I've been at Camp Harlam as faculty for the last week now. It's been amazing, as always, working with my unit and their staff, being with colleagues and comparing notes, focused on this cloistered microcosm of Jewish life here in the Poconos.
The emphasis is on the word cloistered. Even while taking the unit to New York City earlier this week it's easy to feel disconnected from the outside world. That is, as they say, a feature, not a bug; the point is to get the kids (and staff) to focus entirely on the Jewish world they're creating here in Kunkletown, rather than be distracted by what might be happening off-camp. Campers aren't allowed phones or connected devices, and staff are asked to keep theirs discreet and use them only for work or in their off hours. So it's easy to loss connection with the daily round, including what's happening in Virginia right now.
I was in Charlottesville for the first time only two months ago. I was down to do a wedding, and Marisa and I used the opportunity for a little R&R as well. While there, we toured the Old Grounds of the University of Virginia, and later (when my son arrived from my in-laws) Monticello.
I was struck by two things while in Charlottesville. The first was the kindness and diversity of everyone I met: the woman who cut my hair the day before the wedding, the local friends of the couple, the folks we met in passing, the guy behind the counter at the used book store who clearly could spin a yarn, the folks at the coffeeshop we had breakfast in. Sure, you might say, it's the South, of course they were nice. But it was more than that: they were kind. There was a real sense of community in this town. A sense that all of us are in this together.
The other was how the city--and UVA--are still wrestling with race and the legacy of slavery. As someone who went to Oberlin, a school rooted first in the Underground Railroad and Emancipation and later the Civil Rights movement, it was hard for me to tour the campus and process how much slavery permeated the origins of the school. But to the school's credit, it was neither hidden away nor whitewashed; there were clear exhibits and displays discussing their "original sin" and its legacy.
So to see what's happening in Charlottesville today is heartbreaking. The hate. The bigotry. The violence and terrorism. The lack of shame on the part of those who fly the symbols of racism and rage and intimidation. And to be here, surrounded by children of every color of the rainbow and every orientation celebrating their Judaism knowing that only a half-a-day's ride, people are being threatened, beaten, or run over, makes me feel pulled in two different directions, groping for answers in the dark.
This week, in our Torah portion, we read: "Remember the long way that The Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness...[in order to] test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep [God's] commandments or not."(Deut. 8:2). Clearly we as a country are still in the wilderness, still tested by hardship; is this truly what is in our hearts as a country? Is this who we want to be? A place of fire and rage and hate and bigotry? Or can we find our way back on the path? At this morning's Shabbat service, the unit head and assistant unit head of Galil reminded us that our values are not goals to achieve, they are not things we are meant to master. Rather, we are presented opportunities to strive toward them, and while sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail as well. But failure can lead to learning, can lead us higher, to strive harder for those moments where we might be our best selves. Today, as we continue in the wilderness of history, is a moment of failure. Today is a moment where we failed God's test. Not for Charlottesville or Virginia, but for all of us. Even those of us cloistered away at summer camp. But it will only remain a failure if we fail to learn from it, if we fail to act on that learning. Today is a day of hate. May tomorrow be a day of love, a day of peace--because we made it as such.