A Referendum on the American Dream: Rabbi Berkowitz’s Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5777

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem, written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. These were the first words that many of our ancestors saw upon arriving in New York Harbor. They might not have been able to read them, but the message came across loud and clear in the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm. Its torch lit the way to what, for many of them, was considered a “Goldene Medene,” a new Promised Land.

Fleeing persecution and poverty, our ancestors set their sights on a land that promised freedom and opportunity. Once the harrowing journey was over, they would have the chance to build better lives for themselves and their children.

My grandmother didn’t come through Ellis Island. Seeking to enter the United States in the early 1920s, my great-grandparents entered New York by way of Canada, to establish British citizenship and circumvent quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. My great-grandmother, previously one of Warsaw’s elite, scrubbed floors, while my great-grandfather candled eggs, until they had enough money to open a grocery store in Harlem. They enrolled their three children in the New York public schools and cheder, and saw to it that all of them went to college. Their hard work ensured that their children and grandchildren would have access to a good education, gainful and meaningful employment, and a level of material comfort that they could not even imagine for themselves.

Many of us have stories like these, great “American Dream” narratives of coming here with nothing, working hard to make something of ourselves, and giving a better life to the next generation. These would be great “lift ourselves up by our bootstraps” narratives, except for one thing. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In some shape or form, every one of us had help getting to where we are today.

There was private assistance: the relatives who sent money and set us up with our first jobs. There was also a vast network of Jewish and secular benevolent societies that provided education, medical care, free loans, and legal aid to people who were new to this country. State and local governments stepped in to assist and protect new Americans: providing funding for benevolent societies, free public education for the children of immigrants, and regulation of threats to public health and safety posed by tenements and sweatshops.

Public and private assistance to new Americans wasn’t perfect, but it was widespread, in both the Jewish and public spheres. This is because welcoming the stranger is deeply rooted in both the Jewish narrative and the American narrative. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of exiles. And we, the American people, are a nation of immigrants.

Jews have been immigrating to, and settling in, America since a group of Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. While there were not yet quotas keeping us from entering the Americas, Jews and other religious minorities faced discrimination and intolerance in early American settlements, and even after the founders declared that, “all men were created equal.”

The question of what role Jews would play in this nascent country came to the foreground in 1790, when George Washington himself visited the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. In a letter to the congregation, Washington stated that tolerance of diversity was not an indulgence, but a basic human right, and that the country he served as president would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

For a people who had been repeatedly pushed down into the status of second-class citizen—or denied citizenship altogether—America felt akin to Canaan, the biblical Promised Land. For the first time in millennia, it felt like we might be able to stop our perpetual wandering.

But even the Promised Land isn’t promised unconditionally, as we read in this morning’s portion, Nitzavim:

“And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land…just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorroh… all nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do thus to the land?’ … They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal … made with them when God freed them from the land of Egypt….So the Eternal … uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land” (Deut. 29:21-27).

This passage was likely written by a people already in exile, trying to understand their displacement from the land given by God to their ancestors. The Promised Land wasn’t something we thought we could lose. Suddenly, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, wondering how we got there.

It shouldn’t have been such a mystery to us. The narratives of the Torah are rife with stories of punishment, destruction and exile. Adam and Eve lost their place in the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Noah and his family watched as the rest of the world’s corrupt inhabitants drowned in a flood. The architects of Babel were scattered into 70 nations for attempting to storm the gates of heaven. And the people of Sodom and Gomorroh disappeared beneath a maelstrom of fire and brimstone.

Why is it that the people of Sodom were targeted for destruction? The plain text attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion of its inhabitants, who attempt an assault on two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share what they had.

One might think this kind of miserliness comes from a place of scarcity. But the rabbis tell us that Sodom was a place of great wealth. Neither human beings walking below, nor birds flying above, could see through the dense foliage of the fruit-bearing trees. Gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables. The people of Sodom didn’t become stingy because they had too little, but because they had too much!

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, the people of Sodom began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land!”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people four zuzim to cross the bridge into their town, and eight zuzim if they tried to evade the toll by wading through a river. If a wayfarer was too tall or too short for his bed, they would cut him or stretch him to fit. If he begged in the street, people would give him coins, but instruct the local shopkeepers not to sell him food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their money from his pockets.

The animosity of the people of Sodom was not reserved for the stranger. They also stole from each other, were violent towards one another, and refused to feed the hungry amongst themselves, even to the point of torturing those who took pity on the stranger.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who had been secretly sustaining an impoverished person. When the townspeople discover her transgression, they burn her alive, and she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf from the Sodomites” (Book of Legends 36:30-32).

The price of their selfishness and greed was exile and destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of its individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezar 25).

We might hear this and think, “What does it have to do with us? We would never do anything like that in our country!” But only two years ago, a 90-year-old WWII veteran named Arnold Abbot was arrested multiple times for violating a local ordinance against feeding the homeless in public spaces in Florida. This may sound like just another irregular news item. But policy-making and political rhetoric against those in need is not. Those seeking public assistance are treated as a nuisance and a drain on our society, rather than the responsibility of a nation built by the tired, poor, and the tempest-tost.

It is not a coincidence that our country’s entrance bears the verse, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” In Emma Lazarus’s day, welcoming the stranger to this land of opportunity was a major point of American pride. But just over a century later, when the plenty in our land has only increased, we speak of replacing our golden doors with high walls, in the interest of preventing, and forcibly removing, those who seek to make a home here.

While it is impossible to speak of the American Dream without mentioning our immigrant past, it is not only immigrants and refugees who suffer from our scarcity mentality. Citizens of this nation also fall victim to the rhetoric of “us versus them.” Those of us in positions of privilege and power have become so concerned with protecting what we have, that we allow others to be oppressed in the name of our own security and comfort.

We support policies that deny workers fair wages and the most basic assistance in caring for themselves and their families, so that we can have cheap labor, cheap goods, and a lower bottom line. This doesn’t just impact the people at the bottom. Skilled workers and educated professionals too find themselves struggling to make ends meet, in a society that provides little help in the way of childcare, loan forgiveness, and pay equity.

We support a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color, so that we can feel safe, or even, in our worst moments, so that corporations might profit from the business of incarceration.

We balance our budgets on the backs of our public education and health care systems, as well as by cutting funds to other agencies that assist those living in poverty. Then we blame the poor for somehow not being gritty enough to pull themselves up, like we did.

We are so concerned with voter fraud, something that only happens only a few hundred times per election, that we would allow laws to pass that deny voting rights to tens of millions of American citizens, mostly the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Many of us are so disgusted by our political system right now that we are tempted to throw up our hands and not participate at all. But it is not enough for us to hope that the rest of the country makes a good decision, or to resign ourselves to whatever the outcome of this election may be. Apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

This sermon as a word cloud.
Every election is an opportunity for us to decide who we want to be as a nation. Do we want to perpetuate the “bootstraps” myth of rugged individualism, or do we want to acknowledge that even the most tenacious and persistent of us would not be where we are today had we not received help from our community and our country? We have survived centuries of discrimination and persecution in this country and all over the world. Will we stand idly by as our country continues to push down its weaker citizens: its immigrants, its people of color, and even its women? Do we want to be a nation that tightens its borders and starves out the wayfarer, or do we want to be a nation that cares deeply for its own citizens, and welcomes the stranger, as we have been welcomed and cared for?

This election comes down to this: do we want to be Canaan, a land of promise and plenty, or do we want to be Sodom, a land of fear and self-preservation?

This question is very real to us as we begin this new year. We have just learned that Church World Service has been approved to open a Voluntary Agency for the resettlement of refugees in Dutchess County. Vassar Temple is working with local religious institutions, universities, and non-profits to support individual refugee families who will be resettled in our area.

Our community will be called upon to provide assistance in many different ways. I know that we will welcome these families to our community with open arms, and with generous support, because that is who we are as a community.

But what will we do for the 65 million others who are persecuted in, and displaced from, their home countries, as we once were? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the very agency that helped many of us settle in this country, has shifted its focus to helping immigrants from outside of the Jewish community. They are calling upon us to support their work of helping refugees settle here and abroad. They are also asking us to urge our government leaders to increase the number of refugees we are accepting into this country. That number is now only 10,000, a small fraction, even of the 1% of refugees who are eligible for resettlement in the first place, and who have passed through our rigorous screening process.

This is what we can do for those who are strangers in a strange land. But what will we do for those citizens of our country who do not yet know the freedom and equality upon which the United States was founded? Our first step is to ensure that all of us can participate in the election this November. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has launched a campaign to increase voter participation and voter protection in this election, because ensuring that all people have the right to vote is the first step in ensuring that so many of our other rights will be protected.

I encourage you visit their websites, to learn what you can do to increase access to the American Dream, by welcoming more people into this great country, and by empowering those who are already here to make decisions about our nation’s future.

The RAC has named their campaign after this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which means, “you stand together.” At the start of this Torah portion, we hear who is standing on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-11).

Even in the patriarchal, particularistic religion of ancient Israel, Moses goes out of his way to mention groups that we might expect to be left on the margins. The speech is addressed, not only to the elders, the officials, and the men, but also to the women and the children, the day laborers, and the strangers in our midst.

God reminds us: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29: 14). “Those who are not with us today,” includes those of us who are sitting here this morning.

Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that, in every generation, we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Egypt. Even as we sit reclining at our dining room tables, we are commanded to remember the pain of slavery as a personal trauma, so that we will never lose our empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. The same can be said of our much more recent experience as new immigrants in this country.

We as Jews aren’t a people who believe that one can start from birth at zero. Even as we enjoy our comfortable lives, we carry with us the history—no, the memory—of previous generations: who wandered, who struggled, who knew persecution and discrimination, and who relied on public and private assistance to survive and to flourish in this country.

When we stood on the banks of the Jordan, we entered into a covenant that demanded that we help the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Centuries later, when we passed through the “Golden Door” into this great country, we also entered into a sacred covenant, to take every opportunity that was granted to us, and to make sure that others would have the same opportunities that we once did.

As we open the door to a new year, may we honor these covenants. May we be ever-vigilant to protect the rights of the homeless, the poor, the stranger and the tempest-tost. May we remember that we are a nation whose founders swore to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And may we work diligently to fulfill that vision of a Promised Land inscribed on our nation’s entrance, “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”  And let us say, Amen.

Torah Study Notes 10-1-16

October 1, 2016

Some advice to readers: These notes are generally most intelligible when read in conjunction with the passages as they appear in Gunther Plaut’s The Torah – A Modern Commentary. We work from the revised edition published by the Union For Reform Judaism. I find it useful to have my own copy at home together with Plaut’s Haftarah Commentary. Also, a long overdue apology to my Torah Study classmates. There are typically twelve or more people present and they are a continuing source of interesting commentary and questions. I try to capture the essence of some of their remarks in these notes but rarely do them justice.

Page 1373

Rabbi B – These passages we are about to read are essentially a summary repetition from the last cycle. They are easy to memorize.

29:9 You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God… This establishes the covenant with everyone – those present and not present. All… of Israel. The people who came before you and those who come after you. Some would say that it includes even those who convert to Judaism.

29:13 Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt…This section implies strict accountability. There is no room for interpretation. The people are standing on the opposite side of the Jordan and Moses is speaking. This is his final oration to the next generation “who knew not Pharaoh.” Nine times every seventeen years.  The Jewish calendar has to be adjusted because of the use of the lunar cycle.

29:20: A tribe may be singled out for misfortune. Because they forsook the covenant and turned to the service of other gods. They will suffer all of the curses recorded here. Communal punishment may be limited to the tribe of the transgressor. Note that there are occasions when a word is written one way but read a different way – such as where something refers to a disease or body part. JB What if you don’t believe in any God? That doesn’t seem to be covered. RB: Basically, we are more concerned with actions and behavior than belief. You may act a certain way because you fear god or for what you view as moral or ethical reasons. Fringe groups of Judaism have been formed such as Humanistic Judaism (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanistic_Judaism   )

and Jews for Jesus. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews_for_Jesus  The latter is also now known as Messianic Judaism. They wanted to be included under the umbrella of the Reform movement. The Messianic group masks their Christianity and funding from evangelical conservative groups. They are trying to convert Jews to what is essentially Christianity. The Humanist are more problematic in that they have a nature worship element. AF You can be a percentage believer. Marsha: I disagree. Beleif cannot be quantified numerically. RB You might believe in God but don’t believe in all of his powers to intervene in our lives. RB The ethical commandments are just as important as the dietary. LL It is not a percentage of belief but rather a percentage of participation. You either believe or not. Yet you may be Jewish by participating in different ways. It is the essence of the Reform movement that you be allowed to accommodate your level of participation according to your individual preferences. SF Judaism is multifaceted. Some participate with fervor and some less. This has nothing to do with being a member of the Jewish community. Someone is not a better Jew just because they keep kosher.  RB: Being part of a community essentially defines the level of ritual obligations. LL Note that there were different shuls here in Poughkeepsie based on national origin. Vassar was essentially German Jews and there was a separate temple occupied by the Hungarians and other eastern Europeans. Beth El was formed by dissident members of this congregation.

29:28: Concealed acts concern the Eternal your God… What you do in secret is still known to God and of concern to God.

30:1 When all of these things befall you… What is the book of teachings referred to here? RB: Some think it is Deuteronomy. There are a number of places where the word Torah is used in the sense of “instruction.” There may have been earlier compilations of the laws. Deuteronomy itself may have been an after acquired book. Here it is what Moses has been writing down. The special haftarah next week is Hosea.

30:11: From 29:15 to 30:10 the detail has been removed. It is not read on Yom Kippur in Reform because it takes too long.  Here we are given choices and there are rewards and punishment for each choice. Note the beauty and poetry of this section. It is personal. This is where personal interpretation is permitted. It becomes a central text for the discussions of rabbinic Judaism. RB tells the story of the argument of the two rabbis: One contended that these teachings are not in the heavens. The other insisted that we must have an agreed upon way of functioning and that is strict adherence to the law. They asked God.  God laughed and said “my children have defeated me.” The presence of different opinions – that are recorded – gives us the option of adopting another view as circumstances change.

30:15: The words I set before you this day… The final statement. Don’t worship other gods etc. but Reform cuts the details. You make choices that result in prosperity and blessing – or not. We see how our actions have consequence in our lives and in the world. Technology can create community as we have seen on the internet – such as Facebook. But this will never completely replace the personal contact found in shul.

Rosh Hashana’s Messages Aren’t “Mixed,” Life Is. #BlogElul #HHDs

Cross-posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like. Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon from Friday, September 30th.

News flash! Extra, extra, read all about it! High Holy Day services are boring!

That’s what my social media feeds start to look like every year around this time. I find this especially amusing, since about 60% of my network of friends are some kind of Jewish professional or a lay leader in a synagogue. There’s always an article about the pitfalls of our holiest days of the year, how we can change them, why we should put up with them, or why we should ignore them altogether.

This year, the headline was particularly dramatic. Jay Michaelson, who spoke at our Shabbaton last year, published an article in the Forward under the title, “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashana This Year.”

But honestly, for all of its click-bait sensationalism, there isn’t much new or controversial about what Michaelson is saying. Here are his arguments:

  • The High Holy Days have become a performance, both by the spiritual leaders of congregations, and by participants who have made these services into “the Fashion Week of Jewish life.”
  • The complicated theology and the guilt-inducing messages of the High Holy Days can be off-putting when taken out of the context of the rest of the Jewish calendar.
  • Rosh Hashana in particular sends a “mixed message,” in that is presented both as the joyous Birthday of the World and the terror-inducing Day of Judgment.

I don’t disagree with Michaelson’s arguments. I’m grateful we have Shabbat every week and High Holy Days only twice a year! Expectations and anxieties run high on these High Holy Days, and sometimes it does feel like we are putting on a show. The preparation can be very stressful for our staff, our volunteers, and our members. I never see people fighting over seats or parking spaces on Shavuot. If I could get rid of all that stress for our community (and, to be perfectly honest, for myself), I would.

As far as context is concerned, I’ve often wished that as many people would join us for Purim as do for Yom Kippur. The message of Rosh Hashana’s grim language is an important one: that our lives are finite, and that we must consider each action as if these were our last days on earth. But taken by themselves, the ideas of the Book of Life, the Day of Judgment, and the Throne of Glory can be harsh and unsettling.

The High Holy Days are supposed to be a part of a “balanced breakfast,” as the cereal commercials used to say. We can no more live on celebration alone than we could live only on a diet Fruity Pebbles. Conversely, we can no more live on repentance alone than we could live only on Bran Flakes. Our cycle of Jewish holidays is supposed to mirror the ups and downs of any given year, and of any given life. That’s one reason why, just four days after the solemn Day of Atonement, we have an eight-day celebration of the harvest. So while I agree with Michaelson that one shouldn’t only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, we’d be missing out on some pretty important spiritual nutrients if we skipped them altogether.

Which leads me to the argument I found most troubling: that Rosh Hashana contradicts itself by being both the solemn beginning of the Days of Awe and the joyous Birthday of the World. “The day itself is confused,” Michaelson writes, “an amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the Birthday of the World or get busy with apologizing to God? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year? …which is it, a funeral or a quincanera?”

The answer is, it’s both. And I don’t think that’s contradictory at all.

I don’t have to tell you that life is complicated. How many of us have had a birthday where we didn’t experience both the joy of celebrating with friends and family, and the anxiety standing alone in front of the bathroom mirror, counting wrinkles, hunting for gray hairs, wondering if we can accept, and embrace, who we are becoming? How many of us have celebrated a holiday or a simcha without shedding a tear over the people who are not celebrating with us anymore, or without wondering who might not be in the family photograph next year? And how many of us have been to a funeral where nobody laughed telling a story about the very person they were mourning?

Tomorrow night, I’ll officiate at the last wedding of 5776. Weddings always seem beautiful and romantic from a distance, but from where I’m standing, there is none without complications. Weddings are not unlike the High Holy Days, with their high production value, and the heightened stress levels that comes with that. The couple, their family and friends, bring all of their drama and baggage to this major turning point in their lives. There are people missing and people not speaking, people who wish they could be there and people who wish they could be anywhere else.

Even at the most joyous, uncomplicated union of two people in love from two families that get along great, we don’t let ourselves slip into pure happiness. We shatter a glass, some say to remind ourselves of the destruction of the Temple, others suggest that it wards off evil spirits, demonstrates the groom’s virility, or keeps the guests from getting too rowdy. But the shattered glass also reminds us that, even in one of life’s peak moments, we never leave behind our brokenness. But it also reminds us that our brokenness doesn’t prevent us from experiencing joy.

One of my favorite poems, by one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehudah Amichai, tells us that:

“A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.


A man needs to love and hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.”


Life is a mixed bag.

This is true of being Jewish, but also of being human. We often need, as the poem suggests, “to laugh and cry with the same eyes.” There is no holiday, no life-cycle, not even any ordinary day, that contains only frivolity or only solemnity. We must have faith that we as human beings have the capacity to hold both joy and sadness in our hearts, because we continue to do so, every single day.

The Torah portion this Shabbat, Nitzavim, which we will also read on Yom Kippur, warns, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:15, 19). This is presented to us as a choice, a reward or punishment for adhering, or not adhering, to the commandments. But in many ways the dichotomy is false: in any full life, we will have both life and death, both prosperity and adversity, both blessings and curses. They don’t fit into neat little compartments, and often, we experience them simultaneously. The blessing is that these experiences and emotions can balance, and even enhance one another. Our sadness is what makes it possible for us to recognize joy. And our joy is what sustains us through times of despair. This complexity what makes our lives rich and full and meaningful.

What better way to usher in a new year than by acknowledging that?

On our last Shabbat of 5776, I wish all of us a rich, full, and meaningful New Year. May our joy be enough to counterbalance our sadness, and may our sadness carve out space for us to fill with joy.

Here’s another response to Michaelson’s article, and a reflection on how we can make High Holy Day services better.

Linda Cantor Honored with 2016 Arnold Award

Linda Cantor, 2016 Arnold Award Recipient

Linda Cantor’s Words:
Thank you for selecting me as the recipient of the 2016 Rabbi Stephen Arnold award. I am both honored and humbled to be following in the steps of the previous recipients of this service award. Receiving the Rabbi Arnold award is particularly meaningful to me because, although our roles were different, we arrived at Vassar Temple at the same time .

Our family has been members of Vassar Temple for the past forty years. From the beginning Vassar temple has been and continues to be a very welcoming place, a place where my young diverse family was accepted and encouraged to participate fully. One’s skin color, religion of birth, income , gender or sexual orientation or political views do not matter. Anyone who wants to be involved in Temple Life is encouraged to take an active role.

We continue to be encouraged to explore and deepen our spiritual life, look at our connections to G-d and the universe and find ways to make prayer meaningful. Some of us find those connections just sitting quietly, others by raising their voices in song together, others by chanting one line of a prayer over and over, and others by going out in nature as Rabbi Nachman and talking directly to G-d. We use masculine, feminine and gender neutral language. We are encouraged to speak from our hearts using the words of the prayer book or the words that come through our souls or no words and simply be present. Each individual’s has been nurtured at Vassar Temple.

I am particularly struck during this season of Tshuvah, of Return at how Vassar Temple has provided a container for us to be part of and contribute to our community in ways that are meaningful, that reflect who we are. May each of us ,in our own way do the work of Elul , the work of return that will enable us to be open hearted, life affirming loving members of our family, our circle of friends, our Temple Community and the wider world.

Ken yhe ratzon
Thank you again for this honor.

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Opening Remarks:

Every congregation is composed of Litvaks and Hasids. This is the Jewish equivalent of left-brain and right-brain. A Litvak is most interested in learning the facts and adhering to the letter of the law. Hasids are the ones who pay attention to the life of the spirit, and make it their life’s work to infuse joy and meaning into Jewish practice. In the 19th century this was illustrated by the Litvak studying Talmud and the Hasid going outside to hug trees. The Litvak clung to tradition and the Hasid advocated change. The Litvak nurtured a healthy skepticism while the Hasid was wildly optimistic. Each brings their own gifts to the modern synagogue, where we need both continuity and change, both joy and solemnity. In the organized Jewish world, we tend towards the Litvaks side.

In Linda Cantor, our community has the blessing of a Hasid, with just a dash of Litvak in her. Linda brings a deep, spiritual dimension to everything she encounters: teaching the rest of us Litvaks meditation and bringing her energy and joy to our prayer and our learning. But Linda also brings a sense of commitment and determination to everything she does, making sure things get done, and get done right, as only a Litvak can do.

Linda has brought her dual personalities to our Adult Education Program, our Ritual Committee and our Nachamu committee. She has been instrumental in planning our Shabbatonim and the annual Fannie Berlin lecture, finding inspiring speakers and often teaching sessions herself when she was able. Linda was a founding davenner in our New Paths service. Perhaps the greatest contribution that Linda is currently making to our synagogue is the groundbreaking Wise Aging Program. Together with Debbie Golomb, Linda has been helping people to navigate the third chapter of their lives from both a practical and a spiritual standpoint. Linda is able to have conversations with people that others might find uncomfortable to start, about how we live our lives spiritually and what we are doing to grow.

Linda has been particularly supportive and nurturing to me during my first year at Vassar Temple, helping me with various projects, and encouraging me to nurture my inner Hasid as well with classes at Omega and workshops with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. I’m grateful to her for helping me to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember why we do what we do.

Hasid comes from the same root as the word hesed which means loving-kindness. This word, too, is embodied in Linda Cantor. She always has a kind smile and a gentle word for everyone, which is a rare thing in this day and age. I am delighted that she is being honored tonight, and I wish her yishar kochech, continued strength, as she goes forward. It is appropriate that we honor Linda with this blessing on the night of Selichot. As the Book of Life opens, we pray that you will be written and sealed for an incredible year of spiritual growth and development, enjoying your children and grandchildren, and sharing your beautiful gifts with all of us Litvaks.

And now I’d like to share a few words from Rabbi Arnold himself.

Rabbi Stephen Arnold’s Letter to Linda and the Vassar Temple Congregation
To Honor Our Friend and Teacher, Linda Cantor

Shabbat shalom, dear friends. Cecile and I wish you all a Shana Tova uM’tuka — a Good and a Sweet New Year.

And while we’re talking about goodness and sweetness, how about our well deserved honoree, Linda Cantor? Could we want to know anyone more gooder, more sweeter? Look at her. Such a warm smile — a shayneh punim (kinehora). Such an inquiring mind. Such a freshly scrubbed soul.

In days of yore, even while devoting great energy to the care and feeding of Daniel, Laura, Andrew and Richard, and to the students in her classroom, Linda was exploring the life of the spirit. In the early 90’s, I discovered Elat Chayyim Retreat Center and began finding new paths to my own spirituality. Linda was already involved there; and she’s still discovering new paths to explore.

Some folks find a life of inner contemplation so satisfying that they become quite self-involved. They detach themselves from the rest of us, preferring a private love affair with God. Not so with Linda. The deeper she searches within, the more broadly she looks around her for causes or individuals who need her commitment and energy. Our Vassar Temple community is greatly blessed to be so high on Linda’s priority list.

So, as we say up here in Red Sox Nation, I think it’s “wicked cool” that you’ve honored me by presenting the Arnold Award to my friend and teacher, Linda Cantor. I hope you folks will join her in spreading around more goodness and sweetness in our New Year.

Stephen Arnold, Rabbi Emeritus

Toran Study Notes 9-24-16

September 24, 2016

Page 1353

RB: This is all leading up to the entry into the promised land. It is a statement of blessings and curses; essentially a list of “dos and don’ts.” See “Gleanings” on page 1364. “Jewish tradition has held that at one time or another all the curses of Deuteronomy 28 were fulfilled; still Israel survived because it never totally forgot its God.”

We as a community will be repenting on Yom Kippur in anticipation of the rain of sorrow and then the harvest of reward.

27:11 Thereupon Moses charged the people… curses and blessings. Sets forth who whall stand on the mountain when the blessings are spoken and on a separate mountain for the curses. Note that Reuben winds up with curses. There is also a distinction between children of the wives and the children of the handmaids. There is favoritism here. See Genesis 30 on page 199 – It is not entirely clear but none of the handmaid’s children appear to be on the blessing side. We have a diverse range of curses – but in general they are things that you do in secret. The stranger, the fatherless. The widow… they have no protector. Note that the curses are warnings of divine punishment. Note also that this is a ritualistic portion where there are responses of “say amen” whereas that required respnose does not appear in the blessings – which it is assumed are agreed to. Nor is it required for the more horrific curses. The “strangers” here are people who have already present and have been integrated into the society. They are permanent residents as distinguished from foreigners. There are no converts at the time of this writing. Recall that Ruth was told to go back to her people and “their god.” She adhered to her husband’s religion while she was with him.

28:1 Now if you obey the Eternal your God… blessing will flow from your obedience. The problem is how do you explain when bad things happen? The Hasidim would ascribe all problems to our collective failure to be faithful to the details of the commandments. The Holocaust was ascribed to Reform Judaism by the hyper-conservative. Note that all of the blessings appear to be outcomes. The result of the blessings are children and fruitful land, military security etc.

16 Curses that are the obverse of the blessings. But more graphic… the Egyptian inflammation…madness and dismay…constantly be abused and robbed…  But does one violation bring down all of the curses?  PC There is a fundamental problem with this entire discussion. Here the Eternal is responsible for everything – which to some degree appears to absolve the individual from personal responsibility. Punishment comes from God rather than the community. SF There was a shift in rabbinic Judaism from collective to individual responsibility – but we can contaminate the group. The thrust of the responsibility is individual. LL There is a good deal of philosophy here. See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_philosophy

30: More curses. If you pay the bride price…another man shall enjoy her. …you shall be a consternation, a proverb… LL Very poetic curses. Who is “you” here? It moves between the individual and the group. Individual and collective punishments. “You” Israel as a nation perhaps? LL Although terrible things are described here they are nevertheless couched in poetry. Much of art is a contemplation of the horror of life. More recently see the work of Francis Bacon.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon_(artist)

49 The Eternal shall bring a nation against you… a ruthless nation… that will bring you to ruin. RB This is when we stop being human. LL It is a descent into hell!  Again, a favorite subject of artist in the Middle Ages. This plays out in Lamentations when the Temple was destroyed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Lamentations

58 If you fail to observe faithfully…the Eternal shall delight in throwing you out. The Eternal will scatter you with all the other people of the earth… but you shall find no peace… the life you face…return to Egypt but no one will buy you as a slave. LL This seems to be almost a premonition of the diaspora and the Holocaust. Some of this may already have occurred with the invasion of the Babylonians and the exile. SF I come away from this with a feeling of deep divine compassion as the underlying theme. God suffers with us. These are warnings but God wants the best for us.  LL this is a conversation that continues to this day. RB Why do bad things happen? This is very early in the development of the theology of Judaism. Here we have a description of the lowest possible state of humanity rendered with particularity for dramatic effect. AdrianF There will always be a remnant that survives.

Torah Study Notes 9-3-16

September 3, 2016
Page 1269
Deuteronomy 15:1 Rabbi Berkowitz – These passages are slightly internally contradictory but in an interesting way. Why do we help the poor? AF: To help the economics of the community at large. SF we are doing god’s work. They have less than they need and we have more than we need. Altruism sometimes seems to be based on self-seeking. LL: There seems to be a hive mentality here. Seeking a benefit – even to the community – is not true altruism. RB: In ancient times there was a cyclical nature to prosperity depending on the season and harvest. Charity is a form of justice but there is a distinction. Tzedakah is justice – correcting imbalances so that everyone has a fair shot.
15:1 Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts… You cannot charge your kinsman interest only the foreigners. See Brotherhood or Otherhood by Nelson: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-idea-of-usury-from-tribal-brotherhood-to-universal-otherhood-by-benjamin-n-nelson/ re the economics of giving. In this context a loan is a philanthropic act. There is a slight possibility of being paid back and no interest. This had a ritual rather than a commercial premise. If you take care to head this instruction… all these promises are contingent. Obviously, they were eventually dominated by other nations and there was poverty, ergo they did not obey the instructions. Or more properly these statements are aspirational – what could be.
15:7 If there is a needy person among you…RB: The suggestion here is that it is more empowering to lend money than to give it. As we move further to the right in the Jewish community there is less of a tendency to be charitable. Maimonides said that the highest level of giving is a loan. It is the “teach a man to fish” argument. LL: What about the Chasidic Rabbi who recently donated his kidney to a stranger? He who saves a life saves the world is his Talmudic reference. A rabbinic loophole was the creation of document that said the loan would not be remitted after seven years. See footnote on page 1270. “Give readily and have no regrets.” The rabbis have extensive discussion about what is “sufficient” for ones needs. Does it mean restoring you to the life style to which you have become accustomed? HF: There was a Hebrew Free Loan Society.
15:12 If a fellow Hebrew man is sold to you… kin gets freed after six years but the foreigner can be held in perpetuity. There are three phrases of note here: There shall be no needy, a goal, we shall give loans to the needy and you shall meet the need of the needy, There is a contradiction here with the injunction to free slaves on the Jubilee Year – tradition interprets “in perpetuity” as “until the Jubilee.”
See Essay Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Literature by Hallo on page 1148. See also the reference to the tithe to the poor on page 1280.

Torah Study Notes 8-20-16

August 20, 2016

Plaut page 1199

Rabbi Paul Golomb

This is the beginning of an Aliyah. Moses is addressing the Israelites; recalling the events of Sinai and repeating the Ten Commandments – with some differences.

5:19 Moses is relating what the previous generation has agreed to and he has stated forty years previously. For the most part the audience did not experience Sinai and may be ignorant of the details.  Note that the actual writing of this text takes place hundreds of years later. At the end of this verse we learn that the account of Exodus has been written down. But were the tablets accurately and completely transcribed?  The issue of what did they know and when did they know it has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. When was the source document for Exodus created? Ezra and his redactors who assembled the Torah in about 500 to 450 BC had sources and fragments. Here it is assumed that the Deuteronomist was aware of the work of the J writer who assembled Exodus. PG believes that the redactor didn’t just try to sew the documents together with minimum effort. Nor did the redactor rewrite everything. There were a great many decisions that had to be made as evidenced by the creation narrative and the flood narrative in Genesis. There are two radically different creation narratives placed side by side whereas the flood narrative weaves the two creation narratives together seamlessly. Here we have the redactor taking the Deuteronomist in the context of Exodus. This creates the narrative gaps that appear purposefully here. This is here a complex notion of translation. It is Moses telling what happened but changing the words of God in a careful manner. His purposes are worthy of discussion on another occasion. He is humanizing himself by admitting his frailties and asking that the focus be on the words. Note that even the same words can have different meanings depending on the vocalization – the inflection. LL: This oration seems to me to be ceremonial. It is a momentous occasion – they are about to enter the Promised Land.

25 Follow the rules and you will long endure in the land that you are to possess. Note the Jordan is being crossed from east to west. The Psalms suggest that the Jordan also parted. Today it empties into the Dead Sea. The force of the river has been abated due to irrigation and other uses.

6:1 And this is the instruction… This is the recipe for a long and happy life. Deuteronomy is overwhelmingly concerned about the social weal – how you create a commonwealth. The individual’s responsibility to community for social wellbeing. The individual “you” is intrinsically linked to the communal “you.”  Compare the lessons of  Sophicle’s Antigone in Greek culture. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigone_(Sophocles_play)  In Antigone, Sophocles asks the question, which law is greater: the gods’ or man’s. Sophocles votes for the law of the gods. He does this in order to save Athens from the moral destruction which seems imminent. Sophocles wants to warn his countrymen about hubris, or arrogance, because he believes this will be their downfall.

And compare  the life and work of Aeschylus which virtually overlaps the time of the redactors: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aeschylus-Greek-dramatist

There are scholarly discussions about the extent of communication between eastern thinkers and the Greeks..

4: Hear oh Israel etc. all language that appears in the Friday Service. See Reform prayer book The Gates of Prayer. Now it is gender neutral. The Reform prayer book says the Eternal is “one” whereas here the Eternal is “alone.” The emphasis on absolute oneness has been changed so as to exclude any other methods of faith. The context is different as well – liturgy is today taking place in a society that generally believe in one God. At the time Moses is speaking the other societies are polytheistic. Here a constitution is being established in order to organize the society.

8:10 When the Eternal your God brings you into the land… Note that the rules are to be applied once the land is taken – like moving into a furnished apartment. There are inherent advantages in taking an occupied land. See Martin Buber’s response to Gandhi who wanted everyone to use the Hindu principles of acceptance – even in the face of the Nazi’s. Buber differed and noted that historically all land had been seized from someone. With the possible exception of Australia’s aborigines.  http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/BuberGandhi.html

In the context of the Babylonian exile and return this author is now saying that there had been a loss of faith. You – the people – assumed that you were the authors of the writings and therefore could alter them. The Deuteronomist is rejecting that notion and insisting that they return to basics. This is the word of God and cannot be altered (except by Moses.)

“Designed Just for Me”: The 6 Points URJ Sci-Tech Academy Experience

I spent last week at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, where every morning after Modeh Ani, we blow something up. It’s called Boker Big Bang. Check out Friday morning’s explosion here (after the first explosion, skip to 2:30 to find out why the experiment didn’t work the first time)!

As a rabbi, educator, and former camp counselor, I’ve been on a lot of field trips over the last 15+ years. I’ve taken groups to beaches and amusement parks (fun but terrifying in terms of keeping track of kids); gone hiking, camping, and rock climbing (not my favorite); visited museums, synagogues, and historical sites (not the kids’ favorite).

2016-07-22 14.51.03

Earth and Sky Workshop simulating volcanic rock formation.

I have never, EVER seen a group as well-behaved as the one I accompanied to Google’s Cambridge offices on this week’s Trip Day with URJ Six Points Sci Tech Academy. The dozen campers filed off the bus and across the street without seeming to notice that there were stores and restaurants lining their path, selling all types of items either forbidden or unavailable at camp. They listened carefully to instructions, showed kavod (respect) to our guide by dutifully following her everywhere, and asked thoughtful questions of a panel of Google employees.

It wasn’t until we were back on the bus that I realized what had happened. It’s not that Sci-Tech campers don’t sometimes struggle to pay attention to instructions. It’s not that they don’t want to binge on candy  (they did that later when we stopped at Boston’s Museum of Science). It’s not even that the Google offices are incredible to behold (they are!).

It’s that, for this particular group of kids, there was nothing more exciting to do on a sunny Tuesday morning in July than to learn about how a major technology company operates.

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Making s’mores with the Forensic Science Workshop, after a lesson on arson!

This realization filled me with joy. I felt so happy for these kids, that they had found a place tailored to their exact interests, with dozens of like-minded kids for them to connect to. Even within the camp, campers are able to split off into subgroups based on what excites and inspires them: Biology, Earth Science, Robotics, Video Game Design, Web and Graphic Design, Forensic Science, Digital Film, Programming and Coding. While we were touring Google, other workshop groups were scattered across the Boston area, learning about earthquakes, playing with DNA in a crime lab, and meeting video-game designers, among other things.

Though I was never a science kid, I’ve been a fan of Sci-Tech for awhile. I’ve promoted it to Jewish families as an alternative to traditional overnight camp. But Sci-Tech actually provides something that even my own, much appreciated, Jewish camp experience did not. Sci-Tech gives campers an opportunity to nurture their talents and interests in a Jewish context, and connects them with kids who are, in many ways, just like them.

In my camping experience, the only thing that all of us had in common was Judaism. We managed to figure out for ourselves who enjoyed sports and who preferred the arts, but we didn’t really put much energy into either while we were at camp. We just liked being together. The Jewish part of camp ended up becoming one of my major interests, but other passions of mine–writing, music, theater–were usually confined to a few periods a week, or relegated to my life outside of camp.

This is exactly what the Foundation for Jewish Camping was addressing when they began providing incubator grants to camps like Sci-Tech. Noticing that many Jewish families were not opting into Jewish overnight camp, they looked for ways to make the Jewish camp experience more appealing and accessible. Sci-Tech provides the option of two-week sessions (not available at traditional camps past a certain age) in which a camper can be completely immersed in a subject they are passionate about.

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In addition to leading Jewish activities, this time I also taught arts and crafts. Here’s the result of a “design challenge” to make a lanyard Torah.

(A side note: I didn’t know specialty camps were a thing until I was an adult. My brothers and I had unwittingly attended a sports-based day camp where my mom worked as a nurse, until we were old enough to go to URJ Camp Harlam. Years later, I worked at a JCC  camp that specialized in the visual and performing arts. I came home and said to my mother, accusingly, “Did you know there were camps where they do theater and music and pottery ALL DAY!?!?!”).*

I’m not the only one who realizes how amazing this is for kids who may not have been interested in Jewish camp for the sake of Jewish camp. The campers notice too. Walking with a first-time camper to make s’mores–after a forensic science lesson on arson, of course– I asked her how she liked camp.

“I love it!” She bubbled. “It’s as if they designed this place just for me.”

*By the way, URJ Six Points’ next project is an arts-focused camp. I can’t wait!

2016 Vassar Temple Founder’s Award Recipient: David Lampell

David Lampell
As most of you know it’s become a tradition for the Founders Award recipient of one year to have the responsibility, no the honor of telling you about the following year’s recipient. So the only thing that could have made me more proud than being the recipient into 2015 is that it now gives me the privilege to tell you about this year’s award winner.

And so it is with great delight that at this time I invite the 2016 Founders Award recipient, David Lampell, to join me here at the microphone.

As I spoke to people about David’s participation in the temple over the years the sense that I got from everyone is that David is just one of those people who is around all the time and especially manages to show up when something needs to get done. He is like a fixture which is there working for you, but perhaps because it is ubiquitous you might not really think about or appreciate its importance.

David got an early start at the temple as most of you know. The child of Temple presidents, in fact an individual with a long legacy of relatives who have worked tirelessly to make our temple thrive, David first got to Vassar Temple at the age of three. He was a frequent participant services with his beloved parents Matt and Muriel; when he came of age in 1964 he had his bar mitzvah on the bimah in the sanctuary above us.

From a young age he was apparently very much his own person and told his parents that there was no way he was getting confirmed; it just wasn’t his thing apparently. But his mom, astute as ever, basically gave him an ultimatum she told me: either you get confirmed or you join the Temple youth group. I can hear her saying this; can’t you? Perhaps it was to the Temple’s advantage that David took the road less traveled, because his involvement in youth group led him ultimately to be an outstanding president of that organization and then to also become NIFTY president as well as a Youth Group advisor.

As most of our teens do, he left for college, but unlike most of our teens he came back and we’re lucky he did!

Once David started to become intimately involved with the temple his energy, enthusiasm and participation knew no bounds.
As certain as I am that I’ll be able to share some amazing things that David has done, I am just as certain that his participation in certain projects or activities or committees will be left unsaid as he did so quietly and perhaps without notice. So I apologize to him if I leave out other ways in which he has contributed.

However the list of his contributions that did reveal themselves clearly are enough to speak to who David is and how essential he has been to Vassar Temple. At a leadership level David has served as an amazing Temple President , as Vice President and as second vice president on more than one occasion. Behind the scenes, as many past presidents do, he has served as advisor to sitting leaders of the Temple. I know that I was able to confer with him on occasion when I was Temple President, tapping into his wisdom.

David has served in the capacity as Chair of the House committee; he has been a constant presence during our High Holy day services, serving as head usher and basic go to guy. He is called upon on a regular basis to be our electronic consultant when this machine or that gadget ceases to function, while also offering central support with our A/V and lighting systems during innumerable Temple events. Speaking with first-hand experience, I can tell you that David was instrumental in assisting me not only as a member of the Rabbi Search Committee but as the AV consultant allowing us to connect with all of our rabbi candidates via the internet – by Skype or Google chat – and offering a set up which made it possible for the whole committee to participate.

He was behind the decision to move our temple offices to the main floor [ they had been in the basement where classrooms are now] and he was heavily involved in getting the phone system installed. David has been a participant in social actions programs over the years; not only has he supported the local mitzvah day activities, but he helped to build a black church. David has been involved as well with maintaining our memorial boards.

Perhaps one of the more philosophical tasks to which David was assigned was that of Chairing the Committee to determine what is a “family” : a deep question of a bygone era when there was doubt about the definition at least among adults; I understand that a child’s innocence led one of our young people -upon hearing of the existence of such a committee – to utter what seemed obvious, “ everyone know what a family is…”!

As a member of the Men’s Club David has taken on many tasks including helping with Sukkah building, assessing the need for roof repairs, fixing the classrooms and guiding emergency work required by one or another weather related disaster.

But perhaps there is no responsibility that David managed more confidently than any other, with his typical sense of calm, resolve, purpose and great competence then when he applied these leadership qualities to his position – over decades mind you – as the Vassar Temple Bat Meister! Yes, I have it on good authority from his delightful and ever supportive wife, Marilyn, that David has responded on an emergency basis to the temple when the alarm was set off by wayward bats triggering the motion sensors. Given the natural behavior of these little critters, of course this would happen mostly in the middle of the night. She shared with me that time and again, for more times than she can count, David, learning that the alarm had gone off, would be able in less than 10 minutes to get dressed, get to the temple, deal with the situation, reset the alarm and be back in bed! He truly is a phenomenon!

It is surely obvious to all of us how lucky we are that David is a member of Vassar Temple. He has done his parents proud and as the saying suggests the apple clearly has not fallen far from the tree.

David it is truly a privilege to be able to present you with the 2016 Founders Award. Like those who’ve come before, you serve the temple not because of the award that you might receive on an evening like this, but because your heart is in the right place and that place is Vassar Temple.

As we applaud David for his many achievements on our behalf, let us not forget the person who loans you to us, who supports all of your work , who jumps in with both feet on so many temple projects – a force of mitzvot in her own right, your wonderful wife Marilyn.

Sweet blessings to you both.

Submitted by Sandra Mamis, 2015 Founder’s Award Recipient

The Perfect Crime: “Breaking in” to Jewish Summer Camp

Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Last Shabbat, my parents sneaked onto URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. They were caught, red-handed, by the director himself, who sent them on a “tour” so that they wouldn’t be wandering around unsupervised.

My mother pulled the same move 14 years ago, when I was a counselor. That time she made it all the way to my cabin and tapped me on the shoulder while I was sleeping. How times have changed!

As an Eisner alumna–she attended camp in the late sixties–my mother has a hard time wrapping her head around the ever-increasing safety measures at camp. For her, as for many of us, camp is home, sometimes more than home is home. Nothing–not even the passage of nearly 50 years–could change that for her. How could it be that she has to sneak into–and be politely escorted out of–her own home?

Fortunately, I don’t have to pull any covert maneuvers to come home. Returning to camp year after year was one of my original motivations for becoming a rabbi, and I have been blessed to spend time as faculty at URJ Camps during many of my summers.

It isn’t exactly a “perfect crime” though, as they really put us to work! We engage the younger units in fun learning activities around themes of Mitzvot (Sacred Behaviors), Middot (Jewish Values), and Tikkun Olam (Healing the World). For the older campers (entering 8th-10th grade), we teach electives: this year mine was a social justice module called “Game of Loans.” We tutor b’nai mitzvah students, help with daily and Shabbat tefillah, and offer support to staff as they continue their own Jewish journeys.

It’s a big change to go from attending camp to teaching at camp. But even as a working adult, we still get to see some of the magic that makes camp camp: both the things that have changed and those that have stayed the same. For instance, projection screens have replaced songbooks and prayer sheets, but campers still bang on the tables in (mostly) the same spots. There are new songs (Don’t Waste the Milk and this version of L’chu Neranena were my favorite musical acquisitions), but there is also the same sense of loud, chaotic abandon that campers and staff exhibit as they sing and dance.

Young people are coming to camp from an entirely different culture than when I was a camper, but that makes it all the more wonderful to see them surrender their devices and engage with their low-tech selves: making friendship bracelets, playing make-believe (one cabin I visited was involved in a pretty intense game of “lice clinic/hair salon”), and talking to one another face-to-face.

This year was my first year as faculty at URJ Crane Lake Camp, Eisner’s neighbor, and it was incredible to see how much the camp has grown and changed in the 19 years since it became a URJ Camp. They’ve worked hard to develop their own unique identity, and, even though I grew up at URJ Camp Harlam, Crane Lake is absolutely a place I’d be proud to call home.

One thing that I loved about Crane Lake was its community culture. Some of the camps I’ve worked with are so large in population that they rarely bring the entire camp together. Crane Lake, on the other hand, has opportunities throughout the day for everyone to be assembled. Every meal is an all-camp meal, where birthdays are celebrated, lost teeth are commemorated, and clearing the table is accompanied by music and dancing. One morning, the youngest campers even treated us to a Modeh Ani flashmob.

Each morning after breakfast, the entire camp joins in a short, lively, musical tefillah that feels much like a giant song session. On Shabbat, campers can sit wherever they want at dinner, giving siblings–and synagogues–a chance to bond across their age differences. Afterwards, while the community is at Shabbat services, the entire dining hall is cleared to make room for a massive song and dance session!


Ending Shabbat with Havdalah at URJ Crane Lake Camp

Coming together as a community reminds us that we are all a part of something larger. We aren’t a cabin, a unit, a specific camp, or even a generation of campers. We are part of something that stretches beyond age, geography, and time. Camp connects us to an endless chain of people who have called camp home. And I’m grateful that, at least for two weeks out of every summer, I get to come home again, too.

Join me next summer! Visit http://urjnortheastcamps.org/ to find the summer experience that’s right for you. And stay tuned for my report from URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy!