Deeply penetrating the heart

Deeply penetrating the heart

V’Etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

I am writing these comments from a small faculty bedroom at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Camp Harlam in the Poconos.  Harlam is one of 13 camps in the URJ system that provides an immersive Reform Jewish living experience for children, teens, counselors and staff.  In our case, Harlam is filled with some 700 people building Reform Jewish community.  Among them are many campers, staff and faculty with Pittsburgh and West Virginia connections.

Today, July 29, on the day when Jews around the world have been commemorating Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of Av commemorated on the 10th this year because the 9th fell on Shabbat), I spent part of my day experiencing the loss of the Temples in Jerusalem (along with other tragedies in Jewish history) with my Galil Unit of ascending eighth-graders.  My faculty partner and I, Rabbi Michael Namath of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, thought long and hard how to share the important themes of loss and hope with our campers.  How to do this in an age appropriate manner in a camp?

Our response for this year: Chalk Talk.  As Michael reviewed the history of the day with the campers, a history that we shared the night before in a candle-lit service of commemoration, I drew pictures of Mount Moriah and the Temple on the asphalt.  With each successive destruction, I invited my campers to rub out the drawing.  Those of us who know Jewish history know that we certainly have been rubbed out at times.

But our message was not going to end with a rub out.  We insisted that memories remain and that vibrant Judaism is our goal.  So we gave chalk to each camper and asked each one to draw a Jewish memory he/she might bring to the sanctuary just like our pilgrim ancestors.  We saw lots of challa loaves and latkes, b’nai mitzva celebrations and depictions of our own Chapel on The Hill at Harlam.  We talked in small groups and in large groups as we shared our positive Jewish memories. 

Then we got to the point:  Eventually, our chalk drawings of the Temple and of our memories would fade whether from the wind, the foot traffic or the inevitable daily downpour (just two hours later).  Even though the pictures would be gone, the memories would still be sweet and our motivation would still be strong to make even more Jewish memories.  Jews understand that when destruction comes, hope often follows.

This week’s Torah portion, V’Etchanan, teaches us the familiar words:


 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.  Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.


Another colleague of mine here at Harlam, Rabbi Doug Sagal of Westfield, N.J., once taught me that the great Jewish mystic Rabbi Elazar Ezkari of 16th-century Sfed wrote that if one teaches Judaism to another, that person has fulfilled the commandment of “teach them to your children.”  But if one teaches that same lesson with joy and enthusiasm, then they have also fulfilled “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might.” A lesson taught with love, enthusiasm and passion penetrates deeply into the human heart.  It certainly penetrated my heart; I can only hope so for my campers.

This is why I love Camp Harlam.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)