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August 6, 2021

The Magic of Fences

According to the Bible, one is supposed to stay close to home over Shabbat. It was a great rule in ancient times because it ensured strong family and communal ties. Anyone who has ever fought rush-hour traffic gets why such a rule is important. As Jewish towns and neighborhoods grew in size, however, the Torah’s law made it more difficult to create meaningful community—the exact opposite of its original mandate. Geographical spread meant that one couldn’t spend time with cousins or friends who lived more than a mile away.

A workaround was developed, called an eiruv. In colloquial Jewish usage, this refers to the creation of a virtual wall consisting of wires and small “posts,” all of which allowed larger Jewish communities to operate like a single home. While the laws of eiruv are technical, their purpose is especially valuable in our era when people are busy trying to figure out how to strengthen real communities in our increasingly virtual and fragmented world.

Over the past couple of years, Camp Solomon Schechter has been reconstructing parts of its eiruv. As the camp’s religious advisor (mara d’atra), I have provided advice on this project and been sent photographs of the work. This past Shabbat, I was able to visit in person. Like so many of you, I am deeply grateful that we were able to resume camp operations this summer. It was great to meet Frank, the new chef, and check in with Avishai, the onsite camp mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, whom I oversee and communicate with whenever kosher questions arise. I always appreciate my in-person conversations with Zach Duitch.

What mattered most to me, however, was to see how well the eiruv was functioning—and I don’t mean the physical eiruv, which looks great. I mean the spiritual eiruv. After effectively a two-year absence because of Covid-19, would the camp’s community be as strong as I remembered? Would our campers be able to regain their long dormant social skills that are so necessary to live well with one another? Would what happened within the eiruv be meaningfully different from what life outside those posts and wires looks like?

I am not one to wear rose-colored glasses or to sell the sizzle over substance. Without a doubt, some kids were a little bit rusty at the beginning of their session; camp provided them an invaluable opportunity to continue their social growth. What a valuable opportunity for them! I am also pleased to announce that, overwhelmingly, the magic of CSS remains intact. Campers were happy. Real friendships were evident wherever I looked. Laughter rang out on the footpaths, in the amphitheater, and by the lakefront. In conversations with counselors, I got to hear specific details about the impact of Covid on our youth, and the important work camp was doing to restore a sense of normalcy and joy to our precious youth. It didn’t hurt that I also got to watch my younger son’s cabin clinch the basketball championship, but that’s just one poppa’s pride.

A dozen more stories fill my head. Let me share two moments that should make us all feel confident about the camp’s spiritual foothold and community. One happened as I was walking to meet someone and this excited camper loudly exclaimed to friends, “I love being Jewish.” Wow! What an amazing spontaneous outburst, especially since it wasn’t meant for adult ears. I was just fortunate to overhear it.

The other moment occurred during havdalah. Havdalah is always a special moment at CSS as the entire camp gathers around the lake and bids farewell to Shabbat. It is always a heightened moment of connection. This particular Saturday, a new camper came forward to speak. She shared her nervousness as a first-time camper. Would she need to pretend so that she could fit in? No, she said with touching conviction. The camp she found allowed her to be fully herself and she witnessed how that story was repeated over and over. Camp Solomon Schechter supports people in their individuality, and she got it. What a powerful advocate for Jewish camping in general, and the special juju (or JewJew) of CSS!

At the end of Saturday night, the inner gate, which was closed on Friday to form the final link of the eiruv, was reopened. With that simple act, the physical eiruv for the camp disappeared. But the power of fences and what they allow to happen within? That remains. As I drove off on Sunday, I left feeling deeply content. The world outside the gates of Jewish community doesn’t always look or feel like we might desire. Yet so long as there are places where Jewish communities can thrive, so long as we maintain strong camps and synagogues where our values can be given expression—well then, when we leave our strongholds of faith, community, and inclusion, we get to bring some of that out into the larger world.

That’s the magic of fences. That’s the magic of Camp Solomon Schechter.

Warm regards,

David

Rabbi David Kosak (Rav D) is the mara d’atra of Camp Solomon Schechter and serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon.


February 24, 2021
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Every year, Jews all around the world come together to hear the reading of the Megillah of Esther. Children and parents alike dress up in costumes and listen to the amazing story of how Queen Esther saved the Jews of Shushan from an evil plot by a mean man named Haman (booooo). The story is filled with drama, humor, plot twists, fascinating characters, and plenty of opportunities to shake your grogger (noisemaker)! But even more amazing than the plot points and events that take place in the Purim story is the secret, hidden story, woven throughout the Megillah of Esther. 

To understand what I’m talking about, we need look no further than the name of the book itself. Esther (אסתר) shares the same root as the word “hester” (הסתר), which means “hidden.” What a fitting name for a woman who hid her Jewish identity from the king! The word Megillah comes from the root “megaleh,” which means “reveal”. So, “Megillah of Esther” literally means “the revelation of the hidden.” On the surface, it may seem as though Esther’s secret Jewish identity, which was revealed to the king at the end of the story, would be a good enough reason to name the book the “Revelation of the Hidden.” But, I think there’s a second, and even deeper, lesson waiting to be revealed. 

Queen Esther was not born into royalty. In fact, she was born an ordinary Jewish girl by the name of Hadassah. The Megillah is filled with various names and titles for Esther, but those are mere distractions from her true identity. On the surface, it may seem amazing that this ordinary Jewish girl became the queen of one of the largest empires in world history. But, she was only able to become queen, and save the Jews, because with every step of her journey she discovered a little bit more of the courage and potential that was always inside of her. The real point of the story is to show us that an ordinary kid can grow up to be an extraordinary person. It is a story about radical self-actualization. And, to drive home this point even further, we must look at the next hidden element within the Purim story – G-d!

The Megillah of Esther is one of the only books in the Bible to not explicitly mention G-d. Unlike most biblical stories where the divine directly interacts with humans, here, salvation from evil Haman’s plot is the work of human agency, ingenuity, and courage. G-d’s hiddenness within the story teaches us that we need to take action and stand up for ourselves, rather than let G-d do the work for us. 

Purim teaches us that you do not need to be born into greatness to accomplish extraordinary things! Nor do you need to wait for a sign from up above to take action. A single act of courage may impact the lives of a few people nearby, or end up changing the course of world history. But, no matter the outcome, it all begins with an ordinary person who is willing to discover their hidden potential. 

At Schechter, we are in the business of revealing the hidden. We encourage every child to try new things and to hone in on the skills they want to get better at. Our campers learn to navigate social situations, independent of their parents. They act courageously, which for some kids means jumping off the “leap of faith” on the challenge course, and for others means sleeping away from home for the first time. Each time a camper acts with courage, fosters a friendship, tries their hand at a new skill, challenges an accepted idea, refines a talent, expands their comfort zone, builds confidence… a little more of the hidden is revealed. Our campers routinely leave camp knowing that they are capable of far more than they thought they were when they arrived. In essence, Camp is a place where one’s potential is revealed. 

We’d like to wish everyone a Happy Purim and remind you that no matter which superhero you dress up as, there’s another superhero hiding underneath! 

!‏חג פורים שמח

Happy Purim!

Josh Niehaus

Associate Director

Camp Solomon Schechter


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