I miss my camper, Seth Rich

Perhaps my favorite tradition at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin — where Seth Rich was my camper in the summers of ‘03 and ‘05 — occurred as Shabbat was just about to begin. The last couple of hours had been a frenzied sprint to clean the cabin, shower while there was still hot water, and dress in our Shabbat best. The next hour would bring the whole camp together for a soulful Kabbalat Shabbat service next to our picturesque Lake Buckatabon. There existed just a few minutes for us to walk from the cabins to the lake. But those few minutes — that liminal space between the week and Shabbat — offered time for brachot, blessings.

My fellow counselors and I would bless our campers with the Birkat Yeladim, the blessing parents bestow upon their children at home as Shabbat begins. Nobody made us do this. But we wanted to, because at camp, for eight weeks at a time, we were their parents. This was the weekly moment when we could embrace our campers. Not every camper wanted a bracha. But Seth Rich always did.

So I would place my hands gently on Seth’s hair, like I do to my own two sons now, and say,

Yevarecha Hashem VYish-merecha.
YaEr Hashem Panav Elecha Vihuneka.
Yisa Hashem Panav Eleha VYasem Lha Shalom.

May G-d bless you and guard you.
May G-d show you favor and be gracious to you.
May G-d lift His face toward you and grant you peace.
I love you, Seth.”

July 10th marks one full year since Seth was tragically murdered in Washington, DC. Since then his name has been dragged through the mud of front-page headlines, from news outlets both reputable and shady, that perpetuate empty and pernicious conspiracy theories.

As if his murder weren’t tragic enough, these rumors have resulted in three more tragedies. First, Seth’s name is forever stained without any way to fully restore it. Second, these rumors cause devastating and extended harm to Seth’s family and friends. And third, people feel a free license to say and publish these rumors. While they do have an American right to say what they want about Seth, they are wrong to do so. They are wrong because these conspiracy theories are not grounded in facts and because they torture the family.

And these people don’t have a Jewish right to say these things, as these rumors are actually Lashon Hara, evil speech.

The Talmud teaches that Lashon Hara kills three people: the one who tells it, the one who hears it, and the subject (Arachin 15b).

I interpret this in the following way: it kills one who tells it because it exposes that person as someone who seeks to cut down another. It kills one who hears it because he enables this to happen, doesn’t stop it, and may even accept it. And it kills the subject because his reputation is diminished. The rumors kill his reputation. Sadly, the Talmud actually doesn’t go far enough in articulating the devastation Lashon Hara causes; it kills the subject’s family too, as it prolongs their nightmare, in the words of the Rich family.

Even if we’re not spreading these rumors ourselves, when we tune in, we enable them. Words have the potential to give life: after all, in Genesis, G-d created the world with words. But words used improperly have the capacity to destroy as well.

Here are my two questions to those who perpetuate these unfounded conspiracy theories about Seth: Did you know the man at all? Can you really be sure of somebody you haven’t met?

And here’s my question to those who knew Seth: Are we doing all we can to let the world know how amazing he was?

I’ve talked about him to my congregation in New Jersey, sharing memories and Torah in his name.

I knew Seth as a fun kid. He would always bring the coolest toys to camp, like an oversized tennis ball that became the official game ball for his personal favorite camp pastime, “roofball.” He brought the best toys, but he brought them to share, not to hoard for himself.

I knew Seth as a generous kid. While campers weren’t allowed to bring any food to camp, he brought two massive George Foreman grills complete with tools, a mustard rack and a spice rack for grilling meats and grilled cheese sandwiches. He kept the grills and utensils separate for Kashrut purposes. But he brought the grills to bring his friends together.

I knew Seth as a sweet kid. I remember that one specific new camper never felt home at camp until Seth reached out to him, befriended him, and set him up with his own friends. Which was basically everybody.

When I heard the shocking news about Seth, I was stunned, but I didn’t cry. I don’t know why. But when I recalled those moments of giving him a bracha on Friday afternoons, I finally did.

Seth, I miss you very much, one year later as much as ever. I share with you now the same words I shared with you on those late summer Friday afternoons at camp as we all prepared for Shabbat. I meant every word of the bracha then. And I mean every word of the bracha now too, but in a completely different way.

This is for you and for all those gone too soon from our world:
May G-d bless you and guard you.
May G-d show you favor and be gracious to you.
May G-d lift His face toward you and grant you peace.
I love you, Seth

About the Author
Rabbi Alex Freedman is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, NJ.
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