lout out unto the land that I am to give to the Children of Israel. And when you see this land, you too will be gathered among your people, just as your brother Aaron was gathered (Num. 27:12-13).

This is God’s way of saying, go up to the mountain top, see the Promised Land, but then you will not come down. We know in Parashat V’Zot HaBracha, the final portion of the Torah, that Moses ascends Har Nevo, Mount Nebo, and dies there, seemingly fulfilling exactly what God tells him here.

Our commentators, debate if this is the same moment as at the end of Deuteronomy when he ascends Har Nevo and dies. Tiferet Tzion suggests that Moses ascends the Mountain twice. The second time is to die there, but the first time, is to bestow a blessing on the land – a material blessing. When he dies, he bestows a spiritual blessing.

We already learned in Parashat Chukkat that Moses would not be entering the Promised Land.

But ascending this mountain isn’t a punishment. It isn’t a reminder of what Moses will not experience. It is quite the reward. Moses knows he is not the person to welcome the Israelites into the Promised Land. The parasha continues with him looking for his successor. And yet, he gets a sneak peak of the future. He gets to see the future that he himself will not get to experience, but that he has spent his entire career as leader working towards. This is exactly what happened when Theodor Herzl was reinterred overlooking the city and the land that fought for the Jewish people to return to.

Imagine if we get a glimpse at the future for our descendants, what this world will be like for them, long after we have left this world. What would we do differently if we knew when and where we were to leave this world? How would be act before that moment? And what would be do in that moment? Midrash says that Moses used that mountain to bestow material and spiritual blessings unto the land and the people. And as he continued to overlook the land, he continued to bestow blessings unto them, long after he left this world. Let that be our goal as well: to recognize how short life is, and to bestow blessings unto our loved ones, and to leave a lasting impact on this world, so that we continue to bestow blessings long after we’ve left this world.

 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We Cannot Be Silent


I know that there are many who participated in Lights for Liberty actions this past Friday night, protesting the ICE camps and the anticipated ICE raids that are about to begin. As Friday evening was the beginning of Shabbat, I was instead lighting Sabbath candles and not participating in this action. But I believe the candles we lit that evening, whether they are Sabbath candles or candles of protest, served the same purpose: to light up the darkness. The prophet Isaiah said that we must be a light unto the nations. We must shed light on the darkest moments in history, on the actions by our government and leaders that darken our world. By shedding light, we expose such cruelty and immorality. By shedding light, we add light to the darkness that ICE detainees feel, hopefully knowing that they are not alone in their fight for freedom. And by shedding light, we amplify their voices and their struggle.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Chukat, when Moses is informed that he, the leader of the Israelites who took them out of bondage, out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, will not be there to welcome them into the Promsed Land. Because Moses strikes a rock (twice!) instead of following God’s odd command to speak to the rock to draw water for the Israelites, he is punished by being told that he would not enter the land of Israel. 

What is surprising though is that Aaron is equally punished for Moses’ actions. Moses is the one that takes the rod. Moses is the one that strikes the rock. Moses is the one that yells at the people. And yet, the Torah tells us“And God said to Moses and to Aaron, it is because you both did not have faith in me” (Num. 20:12).

The Torah is clear that Aaron is punished for Moses’ actions. Our commentators are equally baffled by this. Abarbanel attempts to explain that Aaron’s punishment is a delayed punishment for his role in building the Golden Calf. But that was ages ago, and truly seems like an excuse, especially since Aaron wasn’t punished at the time of the idol being built, when the rest of the Israelites were punished. The Yalkut Shimoni though introduces a midrash where Moses is equally confused by Aaron’s punishment. Moses argues with God: “I understand that I am guilty, but why is Aaron?” God responds that is it Aaron’s silence that makes him liable.

Silence equals guilt. Being a bystander, midrash suggests, makes us just as responsible. We cannot unsee what we have seen. We cannot forget the stories we have read. We cannot unhear the cries of help from children in cages. If we do, then we remain a bystander, then we remain just as guilty. 

The President promised to begin ICE raids this weekend to round up individuals. There were reports that yesterday, ICE agents were at subway stops asking individuals for IDs. Neighbors are concerned about returning to their homes at night after they get off of a shift from work.  Elementary school-aged children in Border Detention Centers are being forced to wear diapers because ICE officers aren’t letting them go to the bathroom. Half a dozen children are being forced to share a mat to sleep on, denied basic rights, denied toothbrushes, denied showers, denied blankets. There are signs of trauma and children aren’t given any medical support. Older children are left to take care of younger ones. They are forced into overcrowded facilities meant for adult males and have alleged sexual and physical assault. 

If we are silent, if we don’t speak up, if we aren’t banging down the doors of every elected official who has the ability and responsibility to make a difference, and if we aren’t opening up our own doors, hands, and hearts, to care for those who are most in need, then we are guilty just like Aaron. If we don’t accept our privilege and thus, think about how we must use our privilege to advocate, and to give voice to the silent, then we too are guilty.

Like the lights lit on Friday night, a flame is how quickly it can spread. While even a single small flickering flame has the potential to illuminate the darkness, a single spark can spread into a towering flame. And we are more powerful when we unify, when our lights are shared, when we stand together to shed light, and to fight for justice.

May we speak up and refuse to remain silent. Speaking up sheds light and spreads light, just like these lit flames. Aaron’s silence prevented him from entering the promised lands. If we remain silent, then maybe we don’t deserve to live in this promised land either.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Instead of Arguing over Semantics, We Must Act

Controversy took over the headlines this week – you know, not real controversy, but the type of controversy that we’ve come to expect in a 24-hour news cycle where every tweet, comment, and quote get over analyzed and twisted out of context. This week, in reference to the detention facilities that the Trump administration has set up on the US-Mexico border, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as concentration camps. Many of her political opponents were quick to criticize her, suggesting that one cannot use Holocaust allegory to condemn the human rights violations happening right now in our country, as if we say “never again” but don’t actually mean it, like it only means never again to us.

I understand that using the term concentration camps is a trigger. I understand that doing so suggests that the actions of the Trump administration are no different than Nazi Germany. I would never say that or suggest that. But we have been so consumed over the last several days by whether or not these are concentration camps,  and ignored the half a dozen children – CHILDREN – who have died in these detention facilities for lack of care, or the babies born prematurely in these internment camps without being seen by a medical professional. We’ve debated appropriate analogies instead of highlighting the reports that a traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children, and teens at the border who have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water, or sanitation.

And it doesn’t matter that there are those historians who say that concentration camps is the appropriate term, because I am not sure it is the appropriate term. But we get consumed and distracted by those arguments, by those who are trying to prove that concentration camps is an appropriate term, or those who suggest that using such a term minimizes the actual horrors of the Holocaust. We end up ignoring the President’s promise of a modern-day Kristellnacht – yes, I too used such an analogy — reporting that he will soon be demanding that ICE begin rounding up millions – MILLIONS – of residents to arrest them, detain them, and deport them, because of their immigration status, and will question those based on how they look or the languages they speak.

The 24-hour news cycle has forced us down this narrowly-focused path where we only have tunnel vision, where we are arguing over semantics, and ignoring the actual problem, refusing to act entirely. It’s as if only certain people can say certain things, like decrying human rights violations can only be done by those who they themselves have suffered such violations, like using the term concentration camp is reserved only for survivors of the Shoah. Unfortunately, as there are fewer and fewer survivors left, it is up to those who only learned about such atrocities and thank God, didn’t live through them, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Or even worse, it is up to us to make sure society doesn’t turn a blind eye, when history does repeat itself.

In Parashat Behaalotecha, we are introduced to Eldad and Meidad, two individuals who we only hear of for the very first time in Numbers 11:26. The text tells us that vatanach aleihem haRuach, that God’s divine spirit rested on them, and they offered prophecy. When a young man runs out to complain to Joshua and Moses that two random men are prophesizing and speaking truth to power, Joshua freaks out, but Moses puts him in his place. He says: It should be that all of God’s people are prophets, and that God’s spirit rests with everyone.

It is on all of us to speak up when we see the atrocities going on all around us. And maybe we are overly hyperbolic. But maybe, just maybe, such analogies are appropriate. And most definitely, such analogies bring attention to the problem – to kids locked in cages, to ICE agents raiding apartment buildings and elementary schools, to families being separated, to children being denied safety and sanitation by this supposed land of the free. We all have an obligation to be that prophetic voice – not just our leaders. And especially when one attempts to silence another for calling out such atrocities, or for the imagery they use when doing so, we must speak up and be reminded that God’s divine spirit rests on all of us. We are all prophets. We must all speak truth to power.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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To be a Person of God, you must see your Fellow as a Person of God

Congregation Beth El began our celebration of Pride month with beautiful Torah written by my rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Rachel Marder.

TorahForPride

 

This teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunin, the reminder that the world was created for our sakes, is found in Tractate Sanhedrin 37a of the Babylonian Talmud. The mishnah where this appears comes to this conclusion following the reminder that each of us was created from the same being, each of us are descendants of Adam HaRishon, the first human. The mishnah clarifies that each of us was created from a single being for the sake of peace, so that no single person can say, I am greater than you, or you are less than I am, because of how you look,  how you speak, how you dress, how you identify, or how you love.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Naso  introduces a woman who desperately wants to be a mother, and vows to become a Nazarite so that the message from an angel of God that she will have a child will come true. Once that child was born, at the end of the haftarah, he becomes the most well-known of all the Nazirites in our Bible, Samson.

The text tells us that a Malach Adonai, an angel of God comes to Manoach’s wife to give her this prophecy. But when she describes what happened to Manoach, she says something different. She refers to this beings as an Ish Elohim, a man or person of God. She was able to see the being who came to speak to her, and saw the divine nature of that person. She saw his very essence. And that was enough.

Ultimately during Pride month, and each and every day, that is what we are to do. We must see each individual — gay and straight, bisexual and  pansexual, transgender and cisgender, queer, and ally, as an Ish Elohim, an Isha Elohim, a person of God> We must see each person as an individual whose words are those of prophecy, whose voice matters, whose presence matters, whose life matters. For we are all unique. We are all different. And yet we are all the same, created form the same Adam HaRishon.

As this same mishnah on Sanhedrin 37a notes, while we are all fashioned, each human being, form the very first stamp of the very first human, not one of us resembles our fellow. We are each different. We are each unique. Therefore, we each must say that the world was created for my sake. And we must see each of us as an Ish Elohim, as an Isha Elohim. We must see each other as more than just an angel. We must see each other as a person of God, made in God’s Image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Lost, and Found, in the Wilderness

The book of Numbers – Sefer Bamidbar – begins with Parashat Bamidbar, literally meaning “in the wilderness.” The book begins with God speaking to Moses, and in turn the Israelites, in the wilderness of Sinai. With no word in the Torah being insignificant, Midrash comes to understand that this must mean that Matan Torah, revelation at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites received the Torah, intentionally happened bamidbar, in the wilderness.

Numbers Rabbah explains that if the Israelites received the Torah once they entered the Promised Land (which was the whole purpose of their wandering in the wilderness in general and their ultimate destination) then only the inhabitants of Israel would feel connected to Torah. However, midrash stipulates that Torah was given in the wilderness so that all Jews should feel connected to Torah and should experience revelation, no matter where we reside, including right here at this moment in South Orange, New Jersey. The Mechilta clarified further that every Jewish persion has an equal share and obligation to uphold the values of Torah, to cling to it as a tree of life. No Jews is more connected to Torah than another.

Each and every Passover, we read the words of the Haggadah: In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we left Egypt. Each and every Shavuot, we also see ourselves as if we stood at the foot of Sinai, as if we received the Torah. Because each and every Shavuot, we do receive the Torah, anew. And whenever we feel lost bamidbar, in the wilderness,  the lessons of Torah help us feel found.

The wilderness represents something else as well – humility. Tractate Nedarim 55a in the Babylonian Talmud explains that the wilderness represents more than just the diaspora, more than just not Eretz Yisrael. The wilderness is not actually a part of any place. It is ownerless. When one wanders in the wilderness one doesn’t belong anywhere or to anything. We understand the importance of community, of Jewish community. We  know that you can’t be a Jew on a deserted island because Judaism is not just about belief, but it is about community. Midrash teaches that the reason Moshe Rabbeinu shattered the tablets of the covenant when he saw the Israelites building the Golden Calf was not out of anger or disappointment. It was not because he was mad. Rather, it was because the Torah was too “heavy” – metaphorically speaking – for him to carry on his own. He was only able to carry the responsibility and burden of Torah because he thought that community, that B’nai Yisrael, was carrying it with him. This in essence is Torah.

Yet, Midrash speaks about the wilderness being ownerless, being alone. Rashi explains that if the wilderness is ownerless, then it is free for all who wish to step on it. So too, one must be like the wilderness, must be bamidbar, to receive Torah – humble. The Talmud continues that humility is a necessary part of receiving Torah – Torah cannot be understood, appreciated, or transmitted if one is not humble. Let us always be humble enough to receive the Torah anew. Let us be humble enough to ask more questions, to appreciate that we don’t have all the answers, and yet still, we come to grasp Torah. For it is only a Tree of Life if we hold fast to it.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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You Shall Lie Down and No One Will Terrify You

In Memory of Rashad Jones

Parashat Bechukotai, the last Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, begins with the promise that those who follow God’s ways will be blessed. And then goes into detail about the blessings that they will receive:

I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit… You shall eat your bread and be satisfiedI will grant you peace in the land. You shall lie down and no one shall terrify you (Lev. 26:4-6).

Rabbinic commentary is clear that these are three separate blessings, even if each comes one right after the other. The Sifra, midrash on the book of Leviticus, explains that the reason we are told that we will eat and be satisfied immediately after being told that we will have an abundance of food is to teach us a lesson that abundance doesn’t equal satisfaction. It is only after the over abundance that we realize that although our natural instinct is to always want more, to always strive for more, we should realize that the blessings that we already have in our lives are enough.

But then the midrash continues: it doesn’t matter what we have, and it doesn’t matter if we are satisfied with what we have, if we don’t have peace, if we don’t feel safe in this world and we don’t feel like we are protected.

The Torah is quite specific in what this means:

v’cherev lo ta’avor be’artzeichem. And no weapon shall pass through this land (Lev. 26:6).

WearOrangeBethEl2019The Torah is suggesting that we will only achieve peace when we rid our world and ourselves of weapons of murder. This week, at the entrance to Congregation Beth El, we have orange lawns signs posted out front, with the word #ENOUGH written on them. Tree branches hang over these signs, each with orange ribbons tied to them. This week, we observe Gun Violence Awareness Day and wear orange to say enough is enough. This week, we declare that the blessings in our lives don’t matter, that being happy with what we have doesn’t matter, as long is we don’t have peace in our lives, as long as approximately 100 Americans are killed by guns every day.

Why orange? Because that was Hadiya Pendleton’s favorite color – and that is what her friends wore in her memory. She was shot in the back, and murdered in 2013, while on a playground in Kenwood, Chicago, with friends, after taking a school exam; she was murdered one week after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration.

Just this past weekend, a disgruntled former employee walked into the Virginia Beach Municipal Building, the Town Hall where the Mayor’s office is, and starting shooting, killing 12 people in an officie complex that housed 400. This mass shooting is the deadliest in our country this year. We might focus on the tragic mass shootings that cause us fear, school shootings like at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, or synagogue shootings like at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, but we cannot forget the daily losses of life by gun violence. The loss of life that becomes just a number, those who are victims of this epidemic that kills 36,000 Americans a year. Like Hadiya Pendleton. Or like Rashad Jones.

Anita Pittman, a wonderful person and a dear member of our community and professional team, works as Beth El’s Financial Administrator. As we gathered for Shabbat services last Shabbat to read Parashat Bechukotai, she was burying her 20-year-old godson and cousin, Rashad Jones. He was shot and murdered just miles from here, sitting on his front stoop, in Newark last week. An innocent soul. And just one of the over 36,000 that are victims of gun violence every year. We cannot just be fearful of mass shootings. We need to end the gun violence epidemic that ends the life of a child on their front porch on a warm spring weekend evening.

We can wear orange. We can put up ribbons. We can post lawn signs that say #Enough. But that really isn’t enough. And we can be thankful for all the blessings we have in our lives. And believe that they are enough. But they aren’t. Because it won’t be enough until we stop bury children. It won’t be enough until our elected officials stop participating in avodah zarah, until they stop worshipping AR-15s like they are idols. It won’t be enough until our elected leaders are beholden to voters, to their constituents, instead of the gun lobby. And it won’t be enough until we pass federal laws to reduce gun violence.

And we will not stop fighting this epidemic until we see God’s blessings – God’s promise — of cherev lo taavor b’artzeichem, of no weapons of murder in our land, come to fruition. May the memory of Rashad Jones be for a blessing. And may we finally see God’s promise in our lives. May the prophecy of Isaiah become reality as we turn our swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, as we plant flowers in our gun barrels. Because we cannot truly be satisfied, until we can build a world where we are all safe. May it be so. May it happen speedily in our day. And may we do the holy work, the necessary work, to make it happen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bringing the Joy of Jewish Camping to our Community

There’s a legendary story often told among experiential Jewish educators about the child who returns from Jewish sleepaway camp. Upon returning home, her parents ask her how camp was, and she responses with a smile that camp was incredible. When asked what her favorite part of camp was, she quickly responds that it was Havdallah. Her parents are elated. Among all the activities at camp, it was a Jewish ritual, the moment when we say goodbye to Shabbat for the weekend, when we separate out that which is kadosh – holy – from that which is chol – ordinary – that stuck with her most. When asked if she wants them to start doing Havdallah together as a family every Saturday night, she quickly responds “no!” When her parents ask her why, she clarifies: “we don’t have a lake!”

While this story is meant to cause us to laugh, there is some truth to it. Jewish summer camp is one of the most successful institutions in the American Jewish community for engaging Jewish youth in joyful Jewish experiences. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to bring those experiences back to synagogues and Jewish communities who are in search of the community building and spiritual growth that the utopian environment of Jewish camping provides. At Congregation Beth El, we too were interested in bringing the joy of Jewish camp to Beth El. Our answer was to bring Beth El to camp.

Ever since I arrived at Congregation Beth El, I had a vision of having a congregational retreat at a summer camp. I know that some members of our community had this vision long before I was a part of the community. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who made up our retreat committee and an enthusiastic community, we had over 250 members of our community join us over Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania.

RetreatShabbatService2019This retreat was an incredible opportunity to build community, to disconnect from the outside world and our devices and screens that often consume so much of our time (including mine!), to be with loved ones, to make new friends, to strengthen existing friendships, to connect with God as Creator in the beauty of nature, to try new things, to have fun, and to appreciate the sanctity of Shabbat. The melodies and singing of prayers and Hebrew songs brought Judaism to life. Shabbat services outdoors in the amphitheater and weekday minyan by the lake allowed us to experience the Presence of God that we were praying to all around us. Our meals allowed us to break bread with new friends, building intergenerational connections around the tables of the dining hall. And friendly competition – congregational-wide softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee games – helped build community as well. The gorgeous whether was an added bonus.

RetreatBonfire2019.jpgOn Saturday night, as we saw three stars glisten in the sky, we gathered by the lake for Havdallah, just like the camp experienced in that urban legend. Earlier, each child had made their own havdallah candle, and slowly as the light of one candle extended to another, and the flickering flames of over 100 candles illuminated our circle, we experienced the true light of community. Singing and swaying and saying goodbye to Shabbat transitioned into a late-night bonfire with s’mores and karaoke.

RetreatZipline2019.jpgAnd although we had a closing activity on Sunday morning, with everyone taking home a new friendship bracelet to wear, reminiscent of the new relationships we’ve built, there were no tearful goodbyes or bus notes to write. We weren’t saying goodbye to a community, to a home away from home. Rather, we were bringing the joy of camp back home with us, as a community. The ruach of that experience will carry with us in so much that we do. And for those who yearn to go back, we are already beginning registration for next summer.

May the joy we feel at summer camp carry with us all the time. May we always smile like we do when we are singing outdoors, or zipping down the zipline, or tie dying our t-shirts, or hitting the bullseye in archery. And may we always have enriching Jewish moments, without needed a lake to make them happen.

 

We are especially grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and One Happy Camp NJ for their generous grant that helped make this retreat a reality! One Happy Camper can help your child find the right Jewish summer camp for them. Click here for more information.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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Denying a Woman’s Reproductive Rights is Profaning God

V’lo tichalelu et shem kodshi. You shall not profane my holy name (Lev. 22:32).

You shall not profane God’s name. And we are left asking ourselves what does it mean to profane God’s name and in turn, to profane God? Essentially to our understanding of all texts is that God created each person made in God’s image. Each person has a divine spark within them. Therefore, when you deny a person their rights, you profane God’s name. When a group of male legislators try to make decisions regarding a woman’s body, they are profaning God’s name. And when they seem to take more of an issue with abortion, then with rape, incest, or sexual assault, they are profaning God’s name.

I’m angry. And I’m tired.

I am tired of people using the term “pro-life” when they are not. I am tired of those who say they are “pro-life” but in actuality, are against a woman having any rights in her life. I am tired of those who claim to be “pro-life” but have no concern for the life of a pregnant woman or the decisions that she makes. Because it is her body. And her choice. When states like Alabama and Missouri were passing laws that criminalized abortion this week, including in cases of rape or incest, and would send a doctor who performed an abortion to prison for longer than the perpetuator who raped that woman, those laws are not “pro-life.” They are quite the opposite. Any such law that is passed, including that which was signed into law this week in Alabama, is not a “pro-life” law and don’t let anyone else suggest otherwise. Because any such law isn’t really a case of banning abortions. What Alabama is attempting to do is ban safe abortions. And thus, putting women’s lives at risk in the process.

I’m tired.

I am tired of those on the religious right claiming that the stances they are taking are based on so-called “Judeo-Christian” values. I’ll let you in on a little secret: there is not such thing as “Judeo-Christian.”  People can take whatever stances they want based on their own right-wing extremism, but don’t bring Judaism into it. For starters, Judaism is a faith that celebrates reproductive rights and reproductive justice. I can quote text, biblical verses, Mishna, and modern halakhic responsa that justify and legitimize a women’s right to choose what she does with her body according to rabbinic tradition and Jewish law.

But the truth is, I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to respond to claims from right-wing Christian extremists that quote a verse that is anti-choice, with the rebuttal of another verse or teaching that is pro-choice. We don’t need a war of quoting scripture – and I say this especially as a rabbi and a person of faith –  because we should not be legislating based on faith. We live in a country that is supposed to govern based on a separation of church and state. Still, it is quite clear in Jewish texts that life does not begin at conception and life begins when a child becomes its own independent being out of the womb. And while Mishnah is clear that an abortion is not only permitted but required if a fetus is causing any harm to the mother, the Conservative Movement clarifies that it is up to each individual – it is a woman’s right – to define that harm for herself, be it physical, emotional, mental, or otherwise. In fact, when Roe v. Wade became law in 1973, l the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement came out with a statement the next year, not only quoting text of our tradition that protects a woman’s right to choose, but opposing any legislation, including a constitutional amendment, on the federal or state level, that would outlaw abortion.

V’lo tichalelu et shem kodshi. You shall not profane my holy name (Lev. 22:32).

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a, the Talmud asks: “What are the circumstances that cause desecration of God’s name? Rav said: For example, in the case of someone like me, a public figure and pious rabbi, if I take meat from the butcher and do not give the butcher money for it immediately, [people are likely to think that I did not mean to pay at all, and thus would be desecrating God’s name.]” Now, if someone was poor, and food insecure, it wouldn’t be seen as a desecration of God if they didn’t pay the butcher right away. But a pious rabbi, it would.

Rav is essentialy saying in this section of the Talmud that if one has a responsibility in a position of authority and uses their position to only help themselves and harm others, ithey are profaning God’s name. When an elected official has a responsibility to protect the rights of their constituents, and he, and in this case I very much mean he, goes out of his way to pass policies and legislation that deny the rights of women, when a group of legislators that are men are getting together to limit the rights of women, when a group of legislators pass policies that deny the rights of anyone, they are profaning God’s name. And that is exactly what the elected officials in Alabama and Missouri did this week.

I’m tired.

I’m tired of too many of us being silent. When you, when I, when we, are silent about one’s human rights, one’s reproductive rights being taken away, then that too is a Chilul Hashem, we are profaning God’s name. Protecting women’s rights is not only a women’s issue and too many people who do not identify as women remain silent. So specifically to all the men out there: SPEAK UP. SPEAK OUT. Or you too are profaning God’s name. The Talmud also teaches that silence is equal to complacency. Let’s stop being silent. Let us make our voices heard. A passed bill or law doesn’t mean that such a law is just. In actuality, such a law is desecrating and profaning God. So we must stand up and fight when women’s rights are being challenged. Because to remain silent, is also a Chillul Hashem.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Here’s a list of organizations to contribute to, that are on the grounding, fighting to support women’s reproductive rights:

Planned Parenthood 

Planned Parenthood Action Fund Planned Parenthood Action Fund 

NARAL: Pro-Choice America

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice 

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