URJ Kutz Camp: A Place To Reform Our Judaism – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk after his 2016 weeks as dean of faculty of the URJ Kutz Camp and its teen leadership institute, in Warwick, NY. It was originally posted on the URJ Kutz Camp blog found at http://kutzcamp.org/2016/07/12/urj-kutz-camp-place-reform-judaism. He shared these remarks and teachings at Shabbat services on Friday, July 8, 2016 at our special outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service. Would you like to know more about the URJ Kutz Camp? See http://kutzcamp.orgfor more information.

I make no secret of where I learned that I was a Jewish leader. I was fourteen years old when I made pilgrimage to a Jewish teen leadership camp in Warwick, NY. For 51 summers, our Reform Movement’s teen leaders have come to Kutz Camp. And 33 years after my first summer I still make annual visits there as one of the deans of its faculty. For the last couple of weeks, I have been immersed in community with NFTY teen youth group leaders, song leaders, creative arts, social action and Torah leaders. Part of my role is to assemble the right teachers to mentor these kids. It is a role I take seriously. For the right mix of teachers can educate and provoke our young leaders, make them laugh and sing, and help them consider carefully how to impact a world in which anti-Semitism, racism, rage, violence and vengeance are in their face and ours.

This year I found myself learning so much from our kids. There seems to be something brewing at camp, something ‘in the air’ in terms of kids growing our movement’s capacity to heal societal rifts. I especially noticed it when the kids responded so meaningfully to a training I arranged on creating resilient, safe and affirming youth communities, in which young people learn to combat social isolation that might result in violence. The training was led by volunteers from Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded in Newtown, CT after the massacre there in 2012. The youth leaders at camp responded eagerly to skill-building for inclusion rather than division in their schools and communities. Its not the first time something was ‘in the air’ at camp that then created meaningful change. It happens in every generation. At NFTY’s camps, much of our liturgy was rewritten and set to melodies that have touched millions of lives. It was from engagement by NFTY teen leaders at camp that our Reform movement have historically learned to stand up against cult predators, Vietnam war-mongers and opponents of equality.

The truth is: I have never thought of Reform Judaism as one movement. Like a symphony, Reform Judaism is composed of successive movements, reformations, times when we’ve changed our practice or the tone of our voice in the world. One can trace the history of reformation back to the discovery of the manuscript of Deuteronomy centuries before the common era, after which King Josiah reformed numerous Israelite practices. Incredibly decisive reformations then occurred when our rabbinic sages wrote the Talmud, when the leaders of the Hasidim recorded their teachings, when commentators in the medieval period revealed new truths from Torah, and when 19th century European Jews sought to bring women together with men to pray and to pray in a language they understood and spoke every day. All of these reforms necessitated risk. But tremendous rewards emerge when we called for and achieve reform within Judaism. I believe today’s Reform movement leaders are at it again- reforming our Judaism to reflect a most urgent movement priority: the engagement of our young people. Our leaders are for the first time not telling kids they matter because they are the future. Rather our leaders actively partner with NFTY teen leaders and engaging them in activism right now.

This is much progress! In the 60’s, before there was a Kutz Camp I am willing to bet that the Jewish community saw in teen engagement a way to contain the passions of idealistic Jewish hippies who along with their whole generation, harbored mistrust for anyone with the temerity to be older than them. The teens I teach at Kutz Camp today refuse to be contained by yesterday’s categories. They believe tomorrow can be different than today. And because of their convictions, I see leading social activists, community organizers, scholars, artists, rabbis, educators and youth workers, who visit Kutz Camp to draw energy and vision from its participants.

Several years ago, when camp moved its library and was giving away books of which it had multiple copies, I took home one written more than 5 decades ago by a Hebrew Union College professor named Abraham Cronbach. When I got home last weekend, I made a b-line to the shelf in my office where I keep this book. In his book, Reform Movements in Judaism, (NY: Bookman Associates, 1963) Dr. Cronbach went further than describing how Jewish history has spawned many movements for change and reform. He called for a new reformation wherein a ‘Judaism of maturity’ would emerge to change the world once more. He said that the reformation to come must not emphasize rituals or doctrines but rather the development of “felicitous human relationships” and a “breadth of sympathy” and reverence of what each individual brings to the relationships in our lives.

In my opinion, Dr. Cronbach’s words, written before there ever was a Kutz Camp, were prescient. For it is at camp that our youth leaders discover what ‘felicitous human relationships’ can accomplish! It is at camp where individual young leaders, each with a divine spark in them, imagine how to bring about change in our communities. And as a Jewish leader for many years now, I have to admit that it is at camp that my best plans for our temple are conceived. Could Dr. Cronbach have known that a “Judaism of maturity,” a new reform Judaism might emerge from the camps in which our young people and their educators interact? Yes, I believe he could.

For Dr. Cronbach wrote that our rituals (our Hebrew prayers, the candle-lighting, the rising and sitting in our worship) might be considered “toys” of religion. He did not disparage these practices– but he did call for a Judaism of maturity that would “embrace an area of our lives in which toys have been outgrown” and in which we do not become “addicted to toys.” Instead Dr. Cronbach demanded that we look to the core values of Judaism all meant to convey the enduring worth and dignity of every human being in relationship with one another.

I see this dynamic more or less every summer. The adults alongside whom I teach, notice and concentrate our attention, perhaps too often, on the toys in the playroom of the house we are visiting at camp. But the kids are telling us in about a thousand ways- to walk through their messy playrooms. Judaism takes place in the living room, the place where lived human experience occurs, the place where we relate to one another personally and intimately. When I interact with our teen leaders, I hear them emphasize mutuality, love, compassion, and the resisting of our impulses toward bitterness and xenophobia. This emerged in programs at camp responding to Israel’s challenges in the world, to the issues of racial justice currently searing our nation and in day-to-day classes in which vision, creativity and courage are nourished in these kids. Given what has occurred in our nation this week, I wish I could have you meet some of our teen leaders tonight. For I see them measuring our world’s integrity on new categories. They simply will not accept the limited paradigms by which their parents and teachers judge language, gender, fairness, justice, love, violence & war.

Our youth group president is at Kutz Camp now. Emma Duhamel wrote recently on the camp’s blog that initially when she learned that Sunday, June 26 had been set aside to explore the modern State of Israel, that her heart sank. In her first fifteen years in this world conversations about Israel have felt forced and uncomfortable. When she first spoke to me about her feelings, I imagined the feeling you have as a child when a distant relative of yours needs to know they are valued. You know the moment. It is when your parents tell you to give your great aunt or uncle or your fourth cousin, whom you barely know, a kiss. If we treat Israel like such an uncle or aunt, faking our affection, it may produce the sound of a kiss. But nothing true and worthwhile and enduring emerges! I felt bad that this had been Emma’s previous experience in Israel education. But I was delighted to see the way Kutz Camp’s Israel day played out for Emma. For instead of forced affection, Emma received simple and honest opportunities to gain perspective and arrive at a true depiction of her current relationship with Israel.

She wrote in her blog post that at camp, the faculty taught her that: “Yisrael means to wrestle with God, and that Israel wrestles with many problems. We learned of Israel’s struggle staying as a Jewish democracy without becoming a theocracy. We got to hear stories, thanks to Israel Story, an Israeli version of NPR’s “This American Life.” Not only did I get to see a live show podcast, but I also had the chance to learn about Israel in a new way; a way I never had before. In the evening, we engaged in a Beit Midrash session, which is an hour of study that occurs at camp each Sunday night…” She then added “For most of my life, I have been wrestling with Israel. During all of this programming [at camp] I came to terms with the fact that. I am wrestling, just like the name of the country [conveys.] My questions, my difficulties, and my concerns engage me even more. And while I’ve yet to climb Masada or float in the Dead Sea, Israel is the homeland of my questions. That constant wrestling is my connection to Israel.”

 See why I find the environment at Kutz Camp as a place where Judaism is continually being reformed? I remember this tonight, as the world hurts so much from news of violence in our nation, how much my summers at camp helped me to respond as a leader to quell chaos and rage. I am so grateful for the patience and encouragement practiced there by the teachers at camp who taught me how to lead. It was at camp that I figured out what I believed by deliberately considering my views. But first, I had to recognize the deficits in my education! And in a way, I still do that, striving to learn as much as I teach the teens I encounter.

In this endeavor, I am again inspired by Dr. Cronbach. For he wrote that in the next reformation of Judaism, “our finest aspirations [would] not necessarily take place in [worship] assemblies…Our grandest moments [would] come to us…from the glittering stars that spangle the heavens at night, from the hush and blush of blossom perfumed dawn, from the pageantry of sunset, solemn and gorgeous…form the books we read, the music we hear, the paintings we behold. They come to us when we find ourselves transformed by some new insight, or when the love within us discovers some ample outlet. Heavenly moments can emerge at some sight of human fortitude or affection or helpfulness or beauty.”

From this idea of heavenly moments, I took my cue for my final exercise in a class I taught called “Shaking the Burning Bush.” My goal was to get kids to identify sparks of holiness and speak candidly in front of one another about these sparks. I asked them to set aside present day skepticism or certitude about God’s in the world. “Just assume,” I asked them, “that God is paying attention to what you are doing. What would you want God to see you doing?”

Out of the eleven kids, only two declined to answer. But four of them hoped that in one way or another God would see them radically including all the people in their lives, not prejudging others due to their physical characteristics or differences, emotional, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Two of the kids mentioned wanting God to notice them in creative pursuits ranging from making music to art or other expressions of love. A few of the kids said they hoped God would see them trying to make the world better. Our youth group president, Emma, was one of them. She said she knows with absolute clarity that she was “put on this earth to help.”

I answered that if there is such a God, I want God to see me dancing and singing at a camp song session or clapping alongside family and friends when the hora is danced. That is my wish for you– that you find a place in the world of such exaltation! I pray you will find a place for God to accompany you as you deliberate how our faith might be reformed, and how the ground on which we walk might be hallowed!  Who knows: maybe it already happened! Maybe God accompanied you to temple tonight! Maybe God will travel with you to drop off your children or grandchildren at camp, or when you find a place nearer to your home where you will walk to see the sunset. Perhaps God already saw you fill the streets surrounding the Q when thousands gathered in June to celebrate the end of Cleveland’s championship drought! Perhaps God will join you as you volunteer to get involved in some endeavor to respond to the violence in our city and in our nation! Who knows where you and the Source of Blessing and healing have met or may yet meet?

Let us contemplate those places this Shabbat, as our teen leaders continue to reform our faith and our movement. May we each play a role in the reformation they are leading, affirmed and challenged by the communities around us to live by our ideals and lead by our convictions.

Keyn Y’hi Ratzon. So may it be.