“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
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s an F-35! No, it’s OJC on United 84, leaving Newark and headed for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. OJC?! Yes, OJC, where just one month after sending 24 people on a week-long volunteer mitzvah mission, the congregation is sending a delegation of 39 for the 5777 OJC Israel Experience.
Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu called Israel’s “long arm” longer and mightier with the arrival of two F-35 fighter jets. There is no debating the qualitative advantage these machines provide to Israel for the protection of the Jewish homeland. I like to think of our frequent Israel trips as the long arm of OJC, made longer and mightier with each trip, providing a qualitative advantage to the Jewish identities of those participating in our trips.
It is remarkable to consider, in a community of 500 households, how many people will represent us in Israel in the year 5777. Between our synagogue trips, college students on Birthright, Conservative Yeshiva or semesters abroad, high schoolers on USY or Ramah summer programs, 8th and 12th graders participating in Schechter school trips, our children making aliyah, congregants visiting friends and families, and individual families taking a 2-week tour, I estimate that at least 120 individuals will touch down in Tel Aviv. It brings your rabbis tremendous naches (comfort/pride) to sense the strong connection that our OJC community shares with Eretz Yisrael. As a factor that heavily influences Jewish engagement and future identification, our Israel connection bodes well for the next generation, despite the widely reported trends to the contrary.
The OJC Israel experience is also one committed to appreciating the nuances of the relationship we share with Israel. Firmly committed to her security and longevity as the Jewish state, we also acknowledge the challenges–particularly the political, religious and social–that Israel faces in maintaining a democratic and pluralistic character and in living up to our Jewish ideals. Our journey will take us back in time to trace forward the progression of the Zionist dream: from the history of Jerusalem (the city of Zion) to the earliest Zionist dreamers, to the British Mandate, to the survival of Shoah, to the founding of a State, to the development of the Negev, to the birth of a start-up nation. We’ll celebrate a bat mitzvah and the holiday of Chanukah, experience a Jerusalem Shabbat, reunite with friends and family, and partner with communities. We’ll learn, feel, struggle and grow. We’ll fly, float, eat, climb, ride, eat, shepherd, plant, eat, sing, package, eat, pray and maybe even jog. I guarantee you, we’ll come back more tired than we left (and perhaps a couple pounds heavier!). We’ll strengthen our understanding, our commitment, our identities and our community.
This is the OJC Family Israel Experience 5777. And today is Day One. We depart from the synagogue lot today at 12:30pm, only hours from now. Follow us for the next 10 days with our daily blog and Facebook posts.
Rabbi Craig Scheff