Swinging Across the Jordan

I didn’t post last week because I was away at summer camp. Each summer for the past few years I have spent a week as a faculty member at URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp in Arlington, WA. I spend my week leading services, tutoring for b’nai mitzvah, teaching Torah, hosting a reception for the counselors and overall spending time with campers (some from my congregation) and staff.

It is also a bit of a retreat week for me as I get to spend the week away from home and work with nice accommodations, three meals a day and a beautiful setting up north. I use some of my down time to relax, but also do to preparation work—think about the High Holidays, do some planning for the year ahead, and read and study.

Getting outside is also part of the camp experience, of course. The camp sits on a lot of land, so I had occasion to hike around the camp lake, and into the woods in search of a waterfall. The former was easy, the latter was a bit of an adventure into the woods on a poorly marked trail, but my friend and fellow faculty member and I forged ahead and found it.

Leaving camp is also an option (as an adult its possible to leave camp, but it still feels weird in any event—if you have been to overnight camp you understand what I mean). I do usually leave camp once or twice—there is a nearby spot that I like to visit when I am at camp, a swimming hole on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River.

The swimming hole is off of Jordan Road, and I thought it was funny that there is a Jordan Road near a Jewish camp, especially as the weekly Torah reading cycle during mid- to late-summer brings us to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are camped out on the eastern side of the Jordan River preparing to enter into the Promised Land. After their forty years of wandering, the Israelites are ready to move forward, but not before Moses gives one last speech. The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially this speech: part retelling of the journey, part review of the laws, part pep talk, part admonition for good behavior.

If you have been to Israel you know the Jordan River is not that impressive. It is a surprising modest body of water. The Stillaguamish off Jordan Road near Arlington is more impressive. The swimming hole I go to is at a slow part of the river, the rocky and sandy riverbed serves as a nice beach, and the water is deep, calm and cool.

There is a rope swing there, and while I was there this past week a bunch of kids had commandeered the rope. They took turns jumping off into the water. One girl was excited to try for the first time, but noticeably nervous. Her friends and her parents were there watching. Her father coached her on the proper technique—to wait until the rope is at its farthest point and then let go, he even said he would tell her when to let go. She was hesitant and stood there for quite a while as her parents and friends coaxed her on.

It was a tense moment, and I watched with interest. It was a moment that I felt in my gut— I thought back to times when I was in the situation of that girl, coaxed on to do something risky and scary, how nervous I was, and the feeling of internal and external pressure. And I felt it as a father, I understand those times when you are sensitive to pressuring your kids too much to do something they don’t want to do, while at the same time wanting to encourage your kids to stretch themselves and try something new.

Moses’s speech to the Israelites is in that same vein: coaxing them to do something risky, something nervewracking, all the while knowing that while it will be scary, it is a necessary step into the unknown that will allow the Israelites to grow as a people. Two rivers, two leaps forward.

The girl swung, and the look of joy, relief and accomplishment on her face when she came out of the water was electric. She swam over to her father and gave him a big bear hug. Her fears overcome, her goal accomplished, she offered appreciation to one who had shown her love and support at her leap.

In that moment I realized that we are all in that position at times, that of the Israelites or the girl on the swing: while we naturally want to be cautious, we know that ultimately without risk, without swallowing our nerves and taking a leap forward, we are not going to know what we are truly capable of.

“Welcome Home” to Elul: A View from Camp

I’m spending this week at Jewish summer camp. I have returned this year to URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington, WA to serve a week as faculty–a week filled with leading services, teaching and engaging with kids during activities. Camp Kalsman is one of the two main summer camps that kids from my congregation attend–Camp Solomon Schechter being the other–and it is nice to go to support them and our greater Jewish community.

But I go for other reasons as well. I find it personally fulfilling to be at camp. I connect with other clergy and educators in the area who are also serving on faculty, I do things that I don’t normally do in my congregational job and I learn about new programs, songs and stories. A recent article about why you should send your rabbi to summer camp pretty much sums it up.

When you come to Camp Kalsman, whether you are a first time guest or returnee, you are greeted with “Welcome home.” That greeting instills a spirit of openness and community–camp is a place you belong, camp is a place that is familiar, camp is a place to which you return. Camp is a place that welcomes you with open arms and support.

 I feel that way at camp. It is also somewhat of a retreat for me to be here. While I’m not totally off the grid and “out of the office”–I do respond to email and am reachable by phone in case of emergency (and close enough if I need to return)–it is a good opportunity to get away to be able to do some reading and thinking. And as I am spending my faculty week now in August during the last week of camp, the time is giving me good time to think about and plan for the High Holidays.

This week at camp overlapped with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the new month of Elul. And since Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it is therefore a time to prepare for the important spiritual work of the High Holidays. During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the beginning of the new year and the Day of Atonement, we are called upon to self-reflect, do heshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul), identify the times we went astray, and make commitments to do better in the future. It is a time to focus on making amends with those we have hurt. This is hard work, and so our tradition teaches that we begin not on Rosh Hashanah, but on Rosh Chodesh Elul.

During Shabbat at camp, we read from and studied parashat Re’eh. The portion opens with the words, “See, I put before you blessing and curse.” Within the context of the Torah, it is an admonition from Moses to the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land. But it is also important words for us to hear. As we read and studied this (I had the opportunity to lead Torah study with the 7-8 graders) Moses is stressing the fact, though we are bound to the covenant, we do have free will. We have the power to choose between blessing and curse. But with free will comes the consequences–we must live with the results of our actions. As the text goes on: if you choose blessing, things will go well with you, and if you choose curse, things will not. We understand that we make our choices and must deal with the results.

The work of Elul is to examine the choices we have made, the results we created, and how that has impacted our lives and relationships. And while difficult and daunting, it is empowering to know that our tradition gives us the means, the opportunity and the support to do this work. The work challenges us, but it is comforting that that we have the ability to do it.

Elul has come upon us again. Welcome home to Elul. For Elul is a time that is familiar, Elul is a time to which we return. Elul is a time that welcomes us with open arms and support.