Rabbi Joshua B. Cohen (Nivonim 1988) lives in Modiin, Israel, with his wife, Sarah Bierman (Nivonim 1992), and their 3 children, Sidney, Shenan, and Shoval. Originally from Skokie, Illinois, Joshua spent 23 summers as a camper, staff member, Rosh Aidah, Commissary Manager, and Field Worker in camp before becoming Assistant Director. His favorite meal was pack-out lunch on Yom Meyuchad and is glad that his acting career peaked with his lead role in A Chorus Line in 1988. He co-directs The Nachshon Project as a Program Officer for Legacy Heritage Fund, a program aimed to help more young Jewish leaders find their path towards becoming Jewish communal professionals for North American communities.
Reflecting in the Month of Elul
by Rabbi Joshua B. Cohen
For which Jewish holiday do we spend the most time preparing? Some might answer Pesach— we turn our kitchens over and kasher them for Passover, buy special foods, cook for weeks in preparation for the week-long holiday. Others might say Sukkot— we spend time building and decorating our temporary structures (and withstanding the frigid cold temperatures and rain of the Midwest!).
My answer? Rosh Hashanah! For an entire month leading up to the start of the Jewish new year we prepare through our liturgy and through our actions. In our t’fillot we begin adding Psalm 27 to our daily prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul through the end of Sukkot as a way of reminding ourselves of our relationship with God as our Protector: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” We blow the shofar each morning after shacharit (morning prayers) as a call of awakening and a reminder of the Holy Days to come.
The month of Elul is not just about adding sounds and words; it’s about introspection and reflection. We are supposed to use the shofar blasts and the additional psalms and selichot (penitential) prayers to help us think about our actions over the past year. In our daily lives, with all of the hustle and bustle, it is difficult to find the time and space to reflect away from noise and interruption. We yearn for that seclusion that will allow us to think, more than ever this year. But where does one go?
Having spent almost 25 years as a camper, counselor, Rosh Aidah, kitchen manager, and Assistant Director at Ramah (Do I need to add Wisconsin?), I still marvel at the fact that camp can be filled with hundreds of people at one time, yet there is always a way to find a quiet secluded space to be alone and think. I could watch in solitude the sunset over placid Lake Buckatabon while sitting on the huge old wooden chairs at the back mirpeset (porch) of the Sifriyah (Library), where the sun would set in a way that I could never see at home. And how many nights did I wonder why there were more stars in the sky at camp than anywhere else? I could always find those quiet spaces that offered a chance to think, even though a few yards away there was a basketball game or people playing frisbee on the Kikar.
As the summer wound down each year, week 7 turning to week 8 on the camp calendar, we would rush to try to get in a few last summer experiences. And at the same time, we took those long walks with friends, with our counselors, talking about the summer that was and what we were hoping to accomplish next summer as if one summer could be a continuation of the next.
My summers at Ramah helped me create lifelong friendships (Tzrif Bet, 1984 pictured here – I still look the same). Camp taught me about leadership and Jewish values, community, and it is the place where I met my wife, Sarah Bierman. Ramah created the foundation upon which many of the decisions in my life continue to be based and it is where I learned how to observe Jewish laws and customs. But more than anything, Ramah taught me the importance of stopping, even during the hectic or fun times of the summer, to be reflective about what was happening around me, and to find meaning in those experiences.
With best wishes for a shanah tovah um’tukah, a good and sweet new year.