Running for Ramah

On Sunday morning June 11, I will participate in a 5K run to raise needed scholarship funds for Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.  This will be the first time I’ve ever run in a 5K, and I can’t think of a better cause to support.   Camp Ramah has been a crucially important part of my life and my family’s life for decades.  I spent six impactful and formative summers at Camp Ramah in California during a time in my life when my Jewish identity needed to be strengthened and reinforced.  I have Camp Ramah to thank for meeting my wife—we are one of countless “Ramah couples” who found each other at Ramah.  In the summer of 1984 we were both working as Rashei Eidah (Division Heads) for Camp Ramah in New England.  We met three months before the start of camp at a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Amy was intent on being the best Rosh Eidah possible and I was intent on getting to know her!).  Our family spent two summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and all five of our children have spent nearly every summer of their lives either at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack or at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  Amy is the National Associate Director of the Ramah Movement and this summer is her 20th year as Director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.  For us, there is nothing that can compare to a summer spent at Ramah.

Since its founding in 1947, Camp Ramah has provided thousands of people with the nourishing and supportive community so crucially needed for the formation of a strong Jewish sense of self.  Ramah is a magical place where Jewish life is comfortably lived every moment of the day, seven days a week.  It is an oasis where children and staff need not face choices between Jewish and secular, since Jewish values are a part of daily life at Ramah, from the way sports games are played, to the way people treat each other, to the comfortable use of Hebrew, to the way Shabbat is celebrated as a way of life.  Spending a summer at Ramah opens the door to a lifetime of engagement with Judaism.  Our sons have all received a strong and deep Jewish education.  All five boys attended Jewish day schools from pre-K through 12th grade.  Our family has traveled to Israel on a nearly annual basis and we have brought our children to synagogue on nearly every Shabbat and Yomtov of their lives.  It’s fair to say that, while those things are crucially important in Jewish identity formation, spending their summers at Camp Ramah has been the driving force in encouraging our children to live committed Jewish lives.

As I train to run my first 5K, I’m proud to be running in support of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. This remarkable place draws hundreds of children from New York and New Jersey where they find a magnificent summer camp and a warm and nurturing Jewish community.  Children and staff comfortably embrace Jewish living, form a love of Israel and find friends that will be with them for life.  It is not an understatement to say that Ramah in Nyack has had a positive and enduring impact on the Jewish choices made by countless young adults who spend summers there, learn and develop leadership skills and grow as Jews in ways they could not have imagined when they were younger.

Scholarship funds are needed so that no children will ever be denied the benefit of a summer at Ramah.  I ask you to consider supporting Ramah Day Camp in Nyack by sponsoring my 5K run next month.  Click on the link below to link to my Scholarship Run page.  I thank you in advance for your support and encouragement!


The Prophet Jeremiah and Mahmoud Abbas

The prophet Jeremiah was a fascinating character who lived at one of the most significant turning points in Jewish history, the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia.  As did most prophets, Jeremiah railed against his people’s lack of faith and their worship of pagan gods and idols and cited their apparent inability to trust God as the reason for their demise.  As the Babylonians threatened the Jewish nation, Jeremiah urged not resistance but submission, knowing full well that exile lie ahead for his people, something for which he was persecuted and threatened with death by Israel’s priests and King.  Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians and was exiled to Egypt with his trusted scribe, Baruch ben Neriah, where he likely died.

In the midst of this upheaval and chaos, Jeremiah oddly makes a purchase of land in Israel.  In the Haftarah for Parashat Behar (it’s not read this year since Behar is read together with Parashat Bechukotai and we read the second of the two Haftarot), we read Jeremiah’s words:

Jeremiah said: The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to you and say, “Buy my land in Anatot, for you are next in succession to redeem it by purchase.” And just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the prison compound and said to me, “Please buy my land in Anatot, in the territory of Benjamin; for the right of succession is yours, and you have the duty of redemption. Buy it.” Then I knew that it was indeed the word of the Lord.  So I bought the land in Anatot from my cousin Hanamel. I weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I wrote a deed, sealed it, and had it witnessed; and I weighed out the silver on a balance. I took the deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one according to rule and law, and gave the deed to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah in the presence of my kinsman Hanamel, of the witnesses who were named in the deed, and all the Judeans who were sitting in the prison compound.  (Jeremiah 32:6-12)

The passage from Jeremiah is linked to the Torah reading because Parashat Behar includes laws about the requirement of the Jubilee Year to facilitate the return of land to its original owners.  Jeremiah claims that God has instructed him to exercise his right to reacquire land in his hometown of Anatot.  He pays for the land, has a deed of purchase signed and sealed by his scribe Baruch, and, knowing that he will never live on that land himself, has the document placed in a clay jar so a future generation can claim it.

The passage is remarkable because purchasing land in a place that is being overrun by a powerful enemy requires a great depth of faith in the future.  Perhaps Jeremiah purchased land in Israel as a symbolic act meant to kindle faith in the future during a desperate time.  Perhaps he never actually believed that his descendants would return to Israel to live there on their own land.  Either he was an inspiring leader, or a lunatic.

But the passage is also remarkable because it demonstrates that the Jewish people have never relinquished our connection to the Land of Israel, the place of our birth as a nation.  Whether one chooses to see the writings of Jeremiah as factual history or as lore doesn’t matter.  Either way, the passage speaks to the enduring, centuries-old tie between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.  Never in our history as a people have we severed that tie.  Israel has always been our spiritual home, wherever in the world we have chosen, or been compelled, to live.

I’m not one to cite Biblical writing as evidence in political negotiations.  But the writings of Jeremiah, and the writings of other prophets and Biblical books, and the contents of the Jewish prayer book, all reinforce the idea that the Jewish people have a history in the Land of Israel.  It is the place where the Jewish enterprise came into being.  Our claim to the land is not invented, and it is not recent.

I make this point because I believe it is fundamental to achieving any resolution between Israel and the Palestinians.   Any discussion of the details of a future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must be preceded by this understanding.  The Israelis, indeed the Jewish people, have a historic claim to live in the Land of Israel.  Zionism is not an invention of the modern era (although there is a specific history to Zionism beginning in the 19th century).  Mr. Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, must be able to accept this fundamental point if Israel is to have a legitimate partner for resolving the conflict.  That means that he must stop denying that Jews have a history in the Land of Israel (a history that, inconveniently for him, pre-dates the history of Palestinians and Arabs).

David Horvitz, Editor-in-Chief of The Times of Israel, wrote in an editorial this week on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Israel that if Mr. Abbas is serious about creating a “culture of peace” (as he claimed to Mr. Trump when he was in the Oval Office), he must move from seeking “normalization” with Israel to acknowledging that Israel has a right to be there.  He must give that which he seeks for his own people to the Israelis.  He wrote:

Courageous leadership requires “No more incitement, no more glorification of terrorism. [It requires] an effort, in the interests of both sides, to confound the cynics and the doubters. And the extremists.”

None of this exempts the Israeli government from meeting the Palestinians halfway.  Israel faces a problem that, though not of their choosing or making, must be solved for the sake of Israel’s future.  Israelis must acknowledge that Palestinians have a history in the land as well, and that they wish to make their home there.  Poll after poll taken in Israel shows that if the Israelis did not perceive an existential threat, they would be more than willing to figure out a fair way to share the land.  Is it possible that Israelis have elected right-leaning governments in recent years  in part because they sense that concessions are futile in an environment where the Palestinian educational system denies the legitimacy of Zionism and denigrates Jews?

Only when Mr. Abbas and his people do what Jeremiah did 2,500 years ago—express the conviction that the Jewish people have roots in the Land of Israel—will the door be open to both sides creating a more hopeful future.


To Our Mothers

This Sunday we celebrate Mother’s Day, an occasion to express love and gratitude to our mothers for giving us life and sustaining us.  The mother-child relationship is a mysterious one, beautiful and complex, able to withstand tension and stress perhaps because its foundation is pure love.  The most gratifying experience of my life has been fatherhood, yet I quietly acknowledge that the maternal bond can be deeper and more spiritual.  We can speculate as to why this might be so, and of course there can be no single correct answer.  But there must be a reason that close to 150 million phone calls are placed to mothers on Mother’s Day and more flowers are sold and delivered on this day than any other in the year.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated since the beginning of the 20th century and became a legal holiday in the United States in 1914.  But of course, reverence for our mothers did not begin only 100 years ago.  Indeed, the Torah exalts mothers and depicts them as zealous and unwavering in protecting their children and securing the welfare of their families.  Sarah suffers the humiliation of seeing Hagar conceive a child with her husband Abraham, and when she has her own child she seeks to shelter him by demanding that Hagar and her son Ishmael be banished from the family home.  We may not wish to emulate such an act but we can see Sarah as someone determined to keep her child from being hurt.  Rebecca takes charge of her family and secures Isaac’s innermost blessing for Jacob.  Perhaps she was simply fulfilling a divinely ordained result.  Or perhaps she took matters into her own hand, being able to see, in a way that Isaac couldn’t, that Jacob and not Esav was the right choice to lead the family and his people in the next generation.  The Midrash teaches that Tziporah saved the life of her husband Moses by quickly circumcising their son when Moses had neglected to do so.  Might we say that Tziporah ensured the survival of our people by her determination to see the tradition continue?  Each of these stories is complex and layered with multiple meanings, but they share a common thread of strong mothers who act out of love to protect their children, their families and their people.  This is the image of the Jewish mother—someone who is deeply committed to education, family cohesiveness, hard work, loyalty and love. The image of the self-sacrificing mother has become the source of countless jokes, but at its core it’s an authentic idea.  Jewish women so often sacrifice their own needs for the sake of their children and families.

So, let’s consider Mother’s Day not as a secular holiday but as one associated with Jewish values.  On this Mother’s Day, take a moment to offer your mother a blessing.  I’ve taken the liberty of offering a sample here, one that is blended from several different texts.  Of course, many people no longer have their mothers in their lives.  Consider saying these words of blessing anyway, perhaps with a photo of your mother in hand, or with her image firmly planted in your mind and heart.

Harachaman, Hu yevarech et imi morati…Merciful One, bless my mother, my teacher.  To my mother, I offer my thanks for the traits you have modeled, for showing me that love can overcome obstacles, for sharing celebration and pain, for teaching me about fragility and strength.  I am grateful for the life you have given me, and for your wisdom, your guidance, your concern and, most important, your love.  There are no words to express my gratitude for all the blessings you have given me.  Still, I tell you, thank you.  May God bless you as you have blessed me.

To all the mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, may you have a special day filled with love and joy, surrounded by your children.