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By Virtue of Jerusalem

“I returned to Jerusalem, and it is by virtue of Jerusalem that I have written all that God has put into my heart and into my pen.”

-Shai Agnon

Much of this article was written before Israel’s most recent war with Hamas began on October 7, 2023. It’s strange to talk about finding meaning in religion in a personal sense now, when so many people, not only Jews, have been slaughtered in Israel simply for being there.

Hamas’ goal is utter destruction of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. They say so themselves. If not able to actually combat terrorism, taking pride in Jewish identity is fighting back against them in a profoundly personal way. 

In difficult times, the Jewish people read from the book of Tehillim, or Psalms. As it says in Psalm 27: 

“The LORD is my light and my help; whom should I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?”

הֹוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהֹוָ֥ה מָעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד

And in the prayer for the IDF (Israeli Defense Force): “For it is your God יהוה who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.”

כִּ֚י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם הַהֹלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּכֶ֑ם לְהִלָּחֵ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם עִם־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֖ם לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶתְכֶֽם

_______

Welcome to the afterlife. 

You’re told that occasionally at first, in the weeks prior, then all at once, over and over again, on the fateful day. The day you supposedly die. The day you stop being a camper. 

So what happens after the end? Are you just supposed to stop growing, stop learning? What happens next?

_______

There are nine Camp Rs in North America, from California to Canada. We’re a group of Conservative Jewish camps, and most campers, like me, attend every summer from age 10 to 16. 

Then comes R Seminar, where all the kids of the same age from each of the camps gather together on a singular program in Israel. 281 kids, eight buses, four campuses, representation from nearly every state plus two Canadian provinces, traveling in the holy land for six weeks the summer before senior year on a religious teen tour. 

I used to be an avowed atheist, boldly asserting that not only was there no God, but that any religion, even the Conservative Judaism in which I was raised, was idiotic and archaic. The end was death; no other possibility, nothing afterward. Any sort of religion was a fool’s errand, no different from knocking on wood or believing in Bigfoot.

While six years in a Jewish summer camp (originally forced by my parents, eventually chosen by me) had only slightly convinced me otherwise, that there was some purpose in religion, it was that summer in Israel that changed my perspective, showing me the benefits of religious practice.

The Awe of Arbel

The first hike of the summer was on Mount Arbel, in Israel’s north. The mountain overlooks the Kineret, near where Jesus had preached the Sermon on the Mount two millennia before. About 40 of us from three camps: SoCal, Rockies, and my own, Poconos, were bused there, and walked a short 15 minutes on slippery rocks up to the summit. My friend Alex, a Poconos kid from Detroit, and I carried a basket of 50 prayer books up with us. The Seminar tradition is to do Shacharit, the daily morning prayers, first thing at sunrise on a hike. I thought this would be tiring and useless. How can you be spiritual if you’re exhausted, and why should we even be praying, eyes down in a book, if the whole point is to look out over and experience the landscape? 

Some social conflict manifested itself over playing music on this first hike. Poconos kids, my old friends, supported it; the other half of the bus, SoCal, Rockies, and I did not. Caught in the middle, thinking that music would be an imposition on the scene’s natural beauty but not wanting to upset either the new friends I had made or the old ones I hoped to keep, I tried to balance. Barry and Sam, my friends from Poconos, were only annoyed at me asking them to at least keep the volume down. “It improves our experience,” they both said together, without thinking how it would detract from others’. “If music ruins the quiet, and quiet is so good during a hike, then shouldn’t you not pray or talk?”

I stopped. They puzzled me, and I couldn’t make a good argument in return. Still, I found myself looking across the Galilean Hills, Syria and Lebanon in the far distance. The Israeli sun paints the few clouds in the soon-to-be-scorching sky just before daytime with the color of an ember, then settles into a soft glowing yellow before finally rising like a phoenix from the east and illuminating the ancient and modern landscape in a harsh hue. 

I felt immediately in awe of this towering place. Even not being a religious believer, I was astounded by the wonder of what I felt compelled to refer to as God’s creation. There seemed something greater and all-encompassing around us, and I recognized that prayer was the method through which the rest of Seminar was experiencing this grand feeling. 

I was inspired by the masses praying around me to try it myself, and picked up one of the prayer books, scanning the pages for a sense of awe. I found it in the earliest prayers, things that I had memorized as a little kid and later discarded as meaningless. Prayers that praised the glory of existence, like the acrostic Ashrei, written by King David; prayers that praised the brilliance of the sun, like the Or Chadash (literally meaning New Light in Hebrew); prayers that, like the Ahava Rabbah (Deep is God’s Love) praised the benefit of prayer itself, that those who do so have their minds opened. It seemed religion had the same comments on the view as I did.

The bus might have been chaotic, I might have been caught in the middle, but there was more than enough to be in awe of: a beautiful land, an eventful trip, and friends, even if some didn’t like each other.

“A land flowing with milk and honey,” I thought. 

Focus on the Future

In the middle of the summer, we took a second sunrise hike up Masada, an ancient Roman palace on top of a naturally occurring mesa in the Israeli desert. We slept at a nearby campsite the night before, and just like at Mount Arbel, we were forcefully woken up at 3am to be bussed over and climb the short walk to the top. 

Built by King Herod the Great, the site is famous for being the last stand of Jewish rebels against the Romans during the 70s CE. After the Roman Empire conquered the Jewish Kingdom and destroyed the Second Temple (with only the newer Western retaining Wall, now the holiest site in Judaism, remaining), the last rebels retreated to Masada, soon under Roman siege. After three months, the Romans broke down the walls, only to find hundreds of dead bodies. The rebels had killed themselves rather then submit to Roman rule, with but a few surviving women and children left to tell the tale. 

Ironically, we walked along the Roman siege ramp in our hike up Masada, now a tourist hotspot with a beautiful view of the Dead Sea to the east. A few kids brought shofars, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn that is only blown during the high holidays, and blew them now, symbolizing the return of the Jewish people to our homeland from exile. 

“Take a rock from under your foot,” Miriam, one of our main tour guides, said on top of the mountain. This is illegal, since all rocks in a historical site are government property, but everyone would take a few anyways and slip them into their bags. “This rock has been here for thousands of years, has been a part of the Jewish people’s history for thousands of years,” she told us. “When you take this rock, and you keep it with you, you remember how important this place is to our people. The land does not belong to us; we belong to the land.”

“The rebels here killed themselves on these rocks because they thought that life as a Jew without the Temple was meaningless, that it was better to be dead. Look around you.” 281 kids, all of them wearing some sort of judaica, looked around. “Are you being Jewish here, on Masada, without a Temple?”

Social conflicts seemed to matter less. The rebels focused entirely on death, but what I took from them is to focus on life. Inspired, I tried something new and uncomfortable: to not just pray, but do so individually that sunrise, striving for spirituality in contemplation on the historical death and new life of this place. I found a little niche in the rock, and staring into the blinding sun, opened my prayer book and started to speak out loud.

The Amidah is the central part of the Shacharit service, with nineteen different blessings. Some Rabbis advise that it should be said extremely slowly as a meditation, taking over an hour. Each blessing petitions or thanks God for one of life’s aspects: ancestors, life, holiness, intelligence, wisdom, repentance, redemption, health, agricultural health, the safety of Jews across the world, justice, the punishment of the wicked, the reward of the good, Jerusalem as the ancestral home of the Jewish people, deliverance of redemption, the ability to speak, the ability to pray, the greatness of existence, and peace. 

Never important to me until now, as I was thinking of our tradition’s value after 2,000 years of exile, I began to see the Amidah as a reminder. Repeating it to myself was like a mantra, slowly committing these values to memory so I could always follow them. Prayer wasn’t a magic request: it was a way to focus my mind.

At the prayer for Jerusalem, which calls for a return to the ancient homeland, I thought about the State of Israel we were so lucky to be in. The border with Jordan stretched to my right as I faced north where the Kotel, the Western Wall, still stands. 

“We’re Still Here”

Deep in the desert near the port city of Eilat is Har Tzfachot, the southernmost point in the nation.

It was just before sunrise, per usual, an inverted twilight where the hopeful glimmer of a new day begins to blot out the stars. I walked far ahead of the rest of my group, wanting a little peace and quiet. “Hey,” said Sam, running up to me. “Can I join you? I don’t want to be next to everyone else right now. These kids are annoying me.” “Alright,” I said back. “But no music or talking.” He sighed in resignation. 

After an hour, we arrived at the top, only a bit after dawn. Below stretched the aquamarine blue of the Gulf of Eilat (or, depending on your politics, the Gulf of Aqaba, after the Jordanian city next door), the entrance to the Red Sea. Down to our left, we could see the two jewels of cities, one Israeli, one Arab, living in tense peace; behind us and to the immediate right, Egypt; to the far right, if we squinted, the sandy shoreline of Saudi Arabia. There is no more magnificent view in this whole holy country. The bright desert throbbed with color, while the cities, small down below, were its beating heart. The sun rose glaringly, but it was still cool in the early morning, and we stood feeling the breeze waft up from the sea. 

Here was the place Moses split the waters, where the Jews, our ancestors three millennia ago, crossed to edge closer to the holy land we now stood in. Miriam liked to remind us that “with 3,000 years of suffering in our history, we, the Jews, shouldn’t be here. It just doesn’t make sense.” It had been six weeks on this trip, and here was my first moment not of awe, but absolute gratitude, standing on the mountaintop. I was blessed to be on Seminar, to be part of this community, to come to Israel, to feel such a spiritual and historical connection to it, and to be a Jew. And so I did what I had learned to do, through this trip, in moments of intense significance: pray, and feel grateful for this community which taught me to do so. 

“You know Josh,” Sam said. “I think you’re right. It is better to be quiet on hikes.” 

_______

There is no afterlife. There is no time when you stop growing and stop advancing yourself, at least until your actual death. I don’t feel smart enough to speculate what happens then. 

Through the both literal and metaphorical eye-opening views I experienced on these hikes, epitomizing my whole time on Seminar, I adopted an appreciation for the religious values expressed through prayer: awe, humility, focus, and thankfulness. Prayer, at least as I discovered it, is a discipline meant to remind you of what is important in life, and as the cornerstone of religious practice, shows all of religion as exactly that: a discipline meant to build you up, rather than superstitiously explain the world around you, as I cynically thought before. Yet my connection became not only to the words of the book. It was the community I am part of that gave me the ability to experience this transformation, and my gratitude is always for that.

About the Author
Josh Lancman is an incoming fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and incoming member of Cornell University's class of 2029. He has been published in the GOA Flame (for which he was also the Editor-in-Chief), GOA Nuts & Raisins Literary Magazine, Youth Civics Initiative, YouthComm Magazine, and is self-published on Letterboxd. He is from West Orange, New Jersey.
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