Dec 16, 2008

“Immersion and Identity” - a beautiful teaching from Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Immersion and Identity
Rabbi Ethan Tucker
Delivered at the 7th annual Camp Conference of the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy

 

I

Good evening.

I have many memories of camp.  As an overnight camper, I attended Camp Ramah in New England for 5 summers, went on the Ramah Israel Seminar program and then returned as a staff member for two summers.  It was in fact a recurring nightmare that I used to have in my twenties that somehow my summer plans had fallen through and I was going to be back at camp for yet another summer.  But I want to begin this evening with one story that stands out in my mind from my time at camp, and use it as an entrée into thinking more broadly about the significance of camp in today's Jewish world.

It was a hot summer afternoon, and a group of us were working diligently on our ultimate Frisbee skills for an upcoming competition.  An outburst of rain briefly disturbed our practice, but as soon as the sun poked through, we returned to the task at hand.  As we turned our heads upward to watch the progress of the Frisbee sailing along, we saw the most beautiful rainbow appear over the open field.  Colors flooded the previously grey-toned sky, and we all stopped to look.

And then we recited the berakhah, the blessing prescribed for this moment, which ends with the phrase זוכר הברית ונאמן בבריתו וקים במאמרו, blessing the One who remembers the covenant, is faithful to it, and whose word not to destroy the Earth again endures.

This was, on the surface, a minor event.  But indulge me to unpack its significance for a few moments.  Three things continue to stand out for me from this scene, remembering it years later. 

 

1) The acute normalcy of being Jewish at that moment.  As many have written about extensively with regard to informal education, there is rarely something as powerful as the integration of the values of Judaism into the rhythms of everyday life.  In this case, the blessing, uttered on a Frisbee field, had the power to penetrate more deeply into the heart than it might have in a synagogue setting severed from the rest of one's reality.  There was something so seamless about that mini-experience, something that allowed for a unified personality, a respite from the seemingly endless juggling of components of the self that is so often the hallmark of Jewish life in the Diaspora.
 
2) The peer reinforcement.
  This moment happened within a Jewish community, and one dominated by peers, at that.  It didn't really matter how many people in this group had made this blessing before or how many them even had known that there was a blessing to be made upon seeing a rainbow.  Nor did it matter much how many thought they might ever do it again.  All that mattered at that moment was that we were engaging in a Jewish practice together, offering one another, through our presence and participation, the kind of mutual spiritual support that not even the most brilliant parents and teachers can fully provide.  It is in moments like that that the possibility of envisioning oneself as part of the next generation of Judaism is allowed to germinate in one's mind.
 
3) The injection of meaning into life.
  One of Judaism's most salient traits is its insistence—bordering on the obsessive-compulsive at times—that meaning can be found everywhere.  Blessings are particularly distinctive in this regard, with prescribed responses to food, sensory experience and spiritual fulfillment being a staple of Jewish practice.  They embody the idea that in the midst of a Frisbee game, one might stumble across a hint of redemption, of covenant.  That is why we are all in this business in the first place, in one way or another: the incredible allure of the notion that transcendent meaning and belonging might pervade the otherwise mundane moments of our lives.

 

These three components—the normalcy of Jewish practice an identity, the possibility of peer reinforcement, and the injection of meaning into life—were largely able to come together in this still memorable moment because of one overarching quality of camp: immersion.  Camp, particularly overnight camp, is a total experience.  Campers and staff are completely committed to the world that is created, and that world—at its best—represents a vision and a set of values with clarity and passion.

Tonight, I would like to talk with you about why this sort of immersion experience is so critical at this specific point in time.  You are the experts at running camps, and I come to this conference as a listener and a student to learn from all of you.  I am the product of the investment made by camps like yours and those who support them.  So you certainly don't need my help in thinking through how to run your organizations, and we are blessed at this conference with many terrific professionals skilled at doing just that.  I'd like instead to try to put the work we are doing here in context and to bring some insight from the perspective of a generation of younger Jews, to talk about their assumptions and expectations.  And along the way, I'd like to make a few pleas for how Jewish camping can be most effective at tackling the challenges that lie ahead.

So let's begin by backing up and thinking a bit about this moment in Jewish history.

 

II

European Jews faced a dilemma after Emancipation: they were now offered entry into modern society, but risked losing their Jewish distinctiveness in the process.  Most pointed was the contrast between their shrinking Jewish world and the increasingly beckoning one of their non-Jewish neighbors.  Eduard Bernstein, a German-Jewish socialist thinker, wrote the following in 1918, in an essay titled, "How I Grew Up as a Jew in the Diaspora":

Upon leaving my parents' home [for boarding school] I entered a house, a street, and a school of completely Gentile character.  This Gentile world seemed to me the normal, the Jewish world the anomalous one, and children, more gregarious than adults, tend to respect greatly what seems normal to them.

Two years later, Franz Rosenzweig also pondered the new condition of the emancipated Jew in 20th century Europe: 

What is new is not so much the collapse of the outer barriers, even previously, while the ghetto had certainly sheltered the Jew, it had not shut him off.  He moved beyond his bounds, and what the ghetto gave him was only peace, home, a new home for his spirit.  What is new is not that the Jew's feet could now take him farther than ever before—in the Middle Ages the Jew was not an especially sedentary, but rather a comparatively mobile element of medieval society.  The new feature is that the wanderer no longer returns at dusk.  The gates of the ghetto no longer close behind him, allowing him to spend the night in solitary learning.  To abandon the figure of speech—he finds his spiritual home outside the Jewish world.

In short, these two thinkers gave voice to what was increasingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see: living as an Emancipated Jewish minority in modern Western culture was a major challenge. Further complicating their dilemma was the fact that many, like Rosenzweig in his earlier years, often experienced Judaism as little more than stale nostalgia, a hyper-legalistic system incapable of rising to the challenges of the moment.  One after another, European writers of this period describe the choice they felt they had to make between being authentic Jews and taking full advantage of what the larger European society had to offer, with many converting to Christianity in order to make their transition complete.

What they were encountering was the following simple truth: Judaism can only survive with a well-defined perimeter or a radiant core.  Either Jewish identity is penned in by external geographical and sociological forces, or it must be warmed by the fire of a compelling vision for Jewish life that causes its adherents to return to it repeatedly of their own free will.

It turned out, tragically, that Europe's offer of emancipation and integration for the Jews was largely a farce and led, ultimately, to the destruction of most of the Jewish communities on that continent.  For reasons well-known and beyond the scope of this evening, the perimeter around Jewish identity remained quite resilient, and the nationalism that swept Europe in the 20th century had the effect of reinforcing the notion of the Jews as separate and, ultimately, as victims.  The ethnic bonds that tied Jews together were ultimately strengthened and reconstituted, and the many Jews who poured onto these shores in the past century brought with them their deep sense of ethnicity and culture.  The aftermath of the Holocaust only strengthened this sense of peoplehood and solidarity, and Jewish identity seemed like it would have another shot at viability in yet another Diaspora community.

Fast-forward about a century to contemporary America. 

Let's review three familiar facts that nonetheless bear repeating because of their strategic importance:

·         Jews in America, like their earlier European counterparts, live modern, autonomous lives outside of the sphere of coercive rabbinic power and thus will make their own normative choices about how to live Jewishly.

·         Jews in America, unlike their earlier European counterparts, live in an environment devoid of any significant anti-Semitism.  Constitutional structures in the United States regarding the separation of government and religion have essentially made the kind of government-driven anti-Semitism common in Europe unheard of on this side of the Atlantic.  And the dynamic of a nation of immigrants has largely kept serious social anti-Semitism under wraps and far from being the greatest challenge facing Jews.

·         Jews in 21st century America, unlike even their earlier American counterparts, can achieve an integration into non-Jewish society virtually unparalleled in Jewish history.  In fact, and this is the key, it is anachronistic to talk about "integration", since we are already integrated.   Jewish neighborhoods of the sort familiar to most Jews a half a century ago are on the wane, if not largely gone.  Whereas Rosenzweig's Emancipated Jew did not return home after dusk, there is no longer a total Jewish space that most Jews can imagine returning home to.  Even the sort of social anti-Semitism that kept Jews out of various clubs and societies is dead, and the advent of a truly multi-cultural society—first showing its promise with the nomination of an observant Jew for the vice-presidency in 2000 and  perhaps most powerfully cemented with President-elect Obama's victory and all that it stands for—essentially means that a Jew can truly function like any other citizen in American society.

In other words, the perimeter has fallen.  There is no inertial force keeping Jews Jewish any more.

Younger Jews, in survey after survey, embody these facts in full force.  They aver a distinct lack of connection to Jewish ethnicity as a motivating factor in their Jewishness.  The Jewish world has been consumed lately with talk of the ethic of peoplehood and its potential decline.  And with good reason.  The young Jews I know and work with care less and less about having Jewish babies just in order to perpetuate the Jewish people, and do not instinctively, en masse, feel that being pre-disposed to the Tay-Sachs gene somehow obligates them to a fellowship of one subset of humanity.  The memory of the Holocaust is faded for many, and to the extent it is relevant and compelling, it is as a motivating force for getting involved in contemporary struggles against genocide, with the focus now largely on Africa.  Even Israel is fading as a force for ethnic unification for ethnicity's sake alone.  Those young Jews who connect to Israel today do so because they have been there and because they fell in love with it.  It is because they visited a memorable site, or they learned to speak Hebrew, or they had the most moving prayer of their life there, or because they can still remember the best falafel they ever tasted or the feeling of walking in the footsteps of their ancestors.  That passion and connection is an entirely different beast from that of the many people in my parents' and grandparents' generation who might have been to Israel once but who nonetheless frantically check the New York Times every day for whatever scraps of news about it they can find.

And the numbers show it as well.  We have talked in the Jewish community for some time about intermarriage rates, but they are only one piece of data in a wider array of indicators of flagging Jewish identity.  For those who have not read Scott Shay's book, Getting Our Groove Back, I highly recommend it as a sobering assessment of the ways in which the old paradigm of peoplehood, which relied on a strong perimeter around Jewish life, will not be successful in an era with open ethnic and religious borders.

One central response to this reality was to find ways to rebuild the perimeter.  For many, Zionism was and remains the only answer.  In an Emancipated world, the classical Zionist would say, there are only two choices: a world of persecution and assimilation as a minority, or a return to majority, sovereign status in our historic homeland.  Boiled down to its essence, this aspect of Zionism is an attempt to build a new wall around Jewish society, this time policed not by rabbis from within and anti-Semites from without, but through the force of numbers and political boundaries.  While this approach is something that every committed Jew must think about—I don't wake up a single day without wondering if I am on the wrong side of the ocean—I want to turn now to our reality here in America, where we are and will be a dispersed minority, and the vital role that immersion programs like Jewish camping have in securing our future.

 

III

I will reveal my bias to you:  Judaism cannot survive the permiterless 21st century American Diaspora—with its endless opportunity and virtually non-existent anti-Semitism—without the other element that has traditionally sustained Jewish identity: a radiant core that gives a sense of mission and purpose.

So how do we create that radiant core that can inspire an abiding attachment to Jewish identity?  Immersion programs are central to the effort.  From one angle, one can look at immersion programs as setting up a new kind of perimeter: whether it is the road beyond camp, passport control or the walls of the yeshivah, all immersion programs have some kind of boundary inside of which the utopian vision of the program rules supreme and defines everything that happens.  But this approach is ultimately short-sighted, because the bubble always bursts at the end of the experience.  Until parents agree to send their kids away for 12 months a year—and, as a father of two, I am currently exploring ways to do this—this is not a plausible strategic frame for thinking about camp.

No, the power of immersion experiences in general and camp in particular, is their ability to generate the kind of intensity required to navigate today's world Jewishly and to transmit that intensity through a medium of peer interaction.  In short, they create miniature Jewish societies.  Immersion experiences serve as a kind of incubator for Jewish content and practice, an island in a cosmopolitan world that rarely affords Diaspora Jews the experience of total Jewishness.  It is no accident that camping was and is a favored tool of Jewish Zionists: camping allowed them to simulate the majority Jewish society they were hoping to create and support in the Land of Israel.  Whereas in earlier times, camping and other similar activities might have been useful in the pursuit of utopian goals, in today's environment, immersion experiences seem increasingly critical to maintaining one's sense of Jewishness in an all-too-welcoming society.

Returning to my original story: only in an immersion environment like a Jewish camp could the factors under the rainbow that day have converged.  Someone had been trained to know the blessing over a rainbow and had been given the confidence to teach that knowledge to campers.  Only there would one find what is, quite frankly, an artificial demographic slice of peers living together day and night, opening up the unique possibilities of reinforcement that only peers can provide.  And only in this sort of total environment could this simple ritual moment have been embedded in the fabric of an utterly normal, typical and fun activity—tossing around a Frisbee in an open field.

Jewish camping and other immersion experiences are thus uniquely positioned to create the social capital we so desperately need as 21st century American Jews.  But if they are to be most effective, they must be strategically structured.  And here I will make my pitch to you, as the people running and supporting these camps.  Three things will ensure that this model of immersion programming creates a radiant core of Jewishness to which others will flock, and getting them right is critical for our success:

 

1) Find Your Torah.  If immersion experiences are not just little ghettoes, but are engines of Jewish dynamism and civilization, they must contribute to the question du jour: Why be Jewish?  Answering that question means, as it always has, finding a Torah that gives a sense of purpose and mission.  That Torah can be with a tav or a tee, lowercase or uppercase.  It can be primarily grounded in practice, activism, or communal responsibility. You know better than I what kind of Judaism your organization brings to the table in this room filled to the brim with rich Jewish choices.  But every immersion institution must have its Torah, its reason for existing, its case for why Jews should choose Judaism.  In a world in which ethnicity and tribal loyalty have lost their centrifugal power, in a world in which every Jew must, on some level, choose between being a convert or an apostate, our institutions must equip people with purpose and mission that can carry them forward.  While getting Jews in a camp with other Jews is an important component of Jewish camping, we can never win at this game of numbers in the kind of open society we live in.  Unless we all move to Israel—which is a serious question to be considered by every committed Jew today—and unless American society turns decidedly anti-Semitic and hostile—unlikely given not just the current reality but also America's constitutional and political history—we cannot live by propinquity alone.  We must create a Jewish vortex, a compelling vision that pulls people in.
 
2)
Cultivate Human Capital.  All of us in the business of immersion are actually in the business of incubating miniature Jewish societies that can serve as a blueprint for Jewish life beyond.  It is not enough to give kids a great experience at summer camp, to market our product to maximize sales.  The Torah that lies at the heart of our institutions must attach itself to participants and we must give them the tools to form a network outside of camp that will not just sustain them but also our visions of the Jewish societies we are trying to create.  Many of you are doing this already, but I cannot urge you enough:  Don't just think of your alumni as potential donors and supporters in the years ahead—though that is critical too; think of supporting their ongoing connections and development as core parts of your mission.  Those alumni are the test of whether we are doing something significant in this immersion enterprise.  No one lives at camp, but people who went to camp live in the world.  Use the incredible social networking tools now available, especially on the internet, to keep people connected.  Keep your Torah—whatever it is—flowing to them well beyond their years with you.  And involve them in the maintenance of that Torah, so that we can all benefit from the vision that your camp creates in brief, intensive spurts during the rhythms of our daily lives.  It is this pipeline of human capital that will sustain Jewish life in the years ahead; we need to invest seriously in it.
 
3)
What next?  Jewish life doesn't end after camp.  And the same realities that make camp such a critical part of the landscape of Jewish life today persist beyond adolescence.  Moreover, we are now grappling full-on with a new kind of demographic challenge—outlined in great and convincing detail in Scott Shay's book: 25 is the new 18.  Jews are spending more years unmarried, kicking around various urban environments after college without putting down clear roots that indicate what their Jewish future will be.  These Jews are thirsty for Jewish experiences and their Jewish identity still displays qualities that used to be confined to adolescent and undergraduate years.  They are still experimenting and are not committed either professionally or geographically.  The 20s and even the 30s have become key years for solidifying Jewish identity and it is clear—from programs like Birthright Israel and others—that an immersion experience during this phase of life can have a decisive effect on an individual's development as a citizen of the Jewish world. 

My own work involves trying to create one such immersion model, that of a yeshivah, a Jewish learning environment.  Yeshivat Hadar, which opened in the summer of 2007, is a summer program for young Jews in their 20s focused on building community and meaning through the intensive study of Jewish sources.  So far, 54 men and women from 11 states and four countries have gone through the program, and next fall, we will open our doors as the first full-time egalitarian yeshivah in North America.  Inspired by more targeted learning programs for adolescents and college students—among them the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the Lishmah program at Camp Ramah in California and the broad network of yeshivot in Israel—we see ourselves as filling a critical niche in Jewish life experience.  Because of the demographic trends just described, Jews in their 20s—at the peak of their creativity and energy—find themselves unserved by the gaping divide that separates a vibrant Hillel experience from a synagogue structure that is largely not tailored to serve single Jews living in urban areas. Yeshivat Hadar aims to create the kind of immersion experience that you all build for your campers every summer and to translate it into an idiom and an experience designed for these still developing Jews.

All of us—and I turn here particularly to the funders and supporters of Jewish camping—need to think about what we can do to expand the immersion model beyond the childhood and adolescent years.  Young adults need continued immersion experiences to maintain Jewish identity in 21st century American society.  It is our job to support and fund the programs that will serve that need most effectively.

 

IV

Let me close with some Torah.

In a number of places, the Bible describes our people with the term badad.  The first thing that Bil'am, the gentile prophet and sorcerer says about Israel is הן עם לבדד ישכון ובגוים לא יתחשב.  The phrase is rich in potential meanings, though Everett Fox translates as "Here, a people, alone-in-secuirty it dwells, among the nations it does not need to come-to-reckoning."  In other words, Israel cannot be cursed, as they dwell securely under God's protection, reflecting a theme that runs throughout the Bil'am saga: Bil'am can only speak God's word, as there is no way to touch Israel except through God.  Israel is thus badad, solitary and untouchable.

But the word badad is a bit more complicated than that and is pregnant with multiple meanings.  Among them is that suggested by R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin—known by the acronym Netziv—a 19th century leader of an immersion institution of his own, the Volozhin yeshivah, one of the major centers of Jewish learning in Lithuania and White Russia before World War I.   The Netziv suggested that badad means distinctive.  He developed a notion that unlike other peoples, for Jews, being distinctive is not just an accident of history, it is our inexorable and essential destiny.  But he rejected the notion that Jews were meant to live hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.  That was not only increasingly unrealistic in his time and place, but ran contrary to his and our notion of the Jewish people as emissaries of a larger mission and message, obligated to carry that charge to humanity at large.  Rather, insisted the Netziv, what it is to be badad is to develop ways to preserve distinctiveness that can sustain and animate Jews as a cultural and religious voice that broadcasts out to a larger world.

That is the holy task we are all engaged in.  Let's recommit ourselves to finding our own sense of distinctive Torah, building the human network that will translate it into reality, and supporting the institutions that will allow another generation of Jews to find blessing and purpose in something as simple as a rainbow.

_________________________________________

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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