The past seventy-two hours have offered an amazing array gifts of comfort and inspiration to this rabbi’s heart. No verbal description could possibly do the experience justice. But here goes:
I’m at Camp Ramah in Northern California, my third summer here, my twenty-ninth summer as part of the staff of the Ramah Camping Movement. During the last 12 days alone, I’ve dropped off four of my children at different Ramah Camps around the country, and have felt the kindred pulses of the dancing, the singing, the friendships, the sacred vision at every turn. It goes beyond entrusting their physical welfare to Camp Ramah; I trust Ramah with my children’s precious souls. Today made clear, yet again, that that sacred trust is well-placed.
Today is the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. So this morning, I sat with 20 staff and older campers, teaching the history and customs of the day. Each one of them chose to come to a text-class to learn some Torah, Talmud, and Halacha (Jewish law). At 8:30am. Instead of breakfast. After a glorious and late night of Havdallah and dancing on the beach, campers and staff chose to come learn some Torah at 8am. Dayennu. But wait: there’s more.
During the shiur (class), one staff member asked probing questions about the varieties of Judaism and the custom of mourning for the Temple. He was deeply interested in the tensions between the historical mourning for Jerusalem’s destruction and the modern reality of a thriving Jewish Homeland, between the American experience of a chosen Diaspora and the Israeli experience of a Jewish State. He brought his questions (at 8am!) as part of a multi-generational learning experience. This staff member knows that being part of Camp Ramah means more than “doing his job.” It means being a dugma ishit (a personal example) to the young Jews in his charge, and it means that his adult Jewish journey is part of what makes Ramah so transformative.
Yes, camp would not exist were it not for the children enrolled. But Ramah’s rich history includes countless young Jewish adults whose spiritual commitments have broadened and deepened thanks to the countless opportunities each day presents. Many of those touched, as emerging adults, by Ramah’s gifts, have gone on to become national and international Jewish leaders. My own life’s journey has been deeply influenced by the role models at Ramah who took the time to guide me, comfort me, teach me, inspire me, who transformed my life by giving me opportunities to lead, to grow, to make mistakes, to experiment Jewishly. This past Shabbat, full of davening and learning, informal conversations, scheduled classes and spontaneous song was a beautiful part of Ramah’s legacy. This morning’s intentional learning was as well. I remember where I sat on the migrash (field) at Camp Ramah Nyack when Rabbi Albert Thaler taught me how to chant the book of Eichah. Who knows what memories our students will carry forward?
The core of this morning’s teaching is a wonderful way to frame the Ramah Experience. I cannot help but rejoice, even – especially! – on a day when our walls and hearts were broken, 2,000 years ago. I shared with the group that the 17th of Tammuz is one of four “minor fast days” listed in Rabbinic Literature as having been created in response to a destruction-moment in Jewish history. This is why it will, on the Holy Day when the world finally knows Peace, (may it come soon and in our lifetimes) become days of joy. When Peace arrives, it will be forbidden to fast on what were once destruction-connected fast days. But, says Rav Pappa in the Talmud (Rosh HaShannah 18b), in our world, which is neither exclusively destruction nor exclusively peace, “if one wishes, they fast; if one wishes, they do not fast.”
I remember learning this for the first time, eyes widening at the strange freedom of choice Jewish tradition offers the individual on such a dark and sacred occasion. To fast, or not to fast. You choose. (Huh?)
After some years of confusedly fasting (or not) on the 17th of Tammuz, I came to an understanding of Rav Pappa’s teaching that has infused the day (and my life) with deeper meaning. The world is not destroyed. We are here. The world is not at Peace. The evidence is all-too-available. We live in a world teetering between Destruction and Peace. The choice to fast or not exists as part of this fragile reality. It is not and should not be a casual decision. If one is not going to fast, it should be because they (I) commit to bringing the world closer to Shalom on this day with the strength nourishment brings. An awareness of the history of this dark day should prompt an intentional embodied response.
Which leads to tonight’s redemptive moment. 30 young Jewish campers who are part of the Ramah Performing Arts track spent the past few weeks interviewing children and adults at camp about their personal Jewish journeys. They crafted a masterful original play, which they performed tonight, complete with original music, skillful rap, beautiful choreography, and a well-conceived script. These young Jewish souls and their magnificent artistic expression hit an array of intense notes, from varying definitions of Jewishness, to Midrash, to Torah, to modern Jewish history – and they were proud, loud, and joyful as they did it all in front of their peers.
Then the dancing began. Israeli hip-hop poured through the speakers, and the entire camp population broke into dance. Hundreds of children and adults danced with abandon. It was a Mighty Rumpus. A Holy Rumpus.
It might sound disjunctive: dancing on a fast day. But remember the teaching of Rav Pappa: in our world, which exists somewhere on the spectrum between hurt and healing, “if one wishes, they fast; if one wishes, they do not fast.” I gazed through my tears at these beautiful children and their teachers, and had but one thought: we are alive! We are alive! We are alive… alive!
Two thousand years after Jerusalem’s walls and heart were broken, Jewish children sang and danced. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that it is precisely this – the joy of children, all children – that will bring our world closer than ever to Peace. My eyes were graced these past few days to witness a Holy, Happy, Healing Rumpus, one which could make everything just a bit better.
I am deeply grateful to Camp Ramah for reminding me, yet again, that it is upon us – and within our reach – to heal the world’s brokenness by nurturing meaning and joy, to make sure to use the nourishment of our bodies to do good, holy things for others.