“Is it still relevant?”
It’s a question we ask ourselves quite often in liberal Jewish communities. This week I heard it anew, not in the midst of a discussion of some matter of Jewish law or practice as it has evolved from Biblical times to our own time. No, this time the question was posed by Eisner Camp Director, Louis Bordman to the almost 800 campers, staff and faculty gathered in the URJ Eisner Camp’s beautiful Beyt Tefillah, the outdoor prayer space. I have been participating in worship in this magnificent outdoor sanctuary since 1973. It looks a bit different than it did a bit over 4 decades ago. Yet, the natural beauty, and even more, the spirit which arises from what takes place in that holy space, is still vibrant and inspiring.
Each session of camp opens with a ceremony which enables the camp community to celebrate the beginning of a new season or session at camp. At the heart of this ceremony is a ritual developed about a decade ago by the educators serving camp at that time. This ritual involves prayers and abundant singing. Its centerpiece is the passing of camp’s four Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the oldest campers to the youngest ones. It is a joyous, noisy, and I would argue, still quite relevant celebration. The goal is to re-place the Torah scrolls in the Aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark) which stands as the focal point of the Beyt Tefillah. That done, camp begins in earnest and we study, play and live Torah and Jewish values. As the camp community passes the Scrolls from one age group to another (guided by the Rabbis, Cantors and Educators who have come to serve a week or two on the camp’s faculty), there are readings and words from our rich tradition. These words bring to life the ancient words from the Talmud, “Moses received the Torah at Sinai. He gave it to Joshua, who gave to the elders of the community; they in turn gave it to the prophets who passed it to the Leaders of the Great Assembly…” (Avot 1:1) With these words we are reminded that already in the annals of early Rabbinic Judaism we have the notion of each generation taking its place in the chain of the transmission and interpretation of our Jewish heritage. At camp, each session, we join that process.
Louis’ question, “Is it still relevant?” a few nights ago had more to do with whether this ceremony, but a decade or so old, needs rethinking. Standing at his side during the final moments of that ceremony on opening night I urged him to take part differently in next year’s ceremony. I suggested he take the place of a faculty member and that he should guide a Torah scroll from camper to staff to camper down through the layers of our camp community from oldest to youngest. As I guided a scroll that night I was deeply moved by the smiles on the faces, the light in the eyes and the sheer electric joy of our campers and staff, as I moved through the crowd. Those smiles, those eyes, and that joy in told me all I needed to know in order to answer Louis’ query. The answer was written on the faces of the 600 campers along with their counselors and leaders. The joy of Torah was alive and the scrolls returned to the Ark, so that over the weeks to come we can learn and live the teachings of our rich heritage once more.