“Is it still relevant?”
It’s a question that we in liberal Jewish communities ask ourselves quite often. Just a few weeks ago, I heard it anew, though not in the midst of a discussion of some matter of Jewish law or practice as it has evolved from Biblical times to our own time. No, this time the question was posed by the director of URJ Eisner Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Great Barrington, MA, to the almost 800 campers, staff, and faculty gathered in the camp’s beautiful Beit Tefillah, the outdoor prayer space.
I’ve been participating in worship in this magnificent outdoor sanctuary since 1973, and though it looks a bit different than it did four decades ago, the natural beauty and the spirit that arises from what takes place in that holy space is still vibrant and inspiring.
Each session of camp opens with a ceremony that enables the camp community to celebrate the beginning of a new season or session at camp. At the heart of the ceremony is a ritual developed about a decade ago by the educators serving camp at that time. This ritual involves prayers and abundant singing. Its centerpiece is the passing of camp’s four Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the oldest campers to the youngest ones.
It is a joyous, noisy, and, I would argue, still quite relevant celebration.
The goal is to re-place the Torah scrolls in the Aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark), which stands as the focal point of the Beit Tefillah. That done, camp begins in earnest, and we study, play, and live Torah and Jewish values. As the camp community passes the scrolls from one age group to another (guided by the rabbis, cantors, and educators who have come to serve a week or two on the camp’s faculty), there are readings and words from our rich tradition. These words bring to life the ancient words from the Talmud:
“Moses received the Torah at Sinai. He gave it to Joshua, who gave to the elders of the community; they in turn gave it to the prophets who passed it to the Leaders of the Great Assembly…” (Avot 1:1)
With these words, we are reminded that already in the annals of early Rabbinic Judaism, we had the notion of each generation taking its place in the chain of the transmission and interpretation of our Jewish heritage. At camp, we join that process.
The camp director’s question – “Is it still relevant?” – had more to do with whether this ceremony, but a decade or so old, needs rethinking. Standing at his side during the final moments of that ceremony on opening night, I urged him to take part differently in next year’s ceremony. I suggested he take the place of a faculty member and that he should guide a Torah scroll from camper to staff to camper down through the layers of our camp community from oldest to youngest.
As I guided a scroll that night, I was deeply moved by the smiles on the faces, the light in the eyes and the sheer electric joy of our campers and staff as I moved through the crowd. Those smiles, those eyes, and that joy told me all I needed to know in order to answer the question, “Is it still relevant?” The answer was written on the faces of the 600 campers and their counselors and leaders. The joy of Torah was alive and the scrolls returned to the Ark, so that in the weeks to come, we can learn and live the teachings of our rich heritage once more.