Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

What the California fires cannot destroy

A female carries the Torah during a service at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Penn., in the summer of 2016. Photo copyright Foundation for Jewish Camp

With this post, I am sending a collective hug to my friends and colleagues in California who are enduring nothing short of hell on earth.

I am sending a collective hug to my colleagues who have gone well above and beyond the call of duty in comforting their congregants, providing aid and rescue for them – and, in one noble act, rescuing the Torah scrolls from an endangered synagogue.

Shout out to Rabbi Barry Diamond, who did precisely that.

This happened during the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, when rabbis also ran into burning synagogues. It is a powerful and instructive irony.

I am sending a collective hug to those alumni of Camp Hess Kramer and Camp Hilltop in the Malibu hills, that have been destroyed.

These are American Jewish holy places. Like other holy places, they exist not only in a physical sense, but with their own emotional and spiritual footprint as well.

Let me take this opportunity to sing the praises of Jewish summer camps.

Because, if it were not for a Jewish summer camp, I would not be the rabbi, the Jew, and the person that I am today.

It was almost fifty years ago.

On a Sunday morning in January, 1969, my father drove my brother and me up to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to visit the Eisner Camp (one of the Reform movement’s camps) to see if we wanted to go there.

It had snowed the night before. We could not find the camp. We were about to ditch the entire mission and head back to Long Island.

Finally, my father stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. A gas station attendant pointed down the road. We followed his directions, and found the road. We had passed that road several times. It turned out that the freshly-fallen snow had obscured the sign that pointed towards the camp.

I have always believed that the anonymous gas station attendant was Elijah the prophet — sent by God to perform that one mitzvah on that snowy January morning.

The rest is history — my history and my family’s history. I attended Eisner, fell in love with Judaism, became active in the Reform youth movement, and went on to become a rabbi. My sons would ultimately go there and would work there. Many of my closest friends emerged from the Eisner experience.

Had it not been for Eisner, my Jewish life would have been very different — if it had existed at all.  And I know that I speak for countless thousands of American Jews.

Please note: Jewish summer camps are not summer camps where the preponderance of campers is Jewish. (That would be true of most summer camps).

Jewish summer camps are camps with a mission to create and model Judaism. There is a wonderful foundation that supports the holy work that happens under the trees – Foundation for Jewish Camp.

What can Jewish summer camps do that almost nothing else in the American Jewish world can achieve?

  • Jewish summer camps create Jewish community. We talk a lot about sacred community in the Jewish world today. It is rare. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the contemporary synagogue suffers from a severe cold. The Jewish summer camp is the antidote to the cold. It becomes the kehillah, the community of our dreams.
  • Jewish summer camps provide a Jewish community. Ask Jewish kids, especially in the deep South, who grow up with almost no other Jewish kids. They thrive on Jewish summer camps. It provides them with what they so desperately miss the other ten months of the year.
  • Jewish summer camps provide a 24/7 Jewish experience. Sadly, this happens nowhere else in American non-Orthodoxy. That’s because modern Jews have bifurcated their “Jewish” selves and their “secular” selves. You would have to travel to Israel (which is, of course, indispensable) to get that kind of 24/7 Jewish experience.
  • Worship comes alive. Kids are engaged in camp services. Usually, they write them themselves. Those services have their own aesthetic sense (mostly musical, but a sense of informality) which has influenced American synagogue life.
  • Jewish camps let kids to see rabbis, educators and cantors as real human beings. My life was profoundly influenced by (then) young rabbis, etc. who spent time at camp. They were my role models.
  • Jewish summer camps create leadership. Kids learn how to dream, plan, and create. When they grow up to work at camp, they learn teamwork, time management, and how to work with people.
  • Jewish summer camps create lasting friendships. Jewish summer camp friendships create webs of relationships that in some cases have helped transform the Jewish world.
  • American Jewish kids meet Jews from other countries. Jewish summer camps routinely recruit foreign staff members. (And please: may that continue). Many are Jewish. Many more, of course, are Israeli. I am still close to my fellow Israeli staff members from Eisner. That experience shapes Jewish peoplehood.

Jewish summer camps not only transformed American Judaism; they actually helped create American Judaism. They create American Jews — in some ways, far more effectively than any other American Jewish institution.

One last thing about what has been happening.

In the Bible, the prophet Elijah, fled to the wilderness of Horeb. He came to Mount Sinai, the site of God’s revelation to Moses and the Jewish people (I Kings 19: 11ff.)

And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.

God was not to be found in any of those experiences.

No. God was to be found in kol d’mamah dakah — translated here as “a soft murmuring sound,” but sometimes “a still, small voice.” An inner voice.

Jewish summer camps teach kids how to hear that voice.

That is a good thing.

An even better thing: you can help the Jewish community heal.  Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas has been particularly hard hit. They request donations to: Fire Response Fund. Go here to donate.

You to also send gift cards for Target and Trader Joe’s to: Congregation Or Ami, 20058 Ventura Blvd., #304, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.

May Camp Hess Kramer and Camp Hilltop and those affected communities recover.

Like the Jewish people itself, may they rise again, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.