Featured Post

(You Gotta) Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the negative...

                                                                                                   September, 2016 Dear Friends and...

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

From Crying to Crackers; A Drama in four (or five) Loops



Dear Friends and Family:                                                                July, 2017

Most mornings I trek over to the local YMCA to walk circles around its four basketball courts for 45 minutes or so.  This seems to help get the blood going and loosen up seven decade old knees.  But I have to tell you that walking the indoor track is one of the most boring things I do. One could get loopy from making loops around the courts.  You know, round and round you go and after each curve you see the same old stuff; other old guys and gals stretching, walking, and even shooting baskets.  Not today.

For me, the best days on the track are rainy summer mornings.  You see, on rainy mornings the throngs of little kids that attend the Y’s day camp programs take over the four courts for their programs and games.  Wow, there is a lot to see on my loops around on mornings like this.  I guess it is my nature to search out staff when I see such a gathering.  I can’t help but look to see who is watching the kids, how the campers are being led, how attentive the counselors are being.  Hey, I was a camp director.

So my first loops today were filled with those kind of sights, and I have to tell you that all looked good.  But as I rounded a curve and one of the courts came into view this morning, I saw a little girl walk by another camper (a boy, both about five years old) and kick over some kind of plastic structure he was building.  I don’t know if she was being mean or if it was an accident.  In the few moments it took me to pass by I saw the boy’s face crumble into a frown and from there to a full blown cry. That’s all I saw.  I walked on.  But it gets better.

Next loop there’s the boy, still crying but a counselor is sitting with him.  I, of course, couldn’t hear what she was saying to him, but she was on it in just the time it took me to make the loop.  Good sign.  In my day at GUCI we used to call that "Coverage."  A good insurance term (probably got it from my dad).   The counselor was huddled over the boy in what looked to me like a very comforting manner.  By the time I looped again, the cry had somewhat subsided.  On that second or third time around I also noticed that another counselor had joined in and the three of them sat off to the side together.  Good stuff.

Another loop…no more crying.

 Another loop brings me to a scene of the boy, sitting with the counselors, shoveling crackers into his mouth.  So I witnessed some good work on the part of these two counselors.  I imagine they are just high school students.  But the important thing is that they were quickly on it with their camper, showed appropriate compassion, and comforted him as he needed.  Now I’d like to say the drama had a Hollywood ending with our star camper finishing his crackers and smiling as he joined the other kids in activity.  That didn’t happen.  He was happy to hang with the staff and start to rebuild his plastic thing.  Maybe that’s Hollywood enough for five loops around the gym.  I was just happy to see these high school students taking good care of their campers.

Forecast for tomorrow is for sun.  Another boring forty-five minutes of loops.  Oh well..


Ron

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Secret Times and the American Pastime


                                                                                                                July, 2017

The coincidence that I would bump into this post on this particular day causes me to run it up the flagpole once again (let's see if anyone salutes).  Tonight the MLB
All-Star game will be played in Miami.  Although my Cubbies were prominent last year in this game...and then went on to win it all, this time around things seem more "normal."  Cubs are struggling to stay at .500, not many if any will be in the game tonight.  Nevertheless, I'll be watching and remembering  those long lost days of yesteryear, when listening to the game huddled on a bottom bunk with ten other twelve-year-olds was so delicious.  


Hope you enjoy it the second time around.

Ron


Dear Family and Friends:

A couple of nights ago I watched the Major League baseball All-Star Game.  What’s so interesting about watching a ball game anyway?  Well for 36 summers I worked at Goldman Union Camp Institute and for 10 or so summers before that I worked at Olin- Sang-Ruby Union Institute.  Both are summer camps and when you work in a summer camp, days blend into one another, the time between one Shabbat and the next is just an instant, and who (at camp) even knows when the All-Star game is even happening?
This game brings together the best players in the American and National leagues.  They are the best baseball players in the world, (I dare say) and most American baseball fans are excited about it.  When I was a kid, I was too.  That was before all of those summers at camp with no TV or time to even think about the sport I loved so as a boy.

So, here I am, retired, at home in the summer and able to once again tune into the game.  You know, I really am not very interested in All-Star games.  Nowadays the game is important because the winning league gets home field advantage for the game of games, The World Series.  I’m a National League person.  But I know that even if the NL pulls off a victory, the World Series will not be played in a “Field”  (as in Wrigley) but most likely in a “Stadium” (as in Busch), or a “Park.”  This troubles me.   Nevertheless I watch, and the American League wins anyway.

So I’m up in my lair, watching the game and I flashback to a time long ago when All-Star games were so important to me.  The year is 1958.  Believe it or not, in those days I’m a Chicago White Sox fan (that would last until the mid 60’s…it probably was a rebellion.  My dad was avid Cubs fan).  So, it’s 1958 and some unbelievable players are in the game.  To start with the Sox’s second baseman, Nellie Fox; and shortstop Louis Aparicio (later to become Nellie’s son-in-law, but I digress) one of the greatest double –play combinations in all of baseball history (or at least the history of baseball in my lifetime).  Joining these heroes of mine was another all-time great, Mickey Mantle.  Mantle played center field for the much hated (because they were such a powerful and winning team) New York Yankees.  I hated the Yankees…but I had a picture of Mickey Mantle in my bedroom.  Some of the best ever played for the National League, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Warren Spahn to name a few.

So I’m watching the game here in 2013 flashing back to ’58 but not thinking about these historic names, or even thinking of the game itself at all.  Rather, I’m thinking of the setting in which I heard the game.  That’s right, heard the game on the radio, as did millions in those days.  But when one listened to such games announced by outstanding sports announcers who painted pictures with their words, you really did see the game, in your head, that is.    In 1958 I was twelve years old.  It was my first summer as a camper at Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  I’d been a camper for four years already at other camps because our Reform Movement camps in those days did not take campers younger than twelve.  Funny, I didn't know that it would be the first of fifty-two summers I would be spending in our Reform Jewish summer camp programs.
I remember the night of that All-Star game.  We must have been listening to a rebroadcast of the game as baseball was pretty much an afternoon sport back then.  I was a camper in one of the small white cabins on the Big House lawn near the lake (we didn't know enough Hebrew then to call it the Bayit, as it is called today).  I can see it in my mind.  It’s late at night, dark in the cabin while ten or twelve of us twelve-year olds huddle around a bottom bunk at the back of the cabin, ears “glued” to a small transistor radio.  We had to listen quietly so we wouldn't attract the attention of the counselors on late night “OD.” I remember nothing of the game.  I remember everything of the excitement of sneaking around, like thieves in the night, outrageously listening to baseball when we were supposed to be fast asleep in our bunks.  How dastardly.  What rebels we were.  How delicious to have such an innocent adventure in the dark with cabin mates.
Such “secret” times still happen in cabins in camps around the world.  Times that kids will think back on when they are retired and something triggers a memory.  In 1958 it was my time, my cabin, my All-Star game.  I loved remembering it the other night.  I watched baseball but thought about kids at camp making memories.  Our granddaughter, Zoe is a camper at this moment.  I know she’s having those secret times.  Good for her.


Ron

Thursday, June 22, 2017

FirstTrip to Eastern Europe

Dear Friends and Family:

Two of our best friends are currently leading a NFTY group through Prague and Poland and then on to Israel.  My wife and I did this twice in the past few years.  Here is a recall of my first trip to Eastern Europe.

                                                                                                 November, 2000


Dear Friends and Family:

     
It's unusual for me to find myself in our Beit T'fillah (outdoor chapel) at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in October, all by my lonesome.  But, as I returned, last month, from a UAHC (now URJ) Camp Directors' trip to the Czech Republic and Poland, I didn't feel I had reached my destination until I arrived at our Beit T'fillah.  

We took off on a grueling, six-day, experience, stepping back into the distant and cerebral past of the middle ages, and to the not so distant, emotional past of our Eastern European Jewish history.  It was quite a personal voyage for me.  You see, three of my grandparents came to America in the early 1900's from Prague, Czechoslovakia.  Czech was spoken at our family get-togethers around tables filled with Bohemian foods.  It just wasn't Thanksgiving if we weren't all at my Aunt Lill's on Chicago's West side, digging into the goose, dumplings, and cabbage along with the newer traditions, turkey, stuffing, and cranberries.  The beer was Pilsner Urquell.  We belonged to B’nai Jehoshua, a synagogue made up of mostly Czech families.  Enough said.  I knew I was a Czech Jew.

At several stops along the way that week, the realities of our Jewish past stepped up to splash their ice water in my face.  The first was in a small synagogue in Prague where the living had honored the names of all Czech Jews deported by the Nazis, by listing them on the synagogue walls and ceilings.  I stood there under the names of my Mother's family, the Steiners, who I would never meet or know.  These were the relatives after which my Aunts and even my Grandfather were named.  Until that moment I had never felt so related to our enemy's victims.  I felt a deep connection to that family I would never know, but eternally miss.  The names on that ceiling drew me right into the horrors of that time.      

We left the Technicolor Prague for a black and white Warsaw and Krakow.  Warsaw is a gray, cement block city where most of our Jewish presence has been erased.  But, I did stand on Mila Street to honor the well-known Mordachai Anielewicz, leader of the ghetto revolt against the Nazi monsters.  Standing on that street also gave me the opportunity to honor the not-so-well-known Moshe Pashtan, z"l, who, born on that street, escaped the ghetto as a child to Germany (of all places) and then to Israel, only to wind up sharing a tent with me for a summer as my Assistant Tzofim Unit Head at Olin-Sang-Ruby in 1969.  Moshe and I took a bus to New York after camp that summer.  I was leaving for a year (due mostly to Moshe's summer-long prodding) on my first pilgrimage to Israel.  For me, Mila was Pashtan's street.  It was one of the many spots I stopped to whisper the Kaddish.

I prayed again at the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw.  It's overwhelming to stand amid the 250,000 Jewish graves, to read the Hebrew on the tombstones, to understand the poetry of their old words.  It's another strong connection.  This is where the enormity of our loss starts to become real.  Kaddish seemed inadequate to me.  But it was all I knew to say, a way to thank God for giving me life, to remember and to continue.  In retrospect, Kaddish was the perfect Jewish memorial. 

After a " From Russia With Love" style train ride to Krakow, thirty miles or so from my Father's family's hometown (The Klotz's came from Tarnov), we bused to the emotional apex of our trip, Auschwitz and Birkenau, Nazi work and death camps.  Passing under that wrought iron sign "Arbact Macht Frei" (work will make you free), walking through a gas chamber, seeing the ovens, strips away the distance and protection the filters of film, printed word, even personal testimony of survivors affords.  Being there makes it real. Very real.  The impact is so deep it takes the breath away. 

Finally, it's Birkinau.  This is where the train tracks end; the camp built solely for the purpose of killing Jews.  A million and a half of our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins stepped out of their cattle cars and departed this world at that wrenched place.  Men to the left, women and children to the right.  Being there brings the inescapable thought that it could have been me.  It could have been you.  Then the reality, it was me and it was you.  To the left and to the right; stripped, gassed, cremated, ashes dumped into two small pools of water.  All that remains are those pools.  We were numb standing by the water.  We neither cried nor screamed.  Just numb.  Rabbi Allan Smith, our guide that day began our ascent from those depths with a worship service in the area adjacent to the water pools filled with ashes.  We shared some of our thoughts along with the prayers.  Then he led us in the opposite direction the 800,000 women and children took as they marched to their deaths down a half-mile brick path.  They are in the pools.  We rise from the place of the ashes to carry on and do our work and live as Jews.  I stopped and dug up a few pieces of brick from that path.  So many children had stepped there.  I needed something in my pocket to hold on to.  When my group talked a bit about the experience I told my colleagues that, after the sadness and the anger, I felt an intense sense of pride and confirmation.  Pride in carrying on our Jewish heritage.  Pride in my ethnicity, my faith, my membership in Am Yisrael.  This was an experience that confirmed all of the above and even more, the work we do, not only here at camp and in NFTY, but in every synagogue, and in every home where our kids learn to sing the Shabbat blessings and light the Chanukiot.  I've always maintained that it is sacred work, teaching kids to love Judaism and strengthening their Jewish identities.  But now, after having been in this place, I felt I was carrying home the blessings of those who walked that brick path.  I'm honored to carry the torch into the future.

So, I returned late on a Friday night, exhausted after over thirty hours of travel.  On the way home from the airport I took a left instead of a right and wound up at camp (just a minute out of the way).  Closed and dark, it's still GUCI.  I took ten minutes to sit in our Beit T'fillah imagining and remembering the voices of our campers and staff, singing our prayers, fanning away the heat with prayer cards.  That's how I completed this extraordinary trip.

And so, I headed home, my pockets lumpy with pieces of brick.

AM YISRAEL CHAI!


Ron

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rainy Days and Mondays Never Get Me Down



                                                                                                                        May 2017

Dear Family and Friends:



Sounds crazy but when I was a kid I used to hope for rain on Saturdays.  We lived on the Northside of Chicago, on Greenview Avenue, a couple of blocks from the lake.  There was always plenty to do when the sun shone.  I could ride my bike up to Gale school on Ashland and find a ball game to play, or ride down Sheridan Rd with a few buddies all the way to Northwestern U. or the Bahai Temple.  But rainy Saturdays were special.

My dad, Arnold, loved to play golf.  He played every Saturday morning until the snows came.  I can’t remember waking up on a warm Saturday morning to find my Dad home.  He’d be out on the course.  I think he used to get up around five so he could make his foursome way out south on a course somewhere around 95th and Cicero.  He’d come home around one.  Dad’s usual routine was to eat lunch, put on the Cubs game and fall asleep on the couch.  If I changed the channel he’d bark…”Hey.  I was watching that.”  So of course, I’d go out and play…something.  But when it rained on Saturday afternoons the routine changed.  We’d grab our raincoats and hike down Howard Street to the Howard Theater to see a movie.  In my imperfect memory I remember doing this every time that rain came down.

As I think back, I don’t remember doing many things with my father, just the two of us.  Maybe that’s why those afternoons were so special.  There are two other summer father/son outings I remember.  Once each summer my dad would take me horseback riding and once a summer we’d go to Riverview Park to ride the roller coasters.

 At Riverview we’d ride the Silver Streak and the Blue Flash, and never miss the Shoot the Shoots.  Shoot the Shoots was a boat ride through dark passageways and then on to an elevator and then down a steep incline.  At the bottom it plunged into a small lake, water splashed up everywhere.  Everyone got wet.  We loved it.  On the roller coasters we’d usually sit in the last two seats if we could.  That’s where you get whipped around the most (at least that’s what we thought).  Except when we rode the Bobs.  The Bobs was the fastest coaster at Riverview.  On the Bobs we’d wait in line until we could sit in the first two seats.  With nothing in front of you, that first drop and first turn would scare the you-know-what out of you.   Both my dad and I always laughed from start to finish on the roller coasters.

Riverview trips were great, but I seem to have more of an emotional memory of going to the movies on rainy Saturday afternoons.  So today it’s late in May, university students gone for the summer, Hillel closed, the perfect time to get out on my boat and sail, but for the rain.  I’m sitting here looking out the window at a rainy day and thinking of my dad.  It’s good.  I’d love to sail, but thinking of those days long gone is OK too.


Karen Carpenter sang, “Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down.”  She didn’t have those rainy Saturday afternoons with my dad, Arnie.  I’m glad I did.

Ron

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Being Jewish In your Heart

   
Dear Family and Friends:

Well, this blog of mine seems to have reached a sort of milestone.  As of today it has been opened 60,540 times.  Thanks to Linda Ross Brenner who started me on this path a couple of years ago (she argued. "you need a blog to preserve all of your 'Staff Letters' for your grandchildren."  How could I refuse?). So for the sake of nostalgia, even though it isn't throw back Thursday, here's the first old Staff Letter...or the oldest i could find.  

Ron


                                                                                                September, 1989


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:


Now that most of us are back to it in the world of school and work, footballs
are (thank goodness) finally flying, and thoughts of last summer surround
themselves with a hazy glow, it may be an appropriate time to consider our own
personal religious connections.  For me, the autumn (perhaps my favorite season
of the year) is a season of conflict.  On the one hand, it is such a colorful
season and vigorous time of the year that I feel uplifted, kind of ready to
start tackling the challenges and opportunities of the next camp year.  On the
other hand however, I most certainly feel a Jewish letdown with the ending of
camp and all of its intensity and spirit.  These mixed feelings have led me to
thoughts concerning our ongoing Jewish connections and commitments.


I have often heard the saying "It's hard to be Jewish," and accepted it as a
matter of fact.  Now I wonder if that acceptance isn't just an excuse to lay
off some of the burdens of Jewish living.  It is hard to be Jewish because we
have to go out of our way to be it.  I think this is especially true for those
of us living  on campus.  As I recall, my undergraduate years were almost a
complete vacation from Jewish activity.  During those years,  camp was my
"Jewish fix" and had to last me from one summer to the next. My new found
college "freedom" allowed me to exercise a certain rebellion against anything
"organized" and/or "institutional" like my synagogue, or even Shabbat services
on campus.  Looking back on that time now, I realize that those feelings
created a void in my life that even camp couldn't fill.


The Rabbis tell us that one cannot be Jewish alone; that a Jew must be a part
of his or her Jewish community.  The great Rabbi Hillel taught, "Do not
separate yourself from the community."  I would argue that one must be able to
first be Jewish alone, before he/she can really connect with the community. 
Being Jewish in your own heart and mind, carrying with you a sense of
Jewishness, yes, even "Looking at the world through Jewish eyes," is the first
essential ingredient in that catch-all phrase we use so often, "Jewish
Identity." 


I hope that the spirit and sense of community we built together at
camp this summer helps each of us feel Jewish in our hearts and minds.  But I
also agree that this is not enough.  Ultimately the Rabbis are correct.  Jews
need other Jews.  Consider sharing your Jewishness with others.  Just as it is
at camp, your own spirit can be renewed and enhanced when it is shared. 

As the High Holy Days approach, I hope you will think of the warm and wonderful
Jewish community we created together this summer at G.U.C.I.  I also hope that
same spirit will move you to make your place among our extended Jewish family. 
Along with many of the important things life has to offer us, being a part of
Klal Yisrael can be most fulfilling.  When it is, being Jewish ceases to be a
burden and becomes a gift.


I wish you and your family all the best in the coming new year. L'Shannah Tova,
Tikatavu.


Ron

Friday, April 14, 2017

From Holocaust to Vegetables




Dear Family and Friends:                                                               April, 2017

You know, I meet some interesting folks during my rabbi hours.  I have told you about some in the past.  I still stroll over to the Indiana University Memorial Union every Thursday afternoon, sit at a table at Starbucks, and put up a table tent that says something like, "Rabbi on Duty.  Keep Calm and Ask the Rabbi.  Ask me anything."  Interestingly, most of the people who do stop by are not Jewish, but have questions about Jews, Judaism, or sometimes Israel.

Last Thursday an older gentleman sat down across from me and introduced himself as, let’s call him Robert...something.  His last name was long, unpronounceable, and filled with consonants.  He told me that (in this order) he was Polish, a botanist, and from the south side of Chicago, now living in Bloomington.  So we immediately had three connecting points.  One of my grandfathers came from Tarnow, Poland, I grew up in Chicago, and I too now live in Bloomington.  Robert proceeded to say that he wanted to know everything about his Polish heritage.  He had studied Polish, traveled to Poland, etc.  And his goal in life was to help people grow better plants.  We did a little Jewish (in this case Polish/Chicago) geography and discovered that he had been a landscape architect in Indianapolis and as a matter of fact had done work for a family that lived directly across the street from the camp I directed.  He knew the camp but not exactly what it was all about.  I knew the family he had worked for.  OK.  That was the small talk.

When I asked him what prompted him to sit down with me he said that he had a question.  

"What do post-Holocaust Jews think of the Polish people?"   

I get questions about Jewish holidays, philosophy, and life after death, politics, bible.  This was a question with no easy answer.  I told my visitor about the two trips my wife, Juca and I made, chaperoning groups of high school students to Prague and then on to Krakow and Warsaw, including the concentration camps.  I said that we really wanted Poland to be ugly so we could totally dislike it.  But no, it was beautiful and the Poles we interacted with were very nice.  But I also told him of conversations I had with a few on those trips regarding World War II and the Holocaust.  In each case the Poles were adamant that all of the troubles were the fault of the Germans. 

Robert responded with a single word, "Bullshit!"  We both knew that some Poles had saved Jewish lives at the risk of their own, but most had no love for the Jews.   

We talked a bit about the Partisan underground resistance to the Nazis in Poland and Russia, and about the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt.  Then our conversation shifted gears toward botany.  This fellow, at sixty-nine years of age had decided that he wanted to change the world by teaching regular, everyday people how to grow better vegetables.  He asked if I had any ideas as to how he might accomplish this.  I responded by telling him of the cartoon I had in my office for years that preached, "First the socks...then the shoes."  Start small and build.

I had two ideas for Robert.  I described this blog to him and that it has had almost 60,000 openings since it began.  I recommended that he look into beginning his own blog; just with friends, students, and colleagues.  It just might grow and expand as one person shares it with another.  He liked the idea.

Idea number two (because I am so social media minded...not) occurred to me from hearing one of my former camper's podcast about summer camp.  A recorded podcast/radio program, featuring Robert’s ideas with guests etc, might just catch on.  I asked him if he had any connections with either students or professors in the school of informatics.  He said that he did.  I was sure that any one in that field could advise him as to how to initiate either a blog or podcast.  As a backup he could turn to Google.

I think this Robert….something is going to look into these two ideas.  We left off by noting that I'm here every Thursday (like a stand-up comic) and that I'd love for him to drop by and let me know how it's going.  

That was a good talk; from Holocaust to vegetables.  You know, I meet some interesting folks during my rabbi hours.


Ron

Sunday, March 26, 2017

On Being Your Own Best Friend


Here is an old post .  I put it up again in response to a conversation I had with a student here at IU.  Still a good thought, I think.

Dear Family and Friends:                                                               March, 2017


Here's a question I'm pretty sure you haven't been asked before, "What's your
ace in the hole?"  An ace in the  hole, you know?  That's the one thing that
bails you out when all else fails.  The one thing that only you know, that is
sure, that you can always count on.  What is your personal ace in the hole? 
Let me give you a couple of tips.  ONE:  everyone needs one, and TWO:  if you
haven't thought about this, you should.

The real point here is that life is hard and often filled with disappointments.  What do we do when things fall apart?  What is our last line of defense when the blitz is on and there are no more blockers (sorry for the football analogy, but I'm still grieving over this Bears' season)? 

I think it is crucial that we all realize how important we are to ourselves.  That's
right!  No matter what happens, I am going to continue to be my own best
friend.  I like me.  And even at those times when I don't like me that much
because I have screwed something up (impossible, not the great Ron Klotz?), I
try to pep myself up, regroup, so to speak, and inevitably I regain my
friendship with myself.  I'm not talking about being conceited, cock-sure, full
of myself, or anything like that.  This is a personal thing - no one else knows
about it (until now).  It's strictly between me and myself, and it certainly is
my ace in the hole.

If you're interested, find a copy of Paul Simon's recording of "One Trick
Pony."  It is not a very well known album, actually the soundtrack from the
movie he starred in (I digress).  You will find a song there called, "Ace In
The Hole."  I have been thinking about that song and this idea for a long
time.  Paul Simon always asks important questions - you won't be disappointed
in this record.  He says, "Ace in the hole - lean on me - don't you know me,
I'm your guarantee."  And that is just what we all need, a guarantee.

We all know another great songwriter's work, Rabbi Hillel, who wrote, "Im Ain
Ani Li Mi?"  If I am not for myself who am I for?  The rest of the song is
important too, but without this first statement we are lost.  I think it is
good for a person to talk to him/herself (not out loud or people will start
looking at you funny).  Remind yourself of just how good you are, when things
are bad.  Be good to yourself.  Be a friend.  Do for yourself what you would do
to help someone else who is down in the dumps.  It's a private thing, and it
helps.

If this all sounds silly to you, well you can just toss this letter.  After
all, it's a private thing.  It's about MY ace in the hole - what's yours?

Ron