A spiritual boost in Simi


Three-dozen rabbis and cantors are sitting in silent meditation in a sun-filled room at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus at American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

They open their eyes and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg guides them in a mindfulness exercise.

“Feel how much space there is in your body, how much aliveness,” she urges.

Later the clergy share deeply personal feelings about challenges they confront on the job.

One rabbi describes how vulnerable she feels when she wants to introduce a new melody to her worship service. Sometimes, the rabbi admits, she avoids doing so out of fear the congregation will protest.

Another rabbi says that when he comforts a grieving congregant he sometimes cries. He wonders if, as a professional, he should mask his emotion.

The others in the room nod sympathetically.

“If your heart is stirred, your heart is stirred,” Weinberg says.

These clergy members — many of them top rabbis and cantors in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal world — are spending five days at a contemplative practice retreat organized by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Since January 2000, the New York-based institute has run retreats for hundreds of rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators, bringing them together in cross-denominational cohorts that meet for four five-day sessions over an 18-month period.

This particular group is part of more than 200 alumni of earlier retreats. They again have taken five days away from their pulpits to meditate, do yoga, share their feelings about their work and study Chasidic texts on spirituality.

They come not to learn how to be better at their jobs — although that’s certainly part of it — but to recharge their spiritual batteries, renew their souls.

“What we’re trying to do, on one level, is renew rabbis, cantors and educators whose jobs just drain them,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the institute’s director and one of the founders of the spiritual retreat program. “It gives them rest and companionship. They’re really quite lonely.”

In the process, Cowan says, retreat participants report back that they are better at their jobs.

“Rabbis need to be genuinely present in people’s lives at times of pain and joy, not coming in with a formula,” she says. “What blocks them from doing that is overwork and emotional burnout.”

Jews expect a lot from their clergy. They must be towers of spiritual and moral strength, compelling speakers, skilled administrators and creative innovators. They must be learned in Torah, kind to children, willing to leap tall boards of directors in a single bound.

Above all, they must have no personal needs.

“To a certain extent, congregations are still looking for that superhuman rabbi,” says Rabbi Levi Moreofsky, the director of rabbinic programming at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future in New York. “There’s still the assumption that the rabbi knows everything, can do everything.”

That all-powerful image increasingly is coming under attack as rabbis, cantors, seminaries and other Jewish organizations begin to realize that clergy, too, need a place to renew their spirits. But it’s difficult to get past the stereotype.

“Burnout, job fatigue — clergy are totally subject to all of that,” says Rabbi Marc Margolius, who coordinates the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s alumni retreats. “But it doesn’t seem to register as a professional need.”

In recent years, however, rabbinical seminaries and some Jewish organizations have started to address the issue. They mainly run leadership-training courses for rabbis and, to a lesser extent, cantors. The courses are aimed at improving job skills, although some attention is given to meditation, one-on-one mentoring or discussion groups where clergy can air their grievances within the fold, far from the prying eyes of their congregations.

“It’s a relatively recent development,” says Rabbi Hayim Herring, the executive director of STAR/Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. “For a long time, congregations took it for granted. What needs does a rabbi have? He’s there for our needs.”

As part of its PEER program, STAR brings up to 20 younger rabbis a year to leadership development retreats that have a strong focus on self-care. Rabbis are notorious for neglecting their own health, Herring says, and those who attend these retreats must “publicly commit” to an ongoing program of exercise, yoga or the like.

Several have “changed their lives” because of the program, he says. One who pledged to run three times a week later called Herring to say he’d actually lowered his cholesterol.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has been running Rabbinic Training Institutes for 23 years. Each year the seminary brings 60 rabbis to a remote location for a week of professional and personal growth.

Rabbi Marc Rolf, who runs the program, says evenings are devoted to discussions of personal and spiritual needs in small groups, with conversation catalyzed either by text study or more experiential methods. Last year Rabbi Alan Lew, the author of “One God Clapping,” led the group in meditation and a discussion on anger.

“Rabbis suffer from compassion fatigue,” Rolf says. “They use the same faculties in their professional lives as in their personal life. This gives them a time to unplug from their congregational lives, to recharge their spiritual batteries and reconnect with colleagues.”

Two years ago, the Center for the Jewish Future took over a Yarchei Kallah program developed in Boston by Rabbi Jacob Schachter. Forty Orthodox rabbis under the age of 40 are invited to join a cohort that meets twice a year for two years and then once a year thereafter for two-day retreats focused on teaching, learning and bonding.

“The rabbinate is very lonely,” Moreofsky says. “They come together to share Torah and what they’re going through — what they enjoy in their work, what they see as a challenge.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago says he “very much” enjoyed “the safe space and collegiality” he experienced at the kallah.

“The Orthodox world is waking up to this,” Lopatin says, adding that he and his younger colleagues are more willing to show their human side than their elders were.

Finding God Under the Stars


The fog/smog lies heavy over the San Bernardino mountain range, but with a little imagination, it’s still possible to make out Los Angeles — and Catalina — in the distance. Likewise, at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet in Running Springs, it’s possible to envision the great promise of Camp Gan Israel, Chabad’s new sleep-away camp and retreat center, even though the site is still undergoing heavy remodeling.

The synagogue, a former classroom, has been gutted, stained and stripped; nails line the floors ready to fasten down carpeting; a basic square wooden stage faces east toward Jerusalem, ready to hold an arc, its Torah scrolls and serve as the bimah for services three times a day. The gargantuan soccer field lies barren in the wind, bereft of green in the middle of this mild mountain winter. A pool sits covered, laden with puddles.

But come summer — and even to some extent the upcoming weekend — the site will be ready for visitors.

West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch purchased the 70-acre site, located less than two hours from Los Angeles, for $4.3 million last summer from CEDU Mountain Schools, a boarding school for at-risk youth that had owned the property since 1967. The woodsy grounds — replete with apple trees, ponderosas, oaks, maples, cedars and sequoias — includes hiking trails, a campfire/amphitheater, a greenhouse, a ropes challenge obstacle course, sports facilities and 18 buildings, including the synagogue, dormitories, an arts and crafts shed and a rustic ski lodge-style social hall that was featured in Architectural Digest in 1996.

For the past few months, Chabad, known for its can-doism (“If you build it, they will come”), has been transforming the school into a multipurpose center that will serve as an overnight summer camp, a weekend retreat center and also provide luxury suites for religious families and individuals who might want to enjoy the local skiing (Big Bear is 14 miles away and Lake Arrowhead is half that). Or those who want to just be out in nature.

“Camp Gan Israel was named after the Besht — Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov — who was a nature yid,” camp director Gershon Sandler said, using the Yiddish word for Jew. “He spent a lot of time out in the wilderness; he would leave civilization and return to inspire others.”

For Sandler, a 31-year-old who is a ba’al teshuvah with years of camping experience at both secular camps with names like Indian Head, and Jewish camps like Ramah and Nesher, that is what both camping and Judaism are all about: To learn an appreciation for nature, for God’s world, and to go back to civilization and spread that love.

“To be a light onto the nations,” Sandler said, “We have to be a light onto ourselves.”

The ear-popping road up to Running Springs is windingly nauseating, but relatively easy to navigate this year due to the mild California winter; last snowy season it would have taken chains to reach this small town whose population is just 300, or nearby Green Valley Lake, or, at the end of the road peppered with secluded homes with stables, Camp Gan Israel Running Springs.

“Welcome to Camp Gan Israel,” reads the engraved wooden sign that swings from wood beams in front of the reception hut. It’s a welcome that’s been a long time coming. For two years Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, searched for a site for the campgrounds, and for decades before that Los Angeles’ Orthodox community has been trying to create its own sleepaway camp on the West Coast. The effort has never met with success, primarily because there was never a permanent site, so Orthodox families either shipped their kids off to Camp Moshava in Wisconsin, to East Coast camps or kept them at home.

Not that Gan Israel will be a mainstream “Orthodox” camp like the East Coast coed camps Morasha and Nesher, which cater to Young Israel and Yeshiva University families; after all, Gan Israel is going to be run by Chabad, a Chasidic movement that many consider a separate stream. Yet Gan Israel is not planned to be a purely Chabad camp either; it won’t be a camp just for Chabad kids, the children of shluchim (emissaries who are sent around the world) and other children raised in the movement. There are already two camps like that: The original Camp Gan Israel in upstate New York, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, and another Gan Israel in Montreal.

The plan is for Camp Gan Israel Running Springs to serve some of the approximately 10,000 kids who have nowhere to go once they’ve outgrown the 30 Gan Israel day camps in California and Nevada. These kids, ages about 4 through 11, often come from secular or non-Orthodox homes, many of them immigrant families from Russia or Israel who attend Chabad day schools.

Chabad plans to recruit children from these schools and day camps, as well as from the larger community.

“Gan Israel is for parents who want to provide kids with a Jewish experience, Jewish identity and pride, with dance, sports, ruach [spirit] and nature,” Sandler said.

This first summer, the camp will be for third to eighth-graders. There will be one month for girls (June 26-July 23) and one for boys (July 27-Aug 23), with a two-week or four-week option priced at about $100 a day. They hope to have about 100 kids per session — the camp’s capacity will be about 200 — with some 20 counselors on staff (a 1 to 5 ratio), as well as specialist instructors for arts and crafts, music and drama and a Chinuch rabbinical staff led by Rabbi Naftali Richler, who teaches at Shalhevet High School. Richler is developing the educational program, which will work with children of all religious levels.

In many ways the camp will be just like any other sleepaway camp — sans panty raids and first kisses — with overnight hikes, day trips and a color war, but “everything will have a Jewish theme,” said Sandler, who has studied camping through fellowships from the National Jewish Camping Association.

A landscape architect by training, Sandler has lofty goals for these city kids.

“First we have to make them not afraid of nature, to instill in them that sense of awe,” he said. “Then the next step is to teach them about interconnectedness — how, on a basic level, a tree grows, and eventually the branches fall and they make a new tree; and the water cycle of evaporation and filtration — just the basics. The whole idea is that they should develop a greater appreciation, which leads to a greater responsibility.”

Fifty years ago, Camp Gan Israel in New York started out as a camp run by Chabad for non-Chabad children, but within years it became a camp for Chabad children. Sandler says he wants this camp to have the widest possible appeal — and that means appealing to Modern Orthodox kids — so the emphasis will be on a “Jewish experience,” not necessarily a “Chabad” experience. Indeed, only a few mantelpieces around the campus are adorned with giant framed pictures of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s charismatic leader, who died 10 years ago without leaving a successor, spawning a Messianic movement that holds little appeal to the non-Chabad Orthodox.

Sandler insists that all staff will be trained to work with the general, non-Chabad population.

“Our goal is not to make the children religious; that’s not Chabad’s mission,” he said. “The goal is that the child returns to the community with more Judaism.”

The air is chilly inside the dormitories, but already, as quickly as bunk beds are being built, sheets, pillows and blankets are being laid out for a Toras Emes Shabbaton retreat the next weekend. Soon the totem poles will be repainted or replaced (they might be considered idolatry), the tennis court will be converted to a hockey court (better to promote teamwork) and the wood logs once cut by high-adrenaline at-risk youth converted to benches.

It’s easy to picture log benches encircling the char pit, dozens of girls or boys telling (Jewish) ghost stories, eating (kosher) marshmallows and singing (Hebrew) songs.

“Our focus is to provide the kids with a fun, positive Jewish experience,” Sandler said gesturing at the campgrounds. “That’s why this is so important. As far as educational opportunities, there’s nothing quite as effective as summer camp.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

Adults-In-Training Hopes and Fears


"Why are you having a bar or bat mitzvah?" Larry Kligman, dean of students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, asks the school’s 65 seventh-graders.

"Tradition."

"Fun."

"Identity."

"Heritage."

The students are attending a one-day retreat, an event the school has sponsored for more than 10 years, enabling them to reflect on the ritual’s meaning as well as the concomitant anticipation and anguish.

"It’s a difficult year," Kligman explains, "as the students have to cope with their own bar or bat mitzvah in addition to a heavy academic load and the pressures of attending a friend’s bar or bat mitzvah almost every weekend."

This year, Jerry Brown, senior rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, has volunteered to host the retreat at his synagogue as well as lead one of the discussions.

"Why 13? It’s an interesting age, but why 13?" Brown asks the students.

"We become teenagers," Joshua I. Goldberg says.

"Teenagers," Brown says, grimacing as he emphasizes the first syllable. "What’s different about these teenage years?"

"We learn differently."

"We have more ability to understand things."

"Puberty."

He tells them that everything is changing — physically, psychologically and emotionally — faster than anytime in their lives except infancy. And that the ancient sages came up with the same number we have — 13 — to mark the beginning of adolescence.

"Why do you think the word teenager has a bad connotation?" he asks. "What kinds of things happen at bar mitzvah services and receptions?"

"Destruction."

"Food fights."

"Drinking."

"If you see somebody getting into something, do you want to do a very hard thing and say something to them?" Brown asks.

"Yes, because the bar mitzvah is only fun if everybody is having a good time," Benjamin Selski says.

"A successful bar mitzvah depends just as much on your friends," Hal Greenwald, Heschel’s rabbi-in-residence, adds.

Brown tells the students that they are becoming adults in terms of participating in Jewish religious life, but otherwise he considers them "adults-in-training."

He explains that the bar and bat mitzvah is essentially "a big time-out," a chance to think about what adolescence means and to start learning to take on adult responsibilities.

"To be in charge of your own lives is the best thing that you can want. I invite you to take that seriously," he says. "And a bar or bat mitzvah is the perfect place to start."

In another workshop, students are invited to grapple with real life scenarios. "What do you do when you’re invited to two bar mitzvahs on the same day?" Kligman asks them.

"If people know there’s a conflict far enough in advance, maybe one person can change the date. That happened to me," Samantha Hay says.

"You can go to one person’s service and one person’s party," Aviva Fleschler says.

Kligman presents another dilemma. "It’s 9 p.m. The party’s a little boring, but it’s not over until 11. What do you do?"

"You should put yourself in the bar or bat mitzvah’s place. You don’t want that person to feel bad if all the kids are leaving," Alex Kaplan answers.

"And if you’re going to be there, you need to be there more than just physically," Betty Winn, Heschel’s head of school, adds.

In the sanctuary, Judaic studies teacher Jodi Lasker helps the students "get a feel for the choreography" of the service, first showing them how to put on a tallit.

"Why does a tallit have an atara [collar]?" she asks.

"So you know where to hold it when you’re putting it on," Benjamin Wenger answers.

She explains that an atara is not required to have the tallit blessing on it and also tells the students that Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to Shabbat, because those were the traditional market days when people gathered together.

She then asks Josh Goldberg to demonstrate reading from the Torah and shows students where to stand if they’re called up for an aliyah.

After lunch, the students break into small groups where they write responses to specific questions. The answers to the first question — What are you looking forward to? — are read anonymously.

"The best thing is completing my Torah and Haftarah portion."

"The smiles on my family’s faces."

"The party."

"Giving my d’var Torah."

What are you afraid of?

"I’m afraid that at the service only two of my friends will be in the sanctuary when I’m reading my Torah portion and the rest will be in the bathroom."

"I’m worried my friends will be disrespectful."

"I’m afraid I’m going to mess up during the service and my friends will laugh."

"I wish people would not chew gum and talk."

"I’m afraid my dress will rip."

Students then write down their suggestions for invitation etiquette as well as appropriate behavior at both the service and the celebration. These are presented to the entire class, and copies are later distributed to all seventh-graders and their parents.

"We all now know what to do," says Kligman at the retreat’s finish. "Let’s do it."


Bar and Bat Mitzvah Dos and Don’ts

DO mail invitations; DON’T give them out in school.

DON’T leave out just a few classmates if you cannot invite the whole class.

DO R.S.V.P. promptly, before the cutoff date.

DO personally apologize and explain to your classmate why you cannot attend if there is more than one bar or bat mitzvah on the same date, it is a good idea to make your decision about which event to attend independently.

DO be respectful in services:

1. Don’t walk in and out of the temple, especially in large groups.

2. Do participate in the service.

3. If you know you have trouble sitting for a long time, consider coming a little later in the morning, perhaps at the start of the Torah service.

4. Consider going to the service as an important part of the celebration.

5. Dress appropriately in the synagogue — covered shoulders, no jeans, etc.

6. If you must arrive late, do not be disruptive when greeting your friends.

7. Don’t bring or use your cell phone or pager.

DO be a considerate guest while at the party:

1. Don’t be wild in the hallway or restrooms.

2. Stay in the party room, dance, celebrate with your classmates.

3. Thank the host family before going home.

4. Stay for the whole party; don’t decide to leave early, especially in a group.

DO remember, your actions should reflect how you want everyone else to behave when it is your special day. — JU


Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

You Gotta Be in it to Win it


Want to win a full day school scholarship? Or maybe free synagogue membership?

Now you can, in the new Jewish community raffle, Arie Katz, chair of the Jewish Community Scholar Program (CSP), created the raffle to raise awareness of adult Jewish learning in Orange County and what he calls the “amazing infrastructure in our Orange County Community.”

Synagogues and Jewish institutions will help sell tickets, which can be purchased via credit card through The Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Funds raised from raffle sales will go to a variety of local institutions, including Jewish day schools, the Jewish Community Center, local synagogues and day camps. The bulk of the funds will go toward expanding CSP, which brings the world’s leading Jewish thinkers, scholars and artists to Orange County for a series of lectures, workshops and classes. Funds from the raffle will also partially underwrite the costs of a May 2004 community retreat and a proposed community Shabbat celebration in June.

“If the raffle is successful, then the whole community wins,” Katz said.

Tickets for the raffle, which will go on sale from Sept. 1 through Nov. 12, will cost $100. The winner, which will be selected Nov. 14., will be published in the December issue of The Jewish Journal of Orange County. For more information about CSP and the raffle, visit www.occsp.org or call (949) 682-4040.

A Code of Civility in Jewish Public Discourse


One of the most distressing aspects of the recent Middle East conflagration has been the retreat of both sides — Israelis and Palestinians, as well as their supporters — behind towering rhetorical walls.

This retreat evokes the verbal wars of the 1970s, when Israel meant racist and Arab connoted terrorist. When trapped beyond such rhetorical walls, we can only imagine, not see, what the other side looks like. And the imagination often runs wild, depicting the enemy in absolute and demonic terms.

These images are back with us in full force. The two sides have mobilized large sums of money and energy, all part of a PR battle to sway the American public and administration to their sides. If public opinion polls and U.S. policy are reliable indicators, then Israel is winning hands down. But some within our community vilify — even call for boycotts against — the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Washington Post and other prominent media outlets.

According to their logic, support for Israel — or, more accurately, support for Ariel Sharon’s government — is the sole measure of journalistic objectivity. Of course, many of these critics turn indignant at the prospect of boycotts against Israeli cultural institutions and academics. And so they should. Boycotting Israeli academics only serves to deprive Israel of some of its most enlightened, historically knowledgeable and self-critical voices at a point when such voices are desperately needed to stimulate debate and dissent.

Boycotts are a bad idea. Jews should certainly know this, having suffered from them in the dark days of Nazism and then again in the years of the Arab oil embargo. The call for boycotts against American newspapers reflects a clear sense of Jewish anger and vulnerability. These feelings are understandable in today’s troubling world. And yet, they often manifest themselves in a tendency to divide the world into two neatly demarcated spheres of good and evil. Hence, whereas our side possesses moral virtue, the other side is morally repugnant, a modern-day incarnation of the heretical acher (other) in Jewish tradition. It is easy enough to fit the suicide bomber into that latter category. But what of the young Palestinian child who knows only poverty and deprivation? Can we really regard such a child as evil?

Sadly, the tendency to divide the world into good and evil — the instinct of the ancient Manicheans — pervades our own community. Those who dissent from the position of unequivocal support for the current Israeli government are branded disloyal. Indeed, I have been stunned by the vituperative language issuing from within our community, language that portrays the "other side" — in this case, the few surviving members of the Jewish peace camp — in demeaning and demonizing terms. In an environment in which Jews feel great pain, it is understandable that we should attempt to unite our community. But we should not do so by abandoning all rhetorical restraints against those who differ from us.

Above all, we must strive to maintain decency and civility in our interactions with one another. I know that in my own attempts either to advance positions or defend friends whom I believe to have been wronged, I tend to resort to hyperbolic rhetoric. But as a colleague reminds me, the sages of the Talmud have admonished us: "Wise ones, be cautious in what you say." This is not to deny the fact that we will have disagreements, nor that they will be fierce. Jewish history is rife with such disagreements, from Hillel and Shammai in antiquity to Maimonides and his Jewish critics in the Middle Ages to Chasidim and Mitnagdim in the modern era. But we will neither survive nor profit if we cast our partner in debate as devoid of merit — or in the worst case, as intent on destroying the Jewish people.

We need to adopt a code of civility in our public exchange. It should rest on the recognition that many well-intentioned people, lovers of Judaism and the Jewish people, will arrive at sharply divergent positions. While acknowledging these differences, we should nonetheless make a commitment to avoid demonization, personal attacks and leshon hara (evil speech) toward our opponents. Community leaders, opinion makers and all concerned Jews should sign on to a code of civility as a meaningful indicator of Jewish unity.

Obviously, unity is a good thing. But unity that silences is not. It leads us to hunker down behind our rhetorical walls, stifling dissent, and crafting demonic images of our perceived enemies. Trapped behind these walls, we can barely catch a glimpse of the humanity of the other side. In the process, we sometimes forget our own.


David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.