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I always spend some time as Rabbi in Residence at Camp Tawonga in California each summer, and it is always a highlight of my year. Camp’s Jewish theme changes each time, and this year we are focusing on the word from Torah “Hineni,” which means “I am present.” Many biblical heroes, notably Moses at the burning bush, respond to a challenge or opportunity by proclaiming, “Hineni!” or “I am here and I am spiritually ready.” This week, we offered campers a way to cultivate a state of Hineni through a mindful eating practice.
The hardest part for most campers was when they were handed a raisin and instructed to refrain from eating it until the end of the exercise to get the most out of the experience. We placed a raisin in the palm of their hands and asked them to contemplate every aspect of the morsel. What does it feel like? Smell like? What were the physical forces in the universe that made it possible for this bit of sustenance to arrive into our hands? Who were the people who contributed to its creation?
Campers talked about the laborers in the grapevines, the wind, sun and rain, the workers at Sysco’s plant who packaged the raisins and the truck drivers who brought them to camp. They were especially cognizant of the water necessary to sustain the vines amidst California’s water crisis. What a miracle to be holding this piece of food that was the result of so many complicated forces!
Finally, we thought about whether the food about to be consumed came from a tree or the ground so we could say a Jewish blessing before eating it. Pausing to think about where our food comes from and choosing either traditional Jewish words or creating our own prayers can turn every eating experience into a moment of Hineni. Prayer can be a ritual reminder in a fast-paced world to stop for a moment, bringing to mind all of the varied forces that went into the production of that bite of food.
When asked about the experience, campers had many responses:
“A raisin has never tasted so good!”
“It really made me appreciate the raisin a lot more, because we stopped and thought about where it came from.”
“I never thought about what it takes to get a simple raisin to a box.”
Others remarked on the fruit bursting with more sweetness than they usually notice. And in a few rare cases, kids who previously hated raisins reported liking them for the first time. Some remarked that they felt Hineni in their bodies after trying out this practice. The campers thought about other moments that seem to pass by unnoticed in their daily lives that they could mark as notable and sacred.
Some people are naturally inclined toward Hineni. Most of us struggle to slow life down and be present for the moments large and small that make up our complicated lives. Watching the campers experience this exercise reminded me that being present or some might even say “spiritual,” is not necessarily an inborn character trait with which we are either gifted or denied. Most people need to cultivate those skills, but they are completely learnable and need to be reinforced throughout our lives.
This sense of connectedness to ourselves and the world around us is available whether or not we grew up within a religious tradition or with more than one religious background. Many interfaith families struggle with how they are going to manage “religion” in their homes. But a first step might be to identify spiritual abilities or skills we want our kids to possess to deepen their experience of being alive: being present, expressing gratitude, feeling connected to other human beings and our environment.
Here at camp, kids are learning that Jewish prayer is one tool for cultivating that mindset which we have at our fingertips. In past years, my own kids have returned from camp wanting to sing the Ha’Motzi prayer of thanks for bread at our home table. I believe this was in part because there was such a boisterous energy in the dining hall when hundreds of kids sang the words together. But perhaps they also unwittingly wanted to bring it home because the rote repetition of this prayer three times a day provided an automatic moment of reflection and pause, lending an aura of the sacred to a monotonous, daily occurrence. This is just one of the ways campers at Jewish overnight camps learn the tools to be more present in their lives and more attuned to who they are who they are becoming.
To learn more about the array of interfaith-friendly Jewish overnight camps in the Bay Area, including URJ Reform Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, Maccabi Sports Camp, and the brand new Conservative Camp Ramah Norcal, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the list here!
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Up here at Camp Tawonga in Northern California, the Jewish theme of the summer is “being a mensch.” One of those Yiddish words that has found its way into the English lexicon, a mensch is a good person. It could be argued that Judaism, as well as every religion, is built around making us good people. A related Jewish term is “derech eretz,” or, how we are in the world as human beings.
I often talk to my kids about this idea. There are many things I hope for my children: happiness, success… But if they aren’t kind, if they aren’t at a basic level good people, none of the rest matters.
A great tool for figuring out how to be a good person (and raise a good person) is the Making Mensches Periodic Table. It lists 43 of the attributes Jewish Mussar (ethics movement of the 19th century) named as mensch-like qualities, for example: compassion, love, joy, modesty, justice and integrity. This chart can be particularly helpful to interfaith couples. When partners come from different backgrounds, it can be difficult to figure out which tradition to emphasize or how two religious traditions can be expressed side by side.
Try this exercise that I ask of every couple I marry: Figure out what values you share. Some couples value education more than saving money, others value a shared sense of human responsibility toward the natural world. For others, a peaceful home is more important than hospitality. These values are, most likely, part of what attracted you to one another, how you saw yourself intertwined with that person, or maybe even what one of you lacked growing up that you value in the other. Think about these values that underpin your relationship.
If you need ideas, scan the Table. Which five values or qualities are most important to you? Which are lower on your list? Have your partner do the same. Talk about why certain values rose to the top for each of you and why. What do you share? Where do you differ? Do you express your commitment to those values in unique ways based on where you first learned about them? Who passed them on to you? Don’t worry if they aren’t completely aligned. Talk about what you want this shared life to look like so you can start to intentionally live according to those values and make them come alive in your home and your relationships.
Many of us were raised with some iteration of the Golden Rule. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever you name it, wherever you learned it, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are spending more and more time with parents of adult children who are intermarrying and grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in interfaith homes. The question I hear from them is often about how they can share their own love of Judaism and the family heritage and traditions with their grandchildren. We talk about the relationship with their adult children, honoring the decisions they have made and being in respectful dialogue about that. We speak about how grandchildren learn through osmosis the Jewish values grandparents live and breathe and will enjoy learning family recipes, participating in holiday celebrations and hearing the stories of their family.
The goal isn’t to make grandchildren Jewish unless that’s a shared goal with their parents. The goal is to love, accept, learn from, honor and celebrate this child for who they are and to show pride in who you are and how you became who you are. Will this lead to Jewish continuity? That’s in the stars. You’ve got your relationship with your children and grandchildren now. If there is bonding and togetherness and warm memories and sharing of values, not only will these young souls flourish but those who come into their circles will be enriched. If there is positivity and connectedness associated with Judaism, it’s all good.
My question to you, Chicago area grandparents: What are you doing June 19-21? Are your grandchildren done with school and not yet in camp? Take the plunge and try a special weekend away with them at the JCC’s Grandparents Weekend. The weekend is filled with programming that will engage children 4-12 years old in fun and meaningful activities. There is plenty of time for running around, enjoying the beautiful retreat center, playing games within the structure of the weekend, and also free time downtown when the magic of even more grandparent-grandchildren bonding happens.
Here are words from grandparents Barb and Denny Kessler who have participated in this JCC retreat for many years and have found it to be deeply worthwhile:
In a few months we will be returning to the L’Dor Va-Dor Grandparents & Grandkids program at Camp Chi for our 8th year!!! The opportunity to be with our grandkids for a weekend—without their parents—in a Jewish/camping setting has been our great pleasure. We take two of our seven grandkids each year for a truly fun and meaningful weekend together. The kids hear about it from their older sibs and cousins and can’t wait to be old enough to go. We have found this to be a unique way to deepen our relationship with our grandkids. Several of our grandkids are from an interfaith home and spending a weekend at Camp Chi has been a wonderful way to have them be part of a Jewish community, celebrate Shabbat and Jewish traditions as a family and interact with other Jewish kids. We usually take two cousins, rather than siblings, because our grandkids are from different cities and they love being together. At the end of the weekend we make a photo album for each of the kids, write about the weekend and give it to them so they remember our special weekend together. They all treasure their albums and even many years later talk about our weekends together at grandparent’s camp.
The need to belong is part of the human condition. We all want to feel a sense of home, we seek it out, we write songs and poetry about it and we hold on for dear life when we find it. I figured out how to belong to Judaism at camp.
My Jewish camp was the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I still remember the first time I drove up to the gates, sick with nerves, worried if I could fit in. I also remember the tear-streaked ride home those two months later when I was grounded by such a deep sense of belonging the likes of which I had never felt before.
Each winter, as the countdown for those bright summer days began, we would throw around the term, “10 months for 2.” I suspect that if Twitter had existed in those days, it would have become my favorite hashtag. And this was the reality that we felt deep within our pre-teen and teenage souls; that we lived those ten other months of the year in exile, waiting to return to the holy land once more for those two precious months. Oh, how much we could cram into 60 days.
At camp, I could not only figure out who I was but I could also be anything. I lived in Jewish time and space, where days were marked with fun and creative prayer and song, where we interacted with Israelis on staff who taught us about Israel and connected us to the larger Jewish world, where we learned and shared a common vocabulary and sang familiar Jewish songs in a way I had never experienced at my home synagogue. And because we lived in Jewish time, swimming, arts and crafts, drama and every sport imaginable became part of our Jewish summer camp experience. We were given ownership over our religious experiences and we celebrated Shabbat (and I truly mean celebrated) each week with creativity, music, dance and our own words of gratitude and introspection. I didn’t even realize how much Jewish knowledge I had gained in these series of two months until I got home and realized I knew every melody and every prayer and wanted to teach them to my interfaith parents and my friends (even if they weren’t as keen).
I imagine we all have those transformative experiences in our lives, the ones we think back to regularly, which we credit for our personal growth and identity. Mine was Eisner Camp and I would hazard a guess that the large majority of my fellow campers and counselors would say the same, even though we have all chosen our own, different paths through life. My path led me to the rabbinate, to wanting to make Judaism as alive and vibrant every day as it felt during those summers, to help everyone who wanted to belong to Judaism and the Jewish community and to create connections and friendships that last a lifetime.
The impact that Eisner Camp had on my life is immeasurable because these ten years later, the mere thought of camp makes me smile and remember a million experiences, moments, songs, sounds and people. Writing this blog post alone reminds me of the hot sweaty perfect Friday night song sessions, the trials and tribulations of camp friendships and the moment my team won Maccabiah (color war). I wouldn’t be who I am without camp. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable, engaged Jew—let alone a rabbi, and I certainly wouldn’t still feel like a little piece of my heart is living 10 months for 2.
I spent last week at California’s Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their “Taste of Camp” (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who aren’t ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each other’s backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.
Excitedly, one girl told the other, “My Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.”
The other smiled and piped in, “In our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.”
This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, “Are you Hanukkah or Christmas?” The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are “Hebrew” and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.
What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.
I don’t know the full picture of these kids’ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and others—not in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their “religious plan” is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as well—regardless of what the plan actually is.
What is the “religious plan” for the little girl who says she is “mostly Jewish”? I don’t know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is “mostly Jewish” and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.
We’ve all heard about “half Jews.” And people who say they are “part Jewish,” or “a quarter Jewish.” I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.