Sam Blustin will be joining us for his second summer as Rosh Shirah. Sam is currently in his second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, studying this year in Israel. Reflections on Parashat Bo by Sam Blustin
The summer after I graduated college, I staffed a Poland-Israel Israel trip for high school aged students. The experience had a profound impact on me, but more than that, it had a profound Jewish impact on the teens who went on the trip. In fact, research says that there are three main experiences which, more than any other metric, predict future involvement in Jewish life: Jewish day schools, youth trips to Israel, and you guessed it, Jewish summer camps. Particularly focusing on the latter two, I asked myself, what do these experiences have in common? The answer is Jewish immersion. In these environments, Judaism is infused into every aspect of the experience. At camp, chanichim (campers) learn how to live meaningful halachic Jewish lives while living with all that modern life has to offer. This liminal space allows young Jews to step out of the pressures of their everyday lives and experience the breadth of what Jewish life can be.
Parshat Bo commences with a different type of liminal experience. It’s the coming of age for a people, where they transition from life under a physical master in Egypt to the Master of the Universe. In fact, the entire rest of the Torah documents this lengthy transition. Like camp, the desert provides an ideal environment for learning both faith and practice, removed from the demands of everyday life. In the desert, the people must rely solely on God for their sustenance and well being, the ultimate test of faith. In fact, the people come to rely so much on God that when it comes time to scout out the land of Israel, they bring back a negative report, afraid that the giants in the land will surely crush them. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, however, that the spies were not actually afraid of failing, but of victory. In the desert, they had everything provided for them. God was visible, present in every moment. But they knew in Eretz Canaan that they would have to live in the real world of empirical space. They would need to fight wars, plant crops, and build a society. And as a result, God’s intimate, miraculous presence would be diminished. The issue was that the spies didn’t know how to translate the immersive experience of God into everyday life. How do we translate these seminal liminal moments to lived reality?
After Pharaoh finally releases the Hebrews, they journey to Succoth and receive their first laws, among them to celebrate Passover yearly. “And you should tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.’ And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes – so that Hashem’s Torah may be in your mouth – for with a strong hand Hashem removed you from Egypt” (Ex. 13:8-9). The physical reminder of our Jewish life is central to what we strive for at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. At camp, Jewish ritual is front and center. We pray, light candles, end Shabbat each week with Havdalah together as a community. We are fully immersed in Judaism and community and these rituals add great joy and meaning to our lives.
To translate these liminal moments to lived reality, immersion must extend beyond the walls of camp, into homes, schools and synagogues. Our hope is that during the summer our campers and staff gain the skills to translate meaningful experiences of ritual, music and community into their daily lives at home.