People and Places of Refuge, Inspired By Camp

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For Rabbi Rena Rifkin, director of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Religious School , spending time at a URJ camp each summer is one of the most important weeks of the year. This sermon was presented at SWFS in New York City following Rabbi Rifkin’s week on faculty at Eisner Camp this summer.

My Shabbat experience last week was very different than being here on 68 Street in the middle of New York City. Last Shabbat, I sat on a wooden bench, with my feet dangling in the grass. I was surrounded by hundreds of children, teenagers and young adults, who sang and danced throughout the service. Our tefilah leaders were not trained rabbis or cantors, and many have not yet finished college. We wore shorts and t-shirts, with our kippot and tallitot. There were no cars driving by, no cellphones in anyone’s pockets and certainly no air conditioning.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I spent last week at summer camp. For a week, I served as faculty at the URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Together with other rabbis, cantors and educators from the Northeast region, I taught for 6 hours a day, working with hundreds of campers ranging in age from 7 to 17. We engaged in a variety of topics, including God, mitzvot, middot, tikkun olam, identity, torah and more! And when Shabbat came, we, the faculty of Eisner Camp for the week, got to sit back and watch our students be the teachers.

Our Saturday morning Shabbat service was led by the counselors in training, who are moving into their next stage of training this week – actually working with the campers and serving as camp staff in some capacity.  Most of these 17 year olds have been at camp for 7 or more years. So in the eyes of a 17 year old, they have been at camp their entire lives. They think of this as their home – not their second home, but their home – and they hold their relationships with their camp friends to be sacred.

Their theme for our Shabbat morning tefilah together was the concept of cities of refuge. Throughout their time leading tefilah, these teens focused their words to the camp community on the importance of having a place of refuge. They expressed how camp has always been a “city” of refuge for them but how they struggle to be people of refuge for others when they are in the “outside world.” It was clear that these teenagers not only understood the value of a safe space, but that it was a Jewish responsibility to be a safe person and create safe spaces for others. They wanted other campers to know that camp is a place of security and protection. But even more so, they wanted other campers to understand that it is our job to help others find refuge in the world.

And there is no question, that these 17 year olds are absolutely right.

There is no time more important than right now to create spaces of refuge – places where people are protected, sheltered and safe. Every day, there are new challenges to citizen’s civil rights and to the compassionate humanitarianism that has been at the foundation of our country’s mission from the beginning. Our country was founded on ideals of freedom from persecution and was meant to be a safe haven for those who had none. A country where anyone and everyone could live in peace and be who they chose to be, whomever God made them to be.

And yet…Our friends, colleagues and loved ones who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning have less protections under the law than they did just seven months ago. They are unable to use the bathroom of their choice, unable to serve in the military and protect others, and unable to be sure that their job is secure simply because their sexual orientation or gender do not fall into an oversimplified binary system.

And we are in a moment of intense speculation around what kind of health care our country will provide to those who need it the most. We or others we know who struggle with chronic illness, disabilities, mental health issues or more may no longer be able to gain access to quality health insurance or health care.

We are constantly bombarded with language of discrimination, racism, sexism, isolationism and just pure hatred. Whether through written words, flippant comments in speeches or even late-night tweets, it is all around us.

How can we deny that right now we MUST become people of refuge and fight for the community we live in to remain a city of refuge? We must resist so that our country can be a place of refuge for everyone in the world who needs it.

And we as Jews know how important refuge is. We know what it means to wander in the world without a home. To be constantly attacked and forced to be inferior. We know what it feels like to be tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

This coming Tuesday, we will commemorate the holiday of Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar as we mark not only the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem, but as scholars have later added to this fateful day – the final defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion, King Edwards compelling the Jews to leave England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and even the beginning of World War 1. We were refugees once. We know the struggle and the pain of being denied. And because we know, we must work even harder to create refuge for those who are in need today.

And yet, I think back to those 17-year olds at Eisner Camp. It’s easy to create a place of refuge when we are in a tight community like a camp or a synagogue – a place where we are surrounded by those from a similar background. Where we are already a little cut off from the outside world and can close the doors to the chaos that is happening around us.

So how do we not just espouse this Jewish value of taking care of the poor, the orphaned and the widow in our midst – but how do we actually live it?

How do we put down our all-consuming smart phones and step away from our busy lives for just a moment to make sure people feel heard?

How do we stop asking questions or making comments long enough to just hear another person’s story, truly listening and taking it in?

How do we share another’s stories, not just our own, in a way that is compelling and honest, and shows that each life is complex and unique and deserves the same treatment as any other?

How do we follow up and check in with those we love who are hurting or suffering through a difficult moment, and not merely ignore them and hope that they will just call us when they are back in a good place?

How do we continue to push and to fight when it’s draining to get up every day and read the news?

Spending time at a URJ Camp every summer is one of the most important weeks of my year. Why? Because being at camp is a reminder that the goal of Jewish Education, the purpose for what I do every day is not to simply have kids sit in a classroom and learn about Jewish values. The purpose is to create Jews. To instill in our children the Jewish values we hold dear and to have them live a life filled with those values and the rituals that enhance it.

When I spend time at camp, I am reminded that we cannot let our children simply learn about the concept of refuge, but it is our job to model for them and to guide them in how to be a person of refuge for others. Yes, this is hard. In truth, the hardest part of being an adult, a Jewish educator, a rabbi and a parent is actually helping myself and all our children to live a Jewish life. But is also the most rewarding.

When I remember that people are God’s creation and that our phones have off buttons, I teach that to my children too. When I focus on the other and simply try to live their story and live through their words, I can honor them. When I stop and stay present, I can be a safe, secure, protecting person for others. And I can teach my children what it means to be a person of refuge and a repairer of the world on moment at a time.

How different might our world look in 6 months if all those 17-year olds come home from camp and act as people of refuge in our world? How different might our world BE if we were to do it with them?

Kein Yehi Ratzon. Be this God’s Will.