On a 30-mile sunrise trek out of and back into Mitzpe Ramon, my colleague and fellow rider Rabbi Ed Gelb introduced me to the idea of the “solace of silence.” Or was it the “solace of solitude?”
Reflecting on my recent participation in the Ramah Israel Bike and Hike in the Negev (which included 250 miles of biking over 5 days the week before Passover), I sat with my memories of the silence, the solitude and the solace I experienced in the open spaces of the desert. Given the timing of the trip, I was particularly excited to travel along the Jordanian-Israeli border and the Egyptian-Israeli border at the same time of year the Israelites of the Torah would have exited Egypt. Due to this year’s very wet winter in Israel, the Negev was green along the “river” beds that would carry the rains. I was reminded of the words of Psalm 104, which we read just this morning in celebration of the new month: “You make springs gush forth in torrents to flow between the hills.” I imagined the flock that accompanied the Israelites feeding on the greenery, the children picking the purple and yellow flowers. I wondered whether the winter that preceded the exodus was an unusually wet one in God’s anticipation of the challenging journey.
As I rode with my group (we “Bogrim” were the intermediate riders, encompassing a wide range of biking abilities), we’d often get spread out along our route. Sometimes we’d be divided into small packs, where we could push, encourage, joke with, and occasionally sing to one another. Sometimes we’d feel entirely alone on the road, though there was always someone just a minute ahead or a minute behind us.
The moments of community and the moments of solitude in the open and quiet space of the wilderness gave me a new perspective on the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. I’d always understood the desert as a necessary transformational experience for our people, but never fully appreciated the effects of the surroundings on the fledgling community. Barren, silent and expansive, yet beautiful, peaceful and awe-inspiring, the Negev invited me to clear my head, to shed my burdens, to breathe deeply into my faith and to connect at a soul-level with the land, the journey and the people sharing both with me.
Wanting to pursue the topic further, I searched for the book that Rabbi Gelb had mentioned. As it turns out, I had the title entirely wrong. The book he referenced that morning was The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, a collection of essays about the author’s life and encounters in Wyoming! My mistake, however, led me to two wonderful blogs. One was about the benefits of practicing silence, entitled “Finding Solace in Silence” by Kerine W. on wittedroots.com. She writes: “There’s always been more to silence than we think. It hasn’t been obvious because we’ve villainized it. We’ve given it negative connotations of loneliness, isolation, and the illusion that we’ll be missing out on all the things around us. I think we too often associate silence with loneliness, but a void filled with noise is still empty. I believe silence is recuperation.”
In the second, entitled “Finding Solace in Solitude,” Zat Rana comments on upliftconnect.com: “When you surround yourself with moments of solitude and stillness, you become intimately familiar with your environment in a way that forced stimulation doesn’t allow.”
Sadly, the events transpiring in the world around us on this new moon challenge our faith and our hopes. We don’t have the luxury of such time in the wilderness when rockets give only seconds to find shelter. And ceasefires rarely yield the silences that bring about the reflection and reassessment required for true transformation.
Then again, maybe a few days off will give everyone a chance to take a long bike ride in the desert. It certainly worked for me.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has occupied the headlines of the Jewish press over the last week. At issue is Ramah’s educational approach regarding Israel and Zionism. In particular, IfNotNow (INN), an organization whose stated goal is to end American support for Israel’s current policies with respect to the Palestinians, has begun training Jewish camp counselors to effect change in the Israel education of Jewish summer camps.Three months ago, a group of Ramah alumni involved with INN approached the Ramah national leadership seeking a commitment from Ramah to change its Israel education to include the Palestinian narrative. As news of INN’s camp counselor training program became public, the Ramah leadership issued a statement distancing itself from any partnership with INN and affirming its commitment to teaching Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel. Backlash came from both the right and the left. From one extreme, Ramah was being ordered to conduct a purge of any counselors who might express any sympathies to the Palestinian cause; from the other side, Ramah was being accused of betraying alumni who felt they had been labeled as anti-Zionist at best and anti-Semitic at worst.
Change, no matter how warranted, typically takes time in established institutions. Change requires education, building consensus, and the development of stakeholders who can model the proposed change as a natural and mission-driven extension of the institution itself. Change imposed from outside the institutional framework will, more often than not, fail, especially if it is expected to take effect immediately.
The Ramah camping movement, one of the great and long-lasting successes of Conservative Judaism and a breeding ground for ideas, leadership and best practices, is well aware of the changing landscape of the Jewish world, and in particular as it relates to Israel. Hundreds of young Israeli emissaries (shlchim) staff the Ramah camps each summer, bringing with them their many perspectives on Jewish identity, Zionism and Israel. The shlichim are not screened for their political leanings in advance of their placement. Each Ramah camp has its own board, its own professional leadership, its own unique demographic of staff, campers and families. Each camp has met the challenges of change in its own way, always sensitive to the Ramah mission, the camp’s constituent communities, and the reality that staff and campers come from a diversity of religious and educational backgrounds. To this day, the camp cultures differ in their religious and educational philosophies, even as they pursue the same mission.
The Ramah camps also face the challenge of educating students—campers and staff—who range in age from 6 to 60, many of whom live together in community. Learning takes place in formal, informal and experiential settings. The unintended curriculum is often more important than the intended curriculum, as so much of the learning occurs in the context of late-night one on one conversations. It is in the context of personal relationships that nuanced opinions are best expressed and best able to be heard. That is the true magic of Ramah.
Ramah directors across the camps, I believe, sympathize with those Ramah alumni who want to see staff and older campers engage in Israel discussions that reflect the complexity and nuance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in light of INN’s demands for immediate and sweeping change, it should come as no surprise that the Ramah leadership felt the need to make a strong statement in response, officially distancing Ramah camps from any organizational or philosophical partnership, especially considering that INN’s platform specifically states that it does not take a position regarding the support of Israeli statehood. Critics may have cause to say that Ramah leadership’s latest statement was an attempt to appease the majority of its base and its financial supporters. Even if this were to be true, it doesn’t mean that Ramah has abandoned its dedication to pluralism and to permitting a diversity of opinions.
The world of Jewish education is still learning how to address the moral challenges of Israeli statehood and Jewish power. The Shalom Hartman Institute, as far as I am concerned, has done an excellent job of creating informative, nuanced and challenging educational materials for adults. (Check out the iEngage Israel curricula; our synagogue community has already implemented three of its courses to a positive reception.) Adapting these conversations for middle schoolers or high school students is going to take time and expertise, especially given the widely diverse ages and backgrounds of the intended students.
I firmly believe that now is the time to wrestle with the question of how to teach about Israel’s conflicts. But the answer to that question, especially when it comes to good Israel education, is certainly not one to be arrived at in a matter of months. Ramah camps are as good a place as any to advance this discussion—but not necessarily this summer or even next. Not if it is going to be done well, with the result producing the best informed Israel lovers and advocates for our future.
Rabbi Craig Scheff