Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim
By Jacob Cytryn, Director
Our parashah this week, Mishpatim, begins with the “Covenant Code,” the first extended legal section of the Torah (Exodus 21-23). It continues a prevalent theme from the Ten Commandments which we read near the end of last week’s reading, a combination of instructions that pertain obviously and directly to our religious lives and those that address universal realities of the human condition. We are instructed to observe Shabbat and the Pilgrimage Festivals, but also on laws and principles governing personal property, justice and mercy, and social responsibility. How appropriate, then, to reflect upon the connection this week between Israel – from whence I returned a week ago after an intensive twelve day staff recruitment trip – and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, two settings that are, in deeply parallel ways, both committed to maintaining the holistic vision of Jewish life embodied by these chapters in Sefer Sh’mot (the Book of Exodus), where our minute-to-minute living is as infused with Judaism as our easily identifiable ritual actions.
The numbers themselves are staggering: I estimate 70 members of our full-summer staff, more than one-third of our educational counselors and supervisors, either live in Israel or are studying there for a semester or a year right now. At least an additional thirty staff members who will be at camp this summer have visited Israel since the end of last summer, on family trips or, much more likely, as participants or staff members on short-term educational experiences.
The personalities and experiences of these staff members are as diverse as can be, representing the full and impressive spectrum of orientations to Jewish life that we espouse and support. The Israeli counselor who wants to return for a second summer reflecting on how tough it was for him as a secular Jew to contemplate putting on tefillin when he first arrived at camp, now welcoming the opportunity to return to a setting where he feels religiously challenged and remarkably comfortable. The initial conversations with Israeli candidates for staff positions, trying to explain the nuances of our religious setting while emphasizing the depth and integrity of our commitment to Hebrew language, a living connection with Israel, and expressions of our Judaism. The enthusiasm of the young woman who will be on our camping staff who helps organize young adults for the emergent Yesh Atid party of Yair Lapid. The impressiveness of the female candidates’ service in the Israeli armed forces – one runs courses in flight simulators for fighter pilots; another runs submarine simulators for naval officers; another served in the elite rescue unit (#669). The articulateness of the young man who was raised by two deaf parents.
Our American staff are going through amazing learning and growth experiences themselves, and we relish the opportunity to help them reintegrate into American society and provide perhaps the ideal platform for them to share their new knowledge and perspective over the summer. One group is struggling with the contemporary implications of the secular Zionists of the early 20th Century: when beset by so much apathy and secularism, how do we relate – or seek to emulate – a compelling and vibrant vision of secular Judaism? Another group is attempting to assimilate their own intense experiences with the study of classical Jewish texts with their past and future lives in America and their deep connections to Ramah: How do we maintain our core values when moving through different settings, each of which represents part, even most, of who we want to be but all of which seem to fall short in some way that leaves us lacking?
The founding visionaries of our camp could never have imagined the close ties that define our campers’ and staff members’ connections to Israel in 2015. What must those first few summers have been like, just before the UN vote on the Partition Plan in 1947, weeks after Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s Independence in 1948 in the midst of a traumatic war, and in the waning weeks of the War of Independence as the final armistice agreement with Syria was hammered out in 1949?
For nearly seventy years, the history of Ramah Wisconsin has been defined and shaped by Israel’s history. In the coming weeks and months, we will have ample opportunities to discuss, on this platform and elsewhere, the ways in which this connection continues to speak to the fundamental educational experience at Ramah. As we embark on several projects for this upcoming summer and beyond, nothing could have better reminded me of the richness and depth of Israel’s potential impact on our campers than the conversations I had with our staff – veteran and new, American and Israeli – over the last few weeks.