The View from Ramah

Ramah Reflections

By Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

“Are you ready to go to camp? Aren’t you excited?!” I’ve been asked these questions a lot. I so appreciate the sentiment, as these questions are coming from love and honest excitement. Unfortunately for the inquirer, I have been offering lengthy answers which don’t meet the question at its exuberant height. Quite a few people have had to listen to me drone on about the challenges of camp life, the heat and daily dirtiness. Although all my descriptions are as accurate as any one person’s opinion can be, after the umpteenth time rambling on about the ‘hardships’ of going to camp each summer, I had to take a step back and say, “Laurence, What are you talking about?! You get to go to camp for a month, surrounded by the beautiful Georgia mountains, spending time with my family, not often available to you with your day job. Why are you complaining?!” It’s a great question. Although my gripes have truth in them, there is so much for which to be grateful. Although I am working up at camp, let’s be honest, if your job includes sun tan lotion, wearing shorts and flip-flops and you need to make sure you have a Frisbee in your bag, you are living the dream.

A few weeks ago, I gained a bit of insight into what troubles me about the camp experience. Marc Silberstein, our education director, and I came up to Camp Ramah for a quick daytime visit. My time at camp covers the second session of camp and it is important that Marc and I connect with the campers who are up in Clayton for the first session. It was on this visit that I felt it. I became acutely aware of a strange anxiety rising in me. I recognized that feeling. I feel it every summer. As I started to focus on this anxiety I realized that it was tied to the pace of camp life.

Camp life has its own speed, its own stride. Although the kids are always moving, being shuttled from here to there, and there does not seem to be enough time to get involved in any single activity, there is also this slow, mosey sort of pace to camp. This speed is interspersed with waiting. Although for some reading this article, you might be wondering, “What is the problem with such a slow stride?” Nothing is wrong with it, it’s just not my pace.

Time is an interesting spiritual construct. Our Torah begins our story with time being a central character. There is a beginning, there are days, there was morning and evening, there is rest. Time, interestingly, weaves its way into many stories and adventures throughout our ancestor’s journey. Three days’ journey, 40 days and nights, 40 years, and many more time elements are part of our spiritual narrative. Even for us, time is an important part of our spirituality. Holidays have their season; Passover in the spring, Rosh Hashanah in the fall, and of course, Shabbat. Each and every week, we pass through one of the most important holidays of the year, one that occurs 52 times every year. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “a sanctuary in time.” Such an interesting description. When we think of a sanctuary, it is hard not to imagine a building. But for Rabbi Heschel, time can offer us walls, a roof, furniture and all the cozy comforts we might find in a protective, holy abode.

When I started to evaluate my anxiety, I realized that what I was experiencing was an error in my spiritual practice. For so long, I had seen my Jewish religiosity and its focus on time as a holy endeavor to conquer and gain mastery over the earth and corporeal reality. Time, as I understood it, was to be dominated as a spiritual exercise, in a similar, albeit incorrect reading of God’s work in the acts of creation. Over the years, I have watched my practice, especially during holidays and Shabbat, become an anxiety frenzy. Each Saturday, I would need to get my kids up, hurry them through breakfast, get them dressed and to synagogue on time so I could be there for the beginning of the service. A routine, I must admit, I often didn’t accomplish in the time provided. (After 10 years, 520 Shabbat morning services, Rabbi Sandler can count on one hand the number of times I was at services ‘on time’). Then I would be paying close attention to the time when it came to the service – Did the opening go too long? Did my Torah comments set us back too far? How long was that sermon? Is the guest speaker taking too much time? etc, etc. And then, of course, there is the post-game evaluation which included whether or not the service ended ‘on time.’ What was it I was saying about gaining a mastery over time?! It sounds to me like time is having its way with me! Time is showing me to be a fool. Conquering time was clearly not something I was accomplishing as part of my spiritual practice.

Through thinking about my anxiety at Ramah, I realize that time isn’t something to gain mastery over. Instead, time is meant to be the abode where I can be my authentic self. Fighting time is a fool’s game. This is the magic of camp. It isn’t just the activities and the friends that make camp special. After all, regular year-round school has activities and lots of friends. Most of us don’t remember school being as wonderful as summer camp. The difference is that school is a place where you aren’t focused on who you are but instead one needs to be aware of who one is becoming. That is the role of school. Camp, on the other hand, isn’t about who you are going to become. Instead, it’s all about being who you are in that moment and celebrating it.

Personally, I think this applies to our congregational life as well. It’s great to have goals and ambitions. And we definitely have things that we need to accomplish at Ahavath Achim. However, those goals will be achieved by each and every person being he or she is, our authentic selves, when we gather together. What I have learned this summer at camp is… that time isn’t my adversary. It is the sanctuary that stores my authentic and honest self. Thank God that we have Shabbat and holidays to halt the rat race and reconnect with who we really are.

Sending my love from the North Georgia Mountains,

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal


A Note From Our Rabbis: The March for Our Lives and Shabbat – March 24

By Rabbi Neil Sandler and Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

March 14, 2018
27 Adar 5778

Dear Friends,

Since the horrifying act of gun violence at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month we have watched as many people in our nation have come together to demand changes in laws and procedures that, God willing, will meaningfully reduce the number of acts of gun violence in our country. In significant measure, we have been inspired by the youth of this country, among them first and foremost, students from Stoneman Douglas High School.

As many of you know, young people and others from around our nation will gather in Washington, DC on Saturday, March 24 for a “March for Our Lives.” They will include teenagers from around the country who will march with the blessings of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) under the USY youth group banner. Here in Atlanta and in numerous other communities, people will gather the same day in parallel rallies. We applaud those who demand change, wish them success and will be with them in spirit that Shabbat.

As we have said, we believe that gun violence in America is a spiritual problem as well as an issue that involves many other realms. For America to effectively deal with the issue of gun violence, a multitude of agencies, organizations and communities need to come together to offer their special expertise and support. However spiritual activism demands that we add a spiritual dimension when we choose to march and raise our voices in protest. The challenge that the March 24th marches pose is this: How do we celebrate Shabbat and create that sacred space when public demonstrations coincide with Shabbat?

We know that some will march on Saturday, March 24th with the idea that “pikuach nefesh” (saving a life) takes precedence over the celebration of Shabbat. In other words, a person will choose the march over, and to the exclusion of, Shabbat. We see things differently. We believe that spiritual practice isn’t an all or nothing proposition. If you are traveling to Washington, DC for the rally and would appreciate Shabbat hospitality we will, through the helpful support of USCJ and local Conservative congregations, happily facilitate such hospitality for you.

But whether or not you will attend the March for Our Lives in Washington or Atlanta or will spend Shabbat as you usually do, we ask, please, that you find one additional way to practice spiritual activism reflective of the marches’ purpose. For some of you, it may be a relevant discussion with family or friends at your Shabbat table. For others, it may be the offering of a special prayer. Perhaps it could be learning a traditional Jewish text or two, available here. This text sheet was prepared by leadership from the Atlanta Rabbinical Association (ARA) of which Rabbi Rosenthal serves as Vice President.

As one important means to encourage as many of you as possible to bring a spiritual dimension from our tradition to this Shabbat coinciding with the “March for Our Lives,” we hope you will join us on Saturday evening, March 24 to learn together. Here is the schedule:

6:15 pm – Shabbat Mincha Service
6:45 pm – Seudah Sheleesheet (Final Shabbat meal) and Text Study
7:55 pm – Ma’ariv and Havdallah
8:20 pm – Conclusion

Finally, we offer an invitation for you to consider. A group of AA congregants is forming around the issue of gun violence. These people feel that we, as Jews and as a spiritual community, have a role to play in seeking to lessen the occurrence of gun violence in America and thereby mend a piece of brokenness in our world. Would you like to be part of this group? If so, please send a note to Rabbi Sandler at nsandler@aasynagogue.org.

May our efforts join with reparative acts of Kiddush Hashem of other people throughout our country in order to create a safer world and sanctify God’s presence in our midst.

B’shalom