My horse, Naapi, stepped gently through the trees, stopping now and then to munch on the grasses and wildflowers along the trail. I was supposed to pull his head up and give him a heel to the ribs. Of course, I did not have much heart to do that! He knew in an instant that he had a softie in his saddle. Naapi was named for the Old Man in the Blackfeet Indian origin story; he is the one who designs and shapes the world into being. He is also a trickster. (Maybe it was not only my compassion that kept me from steering him away from his mid-ride snacks – I took his name seriously!)
I asked our guide, Shane, what he thought about a Creator who is also a trickster. Shane laughed, and then turned our light banter immediately to a theological discussion. It turns out that not only is Shane a prize winning rodeo competitor, a high school teacher, and an entrepreneur, but he is also pastor of his church.
He told me about his sense of wonder at the birth of his first child just three days earlier, a funeral at which he had officiated the day before, and community healing he hopes to effect in his church. I told him about my synagogue, the social action and prayer in which we engage, and the serious work of preparation for the High Holy Days that begins (tonight!) with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Shane was especially moved to learn about the Jewish idea of repentance. I explained that the Hebrew word teshuva does not mean punishment or forgiveness; but rather, return. When I told him about returning to our best selves and to God as the true work of repentance, he thought this would be a good lesson for the people in his church.
I joked that I would be teaching about his church on Saturday and he would be preaching about our synagogue on Sunday!
As our scheduled one hour horseback ride lengthened into two hours, we spoke about obligations to family, privileges of community and our connection to God through nature. Shane told me that he believes that there are more atheists in urban areas than in back country. I understood exactly what he meant. In our normal suburban/urban lives, we are surrounded by the accomplishments of humans: bridges and buildings, roadways and highways. We spend our days connected to electronics and social media. It makes sense that there is not much room for God in our busy, human-centered lives. How different it is in the back country where I was privileged to spend ten days of vacation. I spent my days on a bicycle or in hiking shoes. I rarely used my phone. The tallest things in every direction were the glorious mountains of Glacier National Park. When I considered the Rocky Mountains decorated on top by ever-changing cloud formations, glacial lakes, fast-running rivers, endless plains and deep forests, I felt deeply God‘s presence. Who else could have “invented all of this stuff”?!
It is time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We will be hearing the blast of the shofar for the first time on Sunday morning. How will we wake up? OJC is offering several opportunities to do the work of Heshbon haNefesh, taking an accounting of our souls.
Women of OJC are invited to a Saturday evening program on September 7 to Envision a New Year . #OJCSupportsU is hosting a workshop, Hope into the new year, at two different times: Monday, September 16 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or Wednesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm. Hope into the New Year.
After my amazing experience at Glacier National Park, I have one more suggestion for Elul preparation. Consider preparing your soul by connecting to God in nature. Rockland County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey have some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in our country. Unplug, disconnect, and find the green spaces to quiet your mind and listen to your soul. Bring with you a prayer book, a poetry collection, a journal or a book of Psalms. Close your eyes and breathe in as the trees breathe out. Listen to the sounds of the woods or the ocean. Be present to yourself in the majesty of God’s creation. On my vacation, every morning when I prayed, I could never figure out if I should read a Psalm about God’s creation or simply look up from the page at God’s creation. Ultimately, I chose to do both. I hope that you will do the same.
Whether on footpath or sandy beach, I wish you luck on your journey toward the High Holy Days. Perhaps you will be rewarded, as I was, with a rainbow. God keeps God’s promises. Do we keep ours?
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Your grandmother passes down her recipe (in writing!) for her famous chicken soup. You follow it to a tee. But if you are a vegetarian and don’t actually taste it, can you ever create a soup that replicates hers?
You can describe what it feels like to be loved. You can use every modifier known to human language. But can your audience truly relate, unless they themselves have experienced such love?
You can teach about Shabbat. You can try to relate the benefits of a day of unplugging and of being present to the people and world around you. But to your average listener, the description simply sounds like a series of dos and don’ts. Unless you have fully lived Shabbat, will it ever find its fullest expression in your mind and heart?
Decades ago, Jewish life shifted from urban areas to the suburbs. As Jews settled in neighborhoods, tightly knit Jewish communities dissipated into spread out regions. Jewish identification, which had been facilitated by the smells, sights, sounds, rhythms and culture that permeated daily life, suddenly became something that needed to be sought out. Over a relatively short period of time, Jewish identity became an extracurricular pursuit, and the synagogue became the place to find it.
But as wonderful as the synagogue and its community might be, so long as Jewish identification was a choice as opposed to a fact of life, the Judaism of your average Jewish household would have to be scheduled — usually against athletics, the arts, school and leisure time. And the competition has only gotten stiffer over the last decades.
Enter Jewish camping.
This summer, I visited 6 different Jewish camps, 5 of them in the Ramah network, the camping arm of the Conservative Movement. Each camp had its own culture, its own particular appeal and camper demographic. What the camps shared, however, was a commitment to building Jewish identity and community rooted in Jewish values. These camps have moved far past Friday night prayer and kosher food as the defining features of their Jewishness. They have created models of education that infuse Jewish values and Jewish living into the daily activities of the campers. Values like community, pride, and joy are reinforced on the climbing wall, on the basketball court and in the art room. At these camps, Judaism is alive, relevant and informative. And Jewish community is the all-encompassing context of daily life.
From my somewhat limited perspective, the great magic of Ramah camps is the way in which the staff members live and grow. Especially given how concerned we are about life on college campuses, it is refreshing and heartening to see teens seriously engaged in Jewish living and learning, wrestling with one another and with Rabbis and teachers over issues of theology, observance and the centrality of Israel as parts of Jewish identity. Again, it is one thing to engage in these discussions in an intellectual fashion; it is quite another to do so from within the framework of Jewish community.
After a week of volunteering at Ramah Sports Academy and an afternoon of revisiting my childhood at Camp Ramah in New England, I am more convinced than ever that Benjamin Franklin had it right. Even the best teachers will not transform the lives of their students unless the teachers create the moments and contexts in which students can participate in and live out the lessons learned.
In the year ahead, we as a synagogue community are dedicating ourselves to creating Jewish living experiences for our children. We are excited about the “campy” program we have created. But it takes more for us to be successful; it takes commitment and resources to support experiences beyond the synagogue walls. It takes parents who encourage their children to attend a two-week experience like USY Encampment (coming soon, call me, Bruce Varon or Sharon Rappaport for more information). It takes donors to make Jewish camping more affordable to families who prioritize Jewish identity-building. And it takes parents who recognize that a summer job as a Jewish camp counselor is as—if not more—important to Jewish community and continuity than a career-boosting internship.
Like you, I want our children and grandchildren to have it all, including the richness of our Jewish tradition. This summer, I got a glimpse of how our dreams could be achieved.
Rabbi Craig Scheff