Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Isaac Katz. Isaac was a camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for 4 summers and worked on staff for an additional 4 summers, most recently as Rosh Eidah for Machon 2015. An alum of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Isaac currently lives in Chicago with his wife Ariel Goodman (also Nivo 2009) and works at Google.

What Jacob and Esau Teach Us About Community Building:
Reflections on Parashat Tol’dot
by Isaac Katz

Sometimes growing up can feel a lot like the lunchroom in Mean Girls (or High School Musical, depending on your preference): you feel forced to take on the homogenous identity of your social group, accepting a distinct role in the social jungle of adolescence. At camp, we’re given the challenging and fulfilling task of welcoming chanichim (campers) from different backgrounds and interests and creating a wholly new community. We aim to unite, rather than fragment. Still, we celebrate the individual identity of every chanich. With vibrant activities across music, drama, sports, learning, art, and more, camp offers something for everyone. But at the end of the day, we come together as one, unified eidah. How do we accomplish this miracle of community building?

In the opening lines of this week’s parashah, Tol’dot, we’re introduced to Esau and Jacob. Esau is described as “אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה, a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors,” while Jacob is described as “אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים, a mild man who stayed in camp.” In the next verse, we learn that Isaac favored Esau, and Rebecca favored Jacob. By overtly favoring one child over the other, Esau and Jacob’s parents have forever pitted their sons against each other. Indeed, in the following lines, they trade the birthright, and later in the parashah Rebecca encourages Jacob to deceive Isaac and formally claim Esau’s inheritance. 

Rebecca and Isaac’s favoritism results in family infighting and trickery, ultimately physically and emotionally severing their relationships. Rather than focusing on Jacob and Esau’s commonalities (after all, they’re brought up in the same household), Isaac and Rebecca create a rivalry that ends in mistrust and betrayal. At camp, we aim to embrace each chanich’s interests and differences while building a strong community void of rivalry and mistrust. Jacob and Esau represent camper archetypes: the active, sporty camper and the quiet, studious camper. (Of course, in real life, no one falls so simply into a single character type.) For our madrichim (counselors), favoring one chanich over another leads to resentment. By illuminating each chanich’s multifaceted strengths and contributions, we can bring out the best in everyone and create the vibrant, diverse communities that are the hallmark of the Ramah experience.

Whether by tzrif (cabin), banim/banot (gender), eidah (age), or entire machaneh (camp-wide), our camp communities are built on trust, compromise, and mutual benefit. Though our chanichim come from homes and communities across the Midwest, with wide-ranging interests, abilities, and perspectives, we spend summers in Conover creating something new together: a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community.

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