In Your Spirit We Will Endure

Uveruchacha Natmid – With Your Spirit, We Will Endure

Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5780

Here’s to dear old Herzl
We’re so proud of you
We’re proud of your spirit
And colors white and blue – a pride to every Jew.
So, Here’s to dear old Herzl
Chugim and sports and play
Always together we’ll remember for all our days

This is the camp anthem of Herzl camp where I grew up. Herzl camp is in Webster Wisconsin, a very small town about two hours East of Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was amongst the first Jewish summer camps in America – over 70 years old – and one of the few that is also not a part any movement or affiliated with a JCC. And as anyone who has ever experienced and fell in love with summer camp can attest – it was and remains a magical place. All summer camps have this capacity but Jewish summer camps particularly.

Just to rattle off a few of my camp bona-fides – my father of blessed memory was a camper at Herzl for years before becoming a lead staff member. While he was the unit head for the CIT group he met my Mom who was working on the lakefront and swim staff that summer. Twenty years after they met, my mom became the head counselor and then the director. My siblings and I were affectionately called staff brats but later became full campers in our right.

Since my time at Herzl ended I have worked at several other camps – among them Camps in the Reform, Conservative, and JCC movements. Like so many of us and in our community – camp people live by a 10 for 2 motto. We spend ten months of the year in our homes and schools, in “regular life” in exchange for 2 months at camp. As my first boss Dr Bruce Powell often taught – Camp is real life. The rest is really the illusion.

I can’t think of what my life trajectory would have been without Jewish camping. My friend group would be different. My most trusted mentors would be different. My engagement with prayer and Jewish learning would be different. My identity as an educator and a rabbi would be different. I’ll never be able to fully articulate how important Jewish camping has been in my life, in Sari’s life, in the life of my personal and professional networks of colleagues and friends. And I feel very strongly that Jewish camping is vital to securing a vibrant Jewish future and to the continuity that we so often speak about.

And so this week I find myself for the first time during this stay at home period, truly sad. I have felt depressed, anxious, scared, nervous, even hopeful at times. But this week there was something new – a sadness. I’m sure you have heard and might be following the news about the Union for Reform Judaism shutting down their summer programs including camp and Israel trips for teens amidst the health crisis we face in fighting coronavirus. Two Ramah camps have set delayed openings while they assess their needs and the situation, and one has already decided to shut their gates for the 2020 season. Ramah in the Berkshires remains hopeful and will make a decision about camp in the coming weeks. And we all watch with interest – especially Sari and myself, as we had been planning a whole summer at camp with the family. From the American Camping Association on down to individual camps, this conversation is being taken very seriously – both in terms of the impact to campers who miss camp and certainly the health risks to campers, staff, their families and the greater community.

Yes, I’m sad for the parents who won’t get their regular respite for their kids this summer. I’m sad for the counselors who devote their summer to these places that they love for very little money, not being able to be in their happy place. I’m sad for the educators and specialists who will miss out on the meaningful connections and lessons taught around the arts and crafts tables, the hikes, the lake, and the bonfire. But mostly I am sad for the campers. Afterall, camps is really for them, and my heart breaks that Summer 2020 will be marked with an asterisk in their hearts and minds.

You see for camp people – camp is the center. In terms of time spent there it pales in comparison to the time we do not spend at camp. But that month or two in July and August every year is what centers us, fills us with hope and energy, renews our capacity to dream and to feel safe. Camp opens us up to the others in our world and sensitizes us to one another. Camp is where we learn to feel some of our deepest feelings as we forge long lasting and deep relationships with friends, counselors, staff, activities, and indeed our Jewish tradition as well.

Camp is the center.

At my camp Herzl, there was also a center. It was more or less located in the geographic center of camp but was also the spiritual nucleus where so much of the meaning-making I am describing took place. In fact that place is called the Mercaz -the Center.

Picture if you will a warm July evening in Wisconsin after a rain storm. The sky is blue and dotted with wispy clouds, a warm breeze blows across the lake as the sun begins to set off in the horizon. The entire camp is dressed in white for Shabbat and has just completed a loop around the camp singing songs of Shabbat, escorted by guitar players and a Sefer Torah. Finally the whole camp assembly arrives in the Mercaz – the outdoor sanctuary and prayer space – for Kabbalat Shabbat. Seated on rustic wooden benches, we face the bimah – a simple platform that extends over the lake. We pray together, sing together, learn together and gather inspiration and strength for the Shabbat to come and from the full the week that just passed.

Amongst the places I let my mind go when I need centering, is to the Merkaz. There are few places on earth that can bring me a sense of calm, a sense of stability, a sense of possibility, than the Merkaz, the Center.

All camps have some place like this. The beit tefilah, the amphiteatre, whatever. It is the sort of Holy of Holies if you will of the camp. If camp is the center of our lives in some ways, these special locations are the center of the center. The inner Sanctum, the core.

I mention this idea of the center because our Torah reading this week is also in the center. We read this week two parshiyot – Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. They sit in the center of the book of Leviticus, which is the middle or central book in the five books of Moses, which in turn is our spiritual center as well. We find ourselves in the inner most parts of the Torah this week – we have reached the center.

These chapters that make up this part of the Torah are referred to by Scholars as the Holiness Code, so named because of the linguistic emphasis on Kedusha – holiness – and the command that the Jewish people be Holy for God is Holy.

There are some biblical scholars who even believe that these sections of the Holiness code are not only the core, but perhaps original sections of legislation that the Israelite community had. Over time, layers were added on top so that we have the Torah we know today. But if there was an earliest version, a conceptual core to Jewish tradition, some have suggested that it is the Holiness code.

In particular chapter 19, the absolute middle point in the Torah, is seen to be a likely candidate for this attribution. It is not only the philosophical center of our holy book, but it is graphically in the center as well.

And what do we find in Leviticus chapter 19? What makes it so essential and so foundational? Perhaps it is as Rashi explains – mipnei she-rov gofei Torah teluyin bo – most of the other parts of the Torah are contained in this chapter. It’s like a mini Torah – highly concentrated.

Honor your parents
Keep Shabbat
Do not worship false idols
Care for the needy
Be honest
Plant your fields responsibly
Take care of strangers in your midst
Be fair

It would be hard to argue that these commandments are not core to Judaism and perhaps every faith tradition on the planet. But they are certainly our fundamental principles. But the most stunning thing is the center of the center of the center. The middle verse, in the middle chapter, in the middle, book of the Torah.

VeAhavta Lereacha Kamocha – love you neighbor as yourself. This is the core of Torah, and I submit to you today that this is the core of camp. Hundreds of individual young people, each with their own needs and desires, hopes and dreams, come together each summer to create a real community who positions the value of loving others as ourselves in the center of the camp experience. This is what guides each interaction in the bunks, in the dining hall, on the sports fields, and in the pool. A sense of shared destiny and shared love for one another and for this place. Because we love camp so much, we work our hardest to make sure everyone can have a peak experience too.

I have a colleague and close friend, Rabbi Todd Silverman, who says that one of his sermons which he simply repeats and repackages over and over (we all do it by the way) is entitled “Everything I needed to learn, I learned at Jewish Summer Camp”.

Indeed so many of us and our children and grandchildren have learned deep and important life lessons from our camp experience. It’s where we learn to share, to wait patiently, to deal with disappointment, to learn how to triumph and succeed. It’s the place where we learn sing with our fullest hearts and learn to cry with our broken ones. We learn to love and we learn to live.

That is what I am sad about the most. Not the anticipated release that comes after a long academic year, though that will sorely be missed this summer. No, mostly I am sad for the lessons lost, the conversations not had, the connections not made. The Shabbat walk not taken around the lake, and the late night giggle fest that will not happen with flashlights under sleeping bags. I’m sad for the songs that won’t be sung until we lose our voice and for the art that won’t be created. I’m sad for the oldest campers who will not be able to close out their run this summer and I’m sad for the newest campers who will have to wait another year to taste the magic of camp.

And as I was feeling sad, I thought about the rest the camp song with which I began. It switches from Hebrew to English and goes like this.

BakFar al Agam – in a town on a lake
Nimtsa Sham Machaneh – there is a camp
Ushmo nimtsa bilvavveinu, sedotav bezichroneinu – whose name is found in our hearts, whose fields linger in our memories
Machaneh Herzl Letamid – Herzl Camp Forever
Uveruchacha Natmid, uveruchecha natmid – Through her spirit we will endure, through her spirit we will endure.

This is my message to all of us sad and hurting because we can’t return to our center. To every camp family, staff member, director, board member, supporter – you name it. Summer 2020 may not be possible in the ways we wanted. And it’s ok to be sad. But we are not defeated. Never forget the power of the core to radiate for miles and miles in every direction. The core of our Torah – of loving others as ourselves is the animating force of our tradition, just as camp animates so much of our lives. Uveruchacha Natmid – if we carry the spirit of camp with us, despite not being physically there, we will surely endure.

About the Author
Uri Allen is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, NY where he lives with his wife Sari and three children Doron, Aderet and Yedidyah. He is also a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a part of the fourth cohort of Clergy Leadership Incubator.