Shabbat Shalom,

“It’s so nice to be in a place where you don’t have to ask if there is pork in the beans!”

Geoff Rice
The Northwoods Ramah Theater Company

This week, members of the Northwoods Ramah Theater Company arrived at camp for the start of their annual workshop. After dinner on the first night, Jonathan Adam Ross, known as JAR in camp, came to share the above quote about beans with me. We could not stop laughing! Being at camp for the summer, it is easy to forget that we take for granted that which cannot be assumed outside of our Jewish summer bubble. In the midst of all of the great friendships we build at camp, with all of the incredible fun we have, we live full Jewish lives and experiences in such natural ways that we sometimes forget to even notice they are happening.

Take a few glances at the photos on the website and you will see a week full of fun. We had inter-aidah basketball and softball games, as well as a fantastic Zimriyah. On Wednesday, it was so hot that we had an all-camp water battle on the lower kikar. Our first group of Kochavim chanichim went home until next summer and our second group arrived on Wednesday. There were friends walking arm-in-arm. There was laughter. There were smiles everywhere throughout the week. There was all this and even more fun. Plus, there was so much Jewish learning that just happened all week long.

Here is an example of how we weave Judaism into the camp experience in a way that pays dividends for life. My wife, Rebecca, teaches a Yahadut (Judaics) class to campers in Machon on Kabbalah and the Body. Becca takes the practice of Yoga and combines it with classical concepts from Kabbalah, including the 10 Sefirot, to help campers discover the power of personal practice while exploring Jewish mysticism. Because Becca was out of camp for a few days visiting other camps on behalf of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I was the substitute teacher.

Yoga is not part of my personal daily life and I was not going to be teaching campers how “Warrior II” speaks to concepts like Tiferet and Netzach. Instead, it was my job to teach campers about a different approach to Jewish mysticism, one from the Talmud. Oy! How can I, who cannot even do downward dog for more than three seconds, compete with handstands and arm balances and Lurianic Kabbalah taught by my entertaining, thoughtful, talented and energetic wife? Even worse, in a world that tells us that teens are not interested in actually studying Jewish text, in a world where people are saying that “all toys now have to have some electronic gadgetry or kids won’t be interested,” is it possible to make a text like Hagigah 14b and the story of Rabbi Akiva, Ben Zoma, Ben Azzai and Acher come to life?  

But here’s something we can’t take for granted – our campers actually are interested in engaging with challenging Jewish texts. Many of them will sit for 45 minutes and explore the implications of an obscure aggadah from the Talmud on life and, yes, even on their yoga practice. So, I had the privilege of sharing a different kind of Jewish mysticism, Ma’aseh HaMerkava and other Talmudic mystical ideas, with a group of campers. Together, we struggled to understand how Rabbi Akiva could exit the journey in Peace yet come to such an awful end in a later aggadah. Today, the same campers studied with Dr. Rebecca Schorsch about the Kotzker Rebbe and the concept of Hitboddedut, self-seclusion or meditation. I am certain that Dr. Schorsch was equally impressed with the campers, with their depth of thought, and their interest in the topic.  

The preciousness of the gift of learning in camp, the importance of not taking it for granted, even appears in this week’s parashah. At the end of Hukkat, there is a short passage about the Israelites wandering in the desert that mentions three different locations as stops along the way:

וּמִמַּתָּנָה, נַחֲלִיאֵל; וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל, בָּמוֹת

And from Matanah to Nahaliel and from Nahaliel to Bamot. Numbers 21:19

These three names are dripping in meaning in Hebrew, a fact the midrash does not fail to notice. Matanah means a gift. Nahaliel is an inheritance from God. Bamot means high places. The Mechilta notes that there are four places referred to as inheritances: The Temple in Jerusalem; the land of Israel; the Torah; and the People of Israel.  

Another way to understand these names is that they represent a progression of learning: A gift that is given, in our case Torah, becomes an inheritance when it is thoroughly studied and digested, thereby raising us to higher and higher places of understanding of self and relationship with God. This is exactly what I see happening at camp all the time. Parents give children the gift of a Ramah experience, the gift living Torah in a vibrant community of peers. Campers learn Torah in every possible setting, from formal classes to activities, from Israeli music on the radio to doing tzedakah in active ways. Campers make Torah and Judaism their own. Then, they discover more about themselves, about their friends, about their People and about God.

At camp, we can’t take fun for granted. We can’t take friends for granted. And…we cannot take living Judaism for granted either. If challenged in an authentic and compelling way at their own intellectual and spiritual level – at camp and throughout the year – our campers come to own their Jewishness in a deep and meaningful way. Torah becomes their inheritance – one that you have given them – and they will take that inheritance to an even higher level. That is the incredible gift that you have given them. Now we have to make sure that none of us take it for granted.

And, finally, we can’t take for granted that all summer long we live in a place where we don’t have to worry about finding pork in our beans!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes

P.S.  A very special welcome to camp to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and his wife, Gail.  Jeremy is an alumnus (Nivonim 1977) and was my CIT during my first summer at Ramah Wisconsin in Sollelim 1977. It is a privilege and a pleasure to have you both here for Shabbat!