Friday, August 19, 2016

Parashat Va'etchanan: Seeing you, Hearing God.

This past week, while I was reflecting on my camp experience, someone shared this blog post by my colleague Matt Gewirtz, about his time at Eisner, our URJ camp in the Berkshires. It's a great blog post and describes the experience of being faculty wonderfully, but what really struck me was his opening sentence: 

There is an African tradition that teaches when a person says “Hi” to a neighbor, instead of returning the salutation with the same “Hi,” the neighbor is to respond, “I see you.”

Maybe it's the post-camp glow, but I've been thinking about it ever since I read it. Rabbi Gewirtz calls it 'wise', and that is undoubtably true. It is also powerful.  How often is the greeting we share--and by extension, the people we encounter--mere background noise? Static that, at best, distracts us as we focus on our own busy life and day. And not just for the people we encounter going in-and-out of the gym and the grocery; our colleagues, our acquaintances, the people we see every day: we say hello as we walk past, not really stopping to see how they are, or even who they are. Certainly I'm as guilty of that as anyone else. So, what would it mean, then, when we say 'hi', to hear back "I see you." Or to even say that: to truly acknowledge the other person, to look them in the eye and be present for them, perhaps only for a split-second? on Wednesday as I was walking into an ice-cream place I thanked the young woman who held the door open for me, and she sounded honestly surprised that I even noticed her. How sad that a person is surprised to be seen and appreciated. 

This week we talk not about seeing but another sense. In our Torah portion this week we read the shema, 'watchword of our faith', as Moses calls upon Israel to Hear and know that God is our God and also One. Most of the focus on this verse--liturgically as well as Toraitically--is on the notion of God's Oneness and the idea of monotheism. But Gersonides also focuses on the word "Shema", hear: that it means "believe" and "obey", but also "understand". In fact, the word Shema is used throughout Deuteronomy to refer not just to the sense itself--the ability for our ears to take in the sound--but to our ability to pay attention and comprehend. There are many who would argue that Shema should not just be understood as hear--raw sensation--but LISTEN. 

So let me ask the question: as it is with seeing, is it also true with hearing? Are we listening to the people around us? Are we even listening to ourselves? Are we listening for God? To listen takes attention, it takes focus. It requires us to put ourselves aside so we can truly be attentive. To listen requires us to silence the background noise, be it on the street or in our own heads, so we can truly listen to what's important. 

One of the questions I often get is: how can we bring camp home? And usually people jump on the music, the way services are run, the 'hidden curriculum' of camp. But let me suggest another thought: I just spent 2 weeks at camp, for my 8th summer on faculty. Camp is noisy--joyously so. From the banging on tables in the dining hall to song session to the joyful yelling at the pool or the GaGa pit. Camp is full of people constantly moving. And yet, at camp, people listen to each other better, and truly see one another. At camp when someone says hi, the other person says, in not so many words, "I see you". At camp, people are really listening to each other and lifting each other up. And while I doubt many would say that they're listening for God, I truly believe God gets heard. So I would suggest one of the things we could do to bring camp home is to truly see the people around us, acknowledge them, be present for them, and to truly listen, and listen deeply--to ourselves, the people around us, and for God as well. May this be so. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

How To Grow At Camp: Do Something New

I am not a runner. I know many runners, including friends, colleagues and my dad, who find the activity zen-like and meaningful. For them it's a way to explore, to let their mind go blank, to exercise, and (especially for the ones who do races) a way to compete against themselves, to push themselves.

None of this has ever appealed to me. I haven't run since 8th grade, and while I work out most days and take that exercise seriously, the idea of running--to say nothing of doing any kind of race--held no appeal whatsoever. I don't do it, I don't think I'm particularly good at it, and so that was that, case closed.

And yet, this summer, I found myself running the "Chapel On The Hill Chase", a 5k race that takes place on Alumni Day at Camp Harlam, where I serve as faculty.

What on earth was I thinking?

This was not the first 5k at Harlam; there have been two others and the first one I manned a water station for the participants; the second I came home to do a wedding. But every year many of my colleagues participated, and this year one of us, Rabbi Ben David, an avid runner, proposed getting faculty shirts and having us go as a team.

Normally that wouldn't convince me. However, I felt compelled. Why? Because I believe in camp. And what I believe is that camp is all about stretching yourself, doing something new and different and maybe even a little bit scary, because at camp you can push that boundary safely while surrounded by a supportive community. And if this is true, then I had to live it as well.

So I registered. I got the shirt. I lined up with several colleagues, alumni, campers and staff, all of whom were way more experienced runners than I was; they had run for years for exercise, had competed since high school, and had run this course, which involved looping camp and going up the hill that leads to the Chapel three times. I was, frankly, terrified. But I felt strongly that if I believe in the ethos of camp and teach it to our students and my own son, that camp is a place to go beyond your limitations, then I would have to lead by example. Besides which, I'd already paid for the shirt.

As we began the race, a colleague lined up next to me and paced the race with me almost till the end, keeping me from falling behind or burning out too soon. The kids coming up from breakfast watched and cheered us on, including my son and the kids in his bunk. We even talked to various other runners along the way, half-jokingly talking about different Jewish values and doing a mini-teach. It was a slog going up that hill, and I definitely felt it in the hours afterwards. But I didn't die, I didn't get hurt, I don't think I made a fool of myself (much), and most importantly, I felt as if I was able to deepen my connection to the community around me and challenge some preconceived notions I had about my own abilities. I'm not saying I'm taking up running tomorrow, but there was a real sense of accomplishment, and a real sense of support.

Camp is all about going beyond your limitations, in the same way that Judaism is all about asking questions. The harder the questions, the more challenging the exploration, the more meaningful the connection and experience. And for that, I'm grateful.

(and for those who care about these things: my time was 35:51, running an average of 11:33/mile. Hey, I didn't drop dead).

Monday, August 1, 2016

Camp, Jewish Identity and Authenticity

I just started my rotation at URJ Camp Harlam as faculty yesterday, and I'm already knee deep in programming, working with the kids and staff, and connecting with fellow Jewish professionals from around the region.

While I'm assigned to K'far Noar (entering 9th grade) today I had a chance to teach the Chavurah (entering 10th grade) kids. This was a follow up elective based on a previous program on authenticity and expressing one's Jewish identity; a great subject for that age group and a perfect location--Jewish camp--where we can really explore the topic fully and completely.

For me, the choice on what to teach was obvious; I showed my group two videos that have been around for a while but are worth seeing again. First was Adam Lustig's "What It Means To Be A Jew" (and many thanks to Rabbi Elisa Koppel for showing me this video last year).

The second was Vanessa Hidary's "Jewish Mamita" (which if you've ever seen the movie "The Tribe" is featured toward the end).

 Perfect films to reflect on the nature of Authentic expressions of Jewish Identity and what that means. 

After watching the videos and getting some general reaction the conversation turned toward our own experiences: when do we put our Judaism forward, when do we hold it back. When do we push, when do we restrain ourselves. I then asked the kids to write 6-word memoirs  (well, really 10-word memoirs) beginning with the words "I'm that Jew who..." The kids got really into it, and used it as an opportunity to describe their expression of Judaism. I was in awe of the words they chose to describe their Jewish identities: words like pride, educator, advocate. They talked about teaching non-Jewish relatives and friends about the traditions, about youth group and 'Jew Camp' and how deep this identity goes. They wanted the links to the videos for when they get home (no tech allowed at camp). Many didn't just write one, but two or three or four.

Is it the deepest exploration of identity? No; we didn't study texts for example. But they had the space--in a Jewish environment, surrounded by their own Jewish community--to talk about their Jewishness as an unmitigated, unqualified source of pride. And I'm good with that.