Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer camp: Memories of a lifetime

All I can think about, lately, is summer camp! It's that time of year when all the camps are starting up and I am reminded of my own experiences as a camper, staff member, senior staff member, and thinking ahead to my work this summer as faculty.

When I was 8 my parents sent me and my brother to Camp Young Judea in Waupaca, WI. It was my very first summer camp experience. And I LOVED it!!! I loved it so much that I had two friends come back with me the next summer. But soon after that, we stopped going to camp for various reasons.

Then, one summer, a good friend of mine from home (the same who attended camp with me that second summer at CYJ) wrote to me about all this fun she was having at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Indianapolis, IN. Thank you, Becky Emery, for changing my life forever.

Over the next decade, I spent my summers at my "home away from home." I was a camper for two years, an avodahnik (someone who works around camp before entering college), a counselor, a specialist, a programmer, a driver, assistant head counselor and a unit head. It was here that I learned to be myself. It was here that I learned how to be responsible for myself and others and live in community. It was here that I learned to sing and pray and love God and Judaism and my own Jewish self. It was here that I connected with lifelong friends, rabbinical students and rabbis that would help lead and guide me on my own path to the rabbinate. It was here that many parts of my own identity were shaped and formed. There was a magic and power to it all.

Yesterday, I spent the day at Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA teaching the new summer staff various texts and exploring real-life questions and issues with them, in preparation for their summer ahead. It made me so excited to know that all of this magic was developing and happening at camps around the country this summer for future generations. I wish I could have stayed longer than one day - it wasn't enough! But I feel so grateful for the opportunity to be back up there later this summer for two weeks to work on faculty, advising a unit and teaching mini-courses, and spend time with kids from all over the country (including many from our very own congregation).

So I spent today writing letters to various staff members and kids around the country who are at different Jewish summer camps. Getting mail at camp is one of the most exciting things! And it makes me feel connected to them and to the various programs that are running right now. I also spent today reflecting on the huge role that camp has played in my life: yesterday, today, and how it will unfold tomorrow.

My brother never really loved camp. He couldn't understand why my parents (who themselves were campers and staff at various places in NY in the 1960's and 1970's) would send me there. Just for fun? Maybe. To get me out of the house? Perhaps. To meet new friends? Sure.
But I am here to tell you that summer camp changed my life and who I am forever in countless ways. It is an integral part of who I am as a professional, as a Jew, and as a human being.

Enjoy your summer, wherever you may be!!!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shavuot: The day I received Torah from my ancestors

A few weeks ago, my grandmother called me. "Ketzelah" (Yiddish for "kitten" - my grandmother's nickname for me), she said. "Have you received a package yet?" "No," I replied. "Well, our family historian, the one who had the Chanukkiah that our family carried all the way from Russia and you received a few years ago...she has another treat for you. It's a prayerbook, from Vienna in the 1840's. Her aunt's brother-in-law was traveling during World War I and he found this prayerbook with an inscription on it to the same name as their last name. He brought it home with him and cared for it. Now, she wants you to have it." "Really?" I said. "That's incredible. I'm so honored. But, what am I supposed to do with it?" "Well, you can use it, and care for it, and perhaps one day pass it on, as well."

Today is Shavuot. Today marks the end of the counting of the Omer - the time between redemption (from Exodus) and revelation when we were giving the Torah from God. And Torah is our sacred gift - the special gift of the Jews. We receive Torah every Shavuot as if we were standing on Mt. Sinai - and it is our responsibility to pass it from generation to generation - to transmit that sacred gift for future generations.

When I got home this afternoon, a box was sitting waiting for me. It was so highly packaged that it took me ten minutes to even get into it. And for good reason. When I opened the padded box and unwrapped the acid-free paper, there was the most beautiful prayerbook I'd ever seen. The back and spine, covered in ivory. The front, ornately decorated. And right in the middle of the cover are the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This is no coincidence.

I undid the clasp and carefully turned the pages, worn with time and use. On the front was an inscription in Yiddish (with a translation):

I wish you my dear child that you should in the ______ of the far west have good luck.
From me your loved mother who wishes you luck and good mazel.
Family Name

I began to weep. Certainly, I am not worthy of such a gift of Torah. This prayerbook, which was born in Vienna in 1847, has traveled through time and space to end up in my little apartment in Queens. It has been through wars, through homes, through hands, spoken by my relatives lips, as they uttered the prayers of our ancient people. No, I am not worthy.

And then it hit me. Today is Shavuot. Today is the day upon which we receive Torah - the transmission of gifts of wisdom and Judaism from our ancestors. Today, we all stand at Mt. Sinai, trembling, feeling doubt and scared and unworthy to receive these gifts, these blessings which we are given. It took 164 years for this prayerbook to reach me, but now it has found it's home - in my home and in my heart, and in the continued tradition of my family.

It is my responsibility to accept this piece of Torah, this piece of wisdom, to care for it and to love it and to make sure that future generations know its worth and its beauty.

Ken Y'hi Ratzon - May this be God's will.