Lessons in unity from the happiest place on earth

As an Orthodox Rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska, people often want to know what it’s like to live here in the middle of America. The most common questions typically go something like this… “How many Jews are there?”, “Do you live on a farm?” and of course “Do you know Warren Buffet?” After addressing these burning questions, I describe Omaha as a city where people are nice for no reason. There is much to learn from the comforts, slow pace and the impact the lack of traffic has on the human psyche. While my description still holds true, my utopian bubble has recently been punctured, as I observed the polarization and discord that’s happening throughout America hit here as well.

Today, disagreements and civil discourse have been replaced by animosity, division, and violence. Politics, and even public health issues like mask-wearing and vaccinations, have created fragmentation and discord in our communities. A difference of opinion leads to anger, emotional tension, and friction. The global COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing has only exacerbated this problem. I experience this in synagogue life as well as in the world at large. How can we disagree without disliking one another? How can we, as a society, grow and flourish despite our differences?

Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, I found the answers to these questions outside the walls of the synagogue. You see, in addition to my rabbinic duties, I have served as the co-director of Camp Simcha for over 20 years. Camp Simcha, and its sister program Camp Simcha Special, are Chai Lifeline’s medically supervised overnight camps for children with life threatening illnesses and chronic disease located in the Catskill Mountains. Each summer, hundreds of children and teenagers from across the globe are able to forget about their illnesses and just be kids at Camp Simcha, which, with all due respect to Disneyland, is truly the happiest place on earth.

The current events and sentiment in the world have given me an entirely new-found inspiration and appreciation for the unity of Camp Simcha and the teachings it can offer the world that we so drastically need right now. This is not unity resulting of material comfort and security, but unity based on diversity and an understanding that everyone has value.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon teaches us that a person should study Torah all day. Rabbi Yishmoel disagrees and says a person should earn a living and engage with others to complement his Torah learning. The Talmud concludes that many have tried to study all day like Rabbi Shimon’s directive, and failed. In explaining this conclusion, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok HaKohen Kook states that when a person studies all day and is not on the lofty level or Rabbi Shimon, and does not to do mitzvot, and engage with others, all he becomes is his mind. His opinion becomes his identity. If one is only engaged in their mind and their own opinions, they will lose appreciation and not value others. They then tend to become argumentative and divisive.  Hence, we have mitzvot that engage us with others and the world around us.

At Camp Simcha, there are children, staff, and volunteers from all backgrounds and walks of life. Religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Zionist, Chassidic, and everything in between. Yet, despite their differences, a loving, and caring environment exists that goes deeper than any ideology and viewpoint. I believe this is so, because of the camp’s focus on kindness and mitzvot. The environment is centered around chesed.

Camp Simcha is perhaps the only place on earth where a Chassidic boy from Brooklyn and a secular boy from San Diego can play together, bunk together, discuss their shared experiences, and form lifelong friendships, without ever losing sight of their individuality. There is always more that unites us than should keep us apart. And while there is a beautiful synchronization of people singing, dancing, and living together, we never lose our unique identities and what makes us special. Our differences make us stronger and contribute to the overall Camp Simcha experience. Hence Rav Kook’s teaching: The way to increase harmony within diversity is to engage and to give to one another.

We are hopefully approaching the light at the end of the very dark tunnel of this pandemic. As we start to reengage with the world around us, let us learn from the world of Camp Simcha, to be more than just our opinions. Let us learn from the current Torah portions about the importance of nationhood. Let the Jewish people be an example of unity through diversity. Let us dance together, sing together, and even disagree together. Wishes for peace, health, and happiness.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Dembitzer is the co-director of Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha and rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska.
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