The following is a Dvar Torah I gave this past Shabbat at the Hebrew Educational Alliance (HEA) in Denver Colorado. HEA is the largest Conservative Shul in Colorado. Their clergy, staff and lay leaders have been some of the most ardent supporters of Camp Ramah in Colorado.
It is a sound I am privileged to hear numerous times throughout the summer. It is the sound of squealing, chanting and shouting of excited campers as they return to camp from their various excursions. Some were away for only twenty-four hours and hiked five miles while running through mud puddles. Others were away for five days having biked over 120 miles up and down alpine dirt roads.
Every time campers return to the Ramah Ranch from an adventure in the back country, they return with a newfound sense of passion & excitement. Typically they return on a Friday afternoon, and I must say that the shabbatot following these excursions are some of the most spirited and uplifting of the summer at Ramah. Campers have this new found sense of passion, spirituality and connection with each other.
In trying to understand what exactly transpires when we leave our worldly comforts behind and head into the backcountry where we live even closer with nature, I turned to a book written by Rabbi Alan Lew called Be Still and Get Going. Often referred to as the “Zen Rabbi” because of the time he spent living in a Buddhist Monastery, Rabbi Lew writes about the concept of “Leave Taking.” He argues that to really encounter the Divine, and to reach a new level of spirituality, one must literally leave one’s regular routine and go on a journey. Abraham’s development as our forefather begins in Parshat Lechlecha, when he leaves his father’s house and goes to the land of Canaan. Similarly, Jacob must leave his father’s house and go on a Journey to Haran to have the spiritually awakening that allows him to become Israel, the father of the Israelites. According to Lew, “leave taking” works, because we leave what is familiar to us, and most importantly, we leave our habits behind. For, he writes, God “is never encountered in either convention or habit.”
There is perhaps no greater example of “leave taking” in the Torah than the stories we are reading this time of year. During the Exodus narrative we read about the movement of the Israelites from their habits in slavery to their reluctance of being a free people to their ultimate acceptance of the Ten Commandments in next week’s Parsha. The Israelites were not capable of receiving the Torah in Egypt, because they were so use to the routine of slavery that they were not even open to the possibility of a direct relationship with God. The Torah supports this idea, when throughout the ten plagues, Moses beseeches Pharoh to let the Israelites go for a period so that they can sacrifice and worship God—something that presumably cannot be done in their homes in Egypt.
And once the Israelites do leave Egypt, in this week’s parsha, the Torah opens with a direct reference to the need of the Israelites to embark on their own spiritual leave taking. In the opening verse, the Torah states that God did not take the Israelites by way of the Philistines, “ki karov hu”, although it was nearer, and more direct. The obvious question to ask is why did God want to lead the Israelites across the dessert by a circuitous route, instead of taking the most direct one? Why would God cause the Israelites to wander in the desert?
The classical commentators take two main approaches to this question. On the practical level, some argue that God did not want the Israelites to encounter enemy nations so soon after leaving Egypt, and so for strategic reasons God did not lead them on a direct route through an enemy nation. Of course, the issue with this answer is that there were plenty of enemies in the desert and the Israelites would encounter enemy armies in any case.
Others, like Ibn Ezra and Maimonides, offer an alternative reading. They argue that God wanted them to have a lengthy experience of freedom, with all the ups and downs that this requires to really be ready to accept the Torah and eventually conquer the land. According to this understand, God lead them on this journey, not for a strategic military reason, but a strategic spiritual reason. Sure enough, during their wandering the Israelites do develop a better relationship with God, only through many trials and tribulations—spiritual highs like Receiving the Torah and the dedication of the Mishkan, the tabernacle—, and spiritual lows like the story with the Golden calf and the sin of the spies.
The question for us, is how do we incorporate this idea of “leave taking” into our own lives today. Recently, I interviewed a young Israeli future staff member who had just spent five years in the army. He, like so many of his friends, was embarking on an extended trip to the Far East. Assuming he has the experience that literally tens of thousands of young Israelis have had previously, he will have a religious awaking while in a far off country surrounded by people who do not speak his language and practice their religion in temples filled with idols of the Buddah.
For those who cannot afford to take a year to have a spiritual awakening, one might go on a retreat or an extended trip or sometimes just a long walk in the woods. The goal of all of these is to leave behind what one is used to and go into a new space where one is more open to experience a force beyond oneself.
And if you are still a kid, then you have yet another option. And that is Jewish Summer Camp! Attending Jewish summer camp has consistently been found to be one of the most effective forms of Jewish identity building and a spiritual practice. I will not recount all the statistics here, but the fact is that Jewish summer camp provides some of the greatest return on investment compared to almost all other forms of Jewish education.
So why is Jewish summer camp such an effective form of Jewish education? I think it goes back to the “leave taking” that Lew describes in his book. By taking children out of their usual environment, and putting them in an intentional and intensive Jewish community, one that is devoid of some the creature comforts and routines of their regular lives, children are able to have spiritual and personal awakenings. At Camp Ramah in Colorado we take this idea of leave taking a step further by constantly sending our campers away from our rustic base camp into the back country where they live with even less contact with the outside world. It is here that the youth have the opportunity to sit around the fire for hours and discuss issues about their own faith with twenty something-year old counselors. It is here that youth are able to go off on their own for thirty minutes and meditate while peering over a steep cliff. It is here that youth are able to huddle together in a rain storm, just trying to stay dry and recite the prayer one says when there is thunder and lighting.
I can not tell you the number of times, a camper has come up to me and told me that they experienced one of the most profound moments of their lives while on one of these trips. Whether it was the fourth grader who hiked a nearby hill to pray while overlooking the entire Ramah Valley, or the eighth grader who told me about how she connected with her friends on a deeper level after having shared the experience of biking up a steep hill cheering each other on, or the eleventh grader who spoke of the power of sitting for twelve hours alone in the woods as part of their “solo”— the program at camp Ramah leaves an indelible mark on our campers.
But we do not want these lessons to remain in camp. All of us involved in running Camp Ramah, want our campers to take these lessons home with them. We want our campers to take these lessons back to their communities, where they can become more active in their synagogue, youth groups and home religious lives. We want our campers to become more comfortable in taking risks in their lives and facing challenges in their own lives: this can mean trying out for a new sports team, attempting a new subject in school, or just being willing to get up on front of a group to lead a prayer. We want our campers to inspire their families to become more active in the outdoors and more cognizant about how their daily decisions effect the environment around us. Sadly, camp only lasts for a few weeks each summer. But our hope is that those who walk through our doors will take the lessons with them throughout their lives.
In three years, we have been growing exponentially. We have gone from 100 campers our first year, to 200 in our second, and are currently poised to have almost 300 in our third year. This is in addition to the over fifty college and post college age staff members who have even more profound experiences at camp each summer! We also have realized that there is such a broad appeal for this camp, that we added a younger camper and older teen program, and now have programs for kids aged eight to eighteen. This summer, we are also opening a program for kids with special needs. While our second session is almost full, with waiting lists in some of the age groups, we are still actively registering campers for session I and the remaining spots in session II. And of course, we are always looking for new partners who want to support and invest in one of the most successful experiments in Jewish education that is based in Colorado.