This week’s parashah, Balak, reads like a script for a play. We meet a wide variety of characters like Balak, King of Moav and Bilaam ben Beor, a prophet-like character, and watch as they develop throughout the story. There are stage directions, talking donkeys and Heavenly Beings. We have narration, dialogue, poetry and even high drama. Threatened by the other, in this case, the Israelites, Balak seeks out Bilaam and requests that he curse our ancestors. Before any interaction with the Israelites, the others, Balak is frightened. Rather than meet and discover, Balak seeks to destroy. Ultimately, Bilaam is unable to curse Israel and instead proclaims the famous blessing:
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל
How Goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel…
The story ends with Balak and Bilaam parting ways and with Israel being blessed. The script-like narrative of the parashah mirrors our emphasis on theater in camp this week. This coincidence extends beyond just the theatrical nature of things and includes an encounter with the other that serves as a blessing for all involved (I will have more to say about that later).
Theater season opened in camp this week! In the span of five days, we saw performances by the Nivonim English Play Company, The Lookingglass Theater Lab Company, Aidat HaShoafim, The Northwoods Ramah Theater Company Camper Workshop and The Tikvah Arts Festival Lunch Theater. Shoafim wowed us with their production of Beauty and the Beast in Hebrew. Campers worked so hard during the first few weeks of camp and the effort paid off in the form of an outstanding production. The Tikvah Arts Festival Lunch Theater just concluded with a variety of short plays written, directed and performed by members of our Tikvah program. They cast the shows to include not only themselves but their chaverim from Machon and their CITs from Nivonim. The enthusiasm of the Tikvah campers was infectious and the cheering was incredibly loud at the end of the performance. Campers from a variety of aidot worked with members of our Northwoods Ramah Theater Company to write, direct and produce their own short theater pieces and performed them for each aidah throughout Thursday morning. The amount of imagination was just astounding.
The crown jewels of the week, however, came from the Nivonim English Play Company and The Lookingglass Theater Lab Company. Each group, working completely independently, wrote powerful, thoughtful shows about religion. They developed complex narratives, characters and themes. Nivonim created a show called The Museum of Religion about a future where all religions were banned, where everything required some basis in rational, factual knowledge and where, in the name of unity, no difference regarding faith and belief was tolerated. Along the way, the high school student characters encounter tableaux that force them to reconsider whether or not they believe in a Divine Being. While the intent of the museum visit is to strengthen commitment to rational knowledge and the banning of religious particularism and faith, the outcome of the visit is the exact opposite. In arguing against religion, the campers from Nivonim end up reaffirming their faith. Writing and performing from the depths of their souls, Nivonimers shared with us a religious journey and set of struggles that each of us encounters throughout life. Their show was a work of beauty, creativity, faith and honesty.
For the first time ever, the Lookingglass Theater Lab Company, a program for 14 – 19 year old teens living in Chicago, visited a summer camp. If you are not familiar with The Lookingglass Theater, here are a few things worth noting. They perform in a theater space on Michigan Avenue in Chicago that used to be part of the old Water Tower pumping facility. Second, they won this year’s Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Most important for us, however, is the fact that their Executive Director, Rachel Kraft, is an alumna of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (Nivonim 1980). The group from Lookingglass was incredible. Their performance, titled Tainted Beauty: A Spiritual Journey, was created through a process almost identical to that of our Nivonimers. The show was developed by the participants. Their self-created mission statement said:
Religion creates unity as well as separation, so individuals must question to find what is beauty or tainted about their own faith.
While using different techniques, creating different characters and approaching the subject from a very different perspective, Lookingglass cast members created a show that struggled with nearly identical themes as those of our own Nivonim. Their show was also a work of beauty, creativity, faith and honesty.
Prior to their arrival, there was both excitement and trepidation about a visit from theater students who were outside the Ramah bubble. None of us knew exactly what would take place, if the groups would blend and bond, or if this would be an experience more akin to Balak, Bilaam and the Israelites. Many of the participants in Lookingglass had never left their own neighborhoods let alone the city of Chicago. They had never been to overnight camp or to the Northwoods. Many had never been in a canoe and most live in neighborhoods where meeting Jews is not very likely. Our Nivonimers were writing their first show and were doing so in camp. Would their work rise to the level of those participating in a lab from a professional theater company? Would the groups be able to give honest, open feedback to one another? From the moment they arrived, however, the encounter with the other was positive and powerful. It was the antithesis of the Balak, Bilaam, Israelite experience.
The joint venture between The Lookingglass Theater and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin was a total success, as were the rest of the theater experiences at camp this week. Like so many encounters, participants often learn more about themselves than they do about those they encounter. The questions Lookingglass Lab members asked about camp, about Judaism and about the process of developing The Museum of Religion caused campers to be reflective about their own experiences and beliefs and to appreciate camp even more. Lookingglass members learned about themselves and their faiths and grew in knowledge about Jews and Judaism. All in all, it was proof that we can all meet in the beautiful tents of Jacob and there encounter God.
Special thanks to Charlotte and Michael Newberger for their ongoing support of the Northwoods Ramah Theater. Special thanks to Rachel Kraft, Executive Director of The Lookingglass Theater Company, to David Kersnar and Emilio Robles, directors, and to Lizzie Perkins, Director of Education and Community Programs for partnering with us to make the joint experience a reality. Special thanks to Jonathan Adam Ross who was our liaison to the project and to Lynda Bachman for working with our Nivonimers to create one of the most powerful pieces of theater I have seen.
Rabbi Loren Sykes