Monday, 19 July 2010

GUCI: A Destination Camp

I find myself caught between two worlds colliding this week. It is a crazy thing, because found within this cosmic impact exists a syzygy (note the ten dollar word!) that is truly unmistakable. The first universe can be found on a small cow patch located in the north west corner of Indianapolis. I have written many times before about the importance this steam pit has played in my personal growth and development, and I have remarked on many more occasions as to the centrality it has played in the lives of both of my sons. It has been so important a place to our entire family that our connection still remains unbroken 35 years after first contact. I have been fairly vociferous of late about wanting to make a summer pilgrimage to Indiana and in fact, most of those close to me have grown weary of the discussion. There were many reasons to go and just as many contrary arguments presented by The Husband and his allies to stay put in Toronto, but I prevailed in the end, so Thursday saw us piling into the car to head south for Shabbat.

This post could very easily have degenerated into one of massive bitching and moaning. It would have been a piece of cake to relay a border horror story about waiting in queue for over 20 minutes on the Canadian side just to pay the bridge toll. (The flip side to that story can be expressed in two magical words-NEXUS CARD!! You all must apply. It changes the entire dynamic of border crossing and shaved at least an hour off our drive each way.) It would have been so simple to complain about the lack of vegetarian fare available at most restaurants found off of the Interstates. (We knew were in trouble when we made a dinner out of onion rings and a meagre, tasteless, but expensive salad.) It would have been child's play to crack wise about the intense heat and humidity of the midwest, a heat so searing that it melted us where we stood. I thought about it, honestly I did. I thought about trivializing the trip; about making jokes at The Husband's and Younger Son's expense. But, just as I was making notes for that post, something really interesting started to occur. I was reminded of the intensity of the place. I watched in wonder as 400 children and young adults experienced and lived Shabbat in the most purest sense. They came together as a community, they sang, they prayed, they rejoiced and they revelled. The Husband said it best when he said "it is one of the most genuine Shabbat experiences anywhere." At the forefront of this celebration, I saw my son. I saw him step into the role of Shaliach Tzibor-a leader of the community. I watched with wonder and immense pride as he helped the camp set the tone for Shabbos by first helping the oldest girls with the music for their Kabbalat Shabbat service, and then as he and the other song-leaders stepped up and led an amazing song session. He told me afterward that he was so nervous because I was there and he really wanted it to be great. Great is a gross understatement for what it was. I swelled with pride when people I knew only by name and reputation approached me afterward and told me how much he has grown as a song-leader. This passing of the proverbial baton was only part of the delight experienced with our boy. We sat at dinner with one of the educators on faculty. After some basic introductions and her figuring out who our son was, she relayed the following story to us. It seems that earlier in the day, one of the campers from her congregation had experienced some distressing news from home. Younger Son stayed with the boy the entire time he was talking to his family, and apparently refused to leave his side even though he had other duties to attend to and others were there to help. The educator actually thanked us for raising a mensch. I was rendered speechless.

We had a chance to sit and have extended conversations with both Younger Son and his truly lovely young lady. While much of the time was spent getting to know each other, a lot of conversation was devoted to just how engaged and involved both of them are in this very special Jewish place. I was so impressed that even though said Young Lady and Younger Son were taking a day off, she was headed back to camp for an hour of that day to run a study program she had planned. What other place or job inspires that kind of dedication? It leads me into the second sphere that is colliding for me this week, and that is the idea of how we bring this intense sense of Judaism back into our home worship spaces.

This week I am charged with leading Shabbat services and preparing the Torah study for our congregation. It is simply by luck of the calendar that this coming week's parasha is Va-et'chanan, a section of the Torah that is chock full of good stuff, including a repetition of the Ten Commandments and full text of the Sh'ma  and V'ahavta-prayers that stand at the centre of Jewish faith. (Deut 6: 4-9) In attempting to develop a cohesive Torah study, I came across a commentary written this week by Rabbi Amy Perlin for the URJ website. Rabbi Perlin states:

If you asked me to tell you the most important words of the entire Torah, they would be these four words from Deuteronomy 6:7 “V’shinantam l’vaneycha v’dibarta bam,” which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation shows as, “Impress them upon your children. Recite them . . .” This translation, used and explained in our Torah commentary, as well as Mishkan T’filah, chooses the word “impress” for v’shinantam.  Most English prayer books, for over a century, used the translation “teach.”* I like the word “impress” because it is not enough for us to love God and keep God’s words upon our hearts; we are commanded to pass God’s words on to our children—our own and other people’s children. Teaching them is not enough. We must have them make a lasting impression in word and deed if the Torah is to survive. There is no more sacred task.
We spend a great deal of time at synagogue meetings lamenting the fact that we cannot seem to get our children and young people to "buy what we are selling" at shul. Maybe we aren't selling the right things. Maybe we need to find better ways of impressing upon our children the importance and continuity of Jewish life, and to do it in ways that are relevant for them-through music, art, technology, film, sports and literature. God's words are being heard by our youth-camp drove that home for me-but we the generation above them just aren't doing a great job of being the conduits.

Years ago when I returned home from camp all gung-ho and armed with new music and new ideas, I was thwarted by synagogue leadership and told that those things might work at camp, but really didn't have a place in shul. Obviously those individuals were narrow and short-sighted. Many of the ideas of creative worship and participatory music that have become commonplace in our services today had their genesis at camp. So, what can we learn from this generation? We need to hear them when they say that it is the prayer that matters and not the clothes they pray in. We need to hear them and listen to them when they show us the best ways of reaching them. Websites like G-DCAST and Jewschool are giving our young people new tools from which to study, and we need to respond to their concerns through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. If we don't act, we will be accused of being delinquent in our job to impress God's word upon our children.

The Sister/Cousin told me this past weekend that when she crossed the border to take her children down to camp in Indianapolis, the border guard, surprised that there was any camp there at all, asked her if it was a "destination camp". I chuckled at the term, but after spending a wondrous Shabbat there I realized that it is indeed a destination camp. It is the place where our children are destined to become impressed by Judaism. Let's hope that we can continue the work when they return home.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


I have never ever used this space to advertise a product, least of all one designed by a member of my own clan. I am not a salesman. That area of expertise is the exclusive family purview of my father. I am the family creative soul. So, it is with some major trepidation, but an abundance of pride that I relay to you all The Husband's latest commercial enterprise. (This goes above and beyond the booze biz!)

Several months ago, the two of us were enjoying some downtime in the Southern Home. The Husband was looking for a quick hit hobby to keep his mind occupied. Now when most of us think about developing a hobby we think about plunging into cooking lessons or  taking up karate. Not The Husband! Once a computer geek always a computer geek. He decided to see if he could use his somewhat dormant skills to design an iPhone/iPod touch application. After some diligent research, he decided that what was poorly served by iPhone apps was a complete luach or Hebrew/English calendar. I thought the man mad. To be honest, we are progressive Jews who have very little use for the daily times for prayer, the exact times for the lighting of Shabbos candles or Havdalah. He was determined. He decided that if he was going to do this task, he was going to make it user friendly for Jews of all denominations. Did he ever succeed!!

He learned all about the lunar cycles, the differences between various rebbes and their takes on the zmanim, and the differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi followings of the Hebrew calendar. He even included a setting for Israeli or Diaspora observance and it uses a built in GPS to determine where you are to calculate the times. The result is an amazing app for the Jewish community or anybody who cares to follow our calendar. It is equipped with all of the above as well as holiday observances, parashiot and haftorot for all Shabbatot  and holidays, and Hebrew and English text of the same, including trope. It toggles neatly between the secular and Hebrew calendars and it works in perpetuity.
In short it is amazing.

A couple of month ago when it was ready to put on the iTunes store, I showed it to a couple of my colleagues at a cantorial concert. They were blown away and immediately loaded it onto their phones. The cantors especially like the Torah with trope feature. At $1.99 a pop, The Husband has no expectations of great riches from the sales, but he would like to make back his initial $100.00 that Apple demands of all of their developers. Nice scam, eh? Design for us and we will charge you for the privilege. I am just so proud and blown away by his abilities that I want to shout it out all who will listen.  You can find out much more about iLuach at I urge you all to check it out and tell your friends.