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Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Prague and Poland

                                                                                                             November 2000


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:

     
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 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

Sunday, October 1, 2000

Olympic Glory and Tragedy

                                                                                                                   
                                                                                                        October, 2000
Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:                                                                 


Now that another wonderful summer has wound down at the old campsite in Z-Ville, and  the Cubbies finished 30 games out of first (I wonder if being so many games out, they might be mathematically eliminated from next year’s pennant race) and the Bears are 1 and 4, seems to me like the only game in town is happening in the town of Sydney.  I couldn’t help but feel proud of the kids on the U.S. team as I watched them go for the gold.  There was much talk of the Olympics a few weekends ago, up at Kutz Camp, our national U.A.H.C. camp in Warwick N.Y.  Katy Goodman, our Assistant Director and I joined all of the other members of the U.A.H.C. Youth Division staff for meetings there, while the Olympics were just getting under way.  It was quite special as the person who is my direct supervisor, and has been for the past 20 years, Arie Gluck, the Director of our Camp Harlam (and Frank DeWoskin's new boss), ran in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland for the first Israeli Olympic team.  I have often heard Arie tell of his experiences running there and in another international meet in Spain. 


Arie fought in Israel's War of Independence.  I've traveled several times with him to Israel and walked with him near the battlefields of T’sfat and around the neighborhoods of his youth in Tel Aviv.  He is living history and I sit in awe whenever I have the opportunity to listen to his stories.  Being with Arie is always special; but to be with Arie as the Olympics are about to unfold is extraordinary. 

Another Olympic historical event was retold this weekend.  After the meetings at Kutz Camp, we joined the entire U.A.H.C. staff for our annual staff retreat.  Over 200 gathered for study, sharing, T'fillot, and general spirit building.  I met a fellow that I haven't seen since my first year at HUC in 1972.  His name is Allan Henkin.  He's a Reform Rabbi and directs our L.A. office and region.  As I greeted him he pulled me aside to relive with me a particularly emotional and devastating moment we shared back then, almost thirty years ago.  Henkin asked me (rhetorically) if I remembered our first trip down to the Negev that September.  My class of rabbinic students left Jerusalem on a bus to tour the south during the Olympics being held in Munich that year.  I certainly remembered every detail of that trip.  On our second day out we learned that a terrorist group calling itself Black September had taken eleven Israeli athletes hostage.  We watched the news on a little TV in the youth hostile we stayed in that night.  The next afternoon, as we rode south of Be'er Sheva, the bus's radio broadcast the news of the eleven Israelis’ deaths.  We were stunned.  We stopped the bus right there in the middle of the desert.  The students filed out, stood together in a clump, our silence only broken by half-stifled sighs and sniffles.  Softly someone began to recite Kaddish and we all joined in.  Having arrived in Israel only two weeks before, this was a remarkable introduction to our rabbinic educations.  A moment in the desert.  A devastating moment for our people.  A glimpse of the harsh realities our people have always had to face.  And a prayer in the wilderness. 

Yes, Allan Henkin, I remember it well.  I try to subdue the thought of it whenever I first hear the Olympic anthem.  I try not to think of it.  I would like not to remember that the games continued during our country's time of mourning.  I'd like not to still be angered by it. 

I'd rather think of Arie Gluck running in '52, for the glory of Israel's first Olympic team.  I'd much rather think of the pride he brought to Jews around the world.   These are the thoughts that run through my head as I watch the games unfold this time around, every time around.  Well, that's the way I see it. 
 

Ron

Saturday, April 1, 2000

A Passover Dream


The other night I dreamt of a Seder long gone. My restless sleep carried me back to the days of my childhood. There we sat around the candle lit table, white napkins, unleavened squares, white-hot horseradish, cool red wine. And the rowdy group of us gathered there to laugh and remember, to pay tribute, and to argue and even doubt. In the midst of that foggy dream sat my uncles and aunts, sneaking bits of matzo before it was time, recalling lost family members and their antics at Seders of old. My cousins and I sat at the far end of the table. In a dreamlike way we smirked at the nostalgia of the older folks, watching my Papa hold up the bread of affliction and tell our story. It was a good dream, and now that I'm the Papa I'm beginning to understand most of it.

When we sang our slightly off-tune, out of sync Dayenu in my dream, I came to realize that, although I joined in and sang out, I did not feel that it really was "Enough," for me, that is. My Jewish journey had been but a short hop at that point. I felt little connection to the Israelites wandering in the desert. Heck, I was more interested in the unfolding season at Wrigley Field than the journeys of our people. But on a long winter's night there's ample time for the mind to play. With no regard to my desires, my dream dragged on, like a blender mixing family memories with the Haggadah's stories of our people in the wilderness.

My rebellion and rejection of the simple connectors of that holiday became my walls of identity. I was ME, different than any who had journeyed before. In dreamlike fashion, I drifted away from my family scene, still smelling the Seder smells, and hearing the Pesach melodies. I'd become a participant at a distance, a half-hearted, gefilte-fish-eating skeptic. I remember thinking that this night was not so different from ALL other nights. There had been Seders for centuries. Other doubters sat with their families wondering how they fit into the grand scheme of our wandering ancestors. Maybe that was my connection. I was heir to the Jewish throne of alienation, bound to all those who had come before me who had sat on the sidelines, unable to take the step and get out there and play in the Jewish People game. Thrashing about, as my dream became nightmare-ish, visitors began to appear.

My visitors looked like any of the other kids in the neighborhood, one of them, the girl, had a bright knowing gleam in her eye. The other two were just regular kids, a simple boy and then the very quiet one, who seemed to just be tagging along. Staring me down, my bright-eyed female all-of-a-sudden companion challenged me. "Don't you realize that God has given us these laws and observances?" she scolded. I defensively countered with, "What do you mean 'Us?' Maybe God commanded you, but certainly not me! And, how can you be so sure anyway?"
                                                        
"Why, look in you heart." She said, "Do you think your life starts with you?"
With that, a light flashed and a fog descended. We were floating on a cloud. A breeze began to blow, dispersing the cloud. My hostess, her companions, and I had been transported to a barren and rocky place. With an outstretched hand she presented a most unusual scene. I witnessed a line of people following an old man through the desert. They looked disheveled. I heard their grumbling, saw the fear in their eyes. The old man stopped. He turned to speak to them.  "My dear ones," he said. "I know that you are weary, and frightened. We have left all that is familiar to us, our homes, our friends, our old ways. Be strengthened in the understanding that it is the One God who has commanded us to build new lives in a new land. Know that because we have faith, because we are brave, because we have each other, we will endure. We are the birth of a new People. Our new homeland lies before us. God protects us. Because we have begun this journey, the world will never be the same. Our ancestors will remember what we have done. We shall be the inspiration for future generations of Jews in their own journeys. So begins the greatness that will be; a free people, living in their own land, speaking their own language, in covenant with the One God."

I tossed in my sleep. I wanted to shout out to that band of ragged pioneers. "We do indeed remember the words that God spoke to you." I wanted to show them all that I understood the words "Lech Lecha," and that those words still held meaning to millions of other Jews, maybe not me, to this very day. I wanted so in my heart, in the midst of my dream, to encourage them. My frustration was enormous and my hosts sensed my discomfort. The smart one understood.

"You're beginning to get it. Hold that feeling," she instructed. "This is just our first journey. There are others to see."

The simple one asked, "Where to next?" The other one followed quietly along.
The wind kicked up. Our magic fog-carpet floated us along, depositing us in a large auditorium. This was a familiar place. I tossed and snored and looked around. Slowly, while the lights were dimming, I realized I was in the Chicago Theatre. The movie was about to begin. I'd been there so many times with my mother, I could smell the popcorn right there in my bedroom. The plush seats and ornate sculptures on the walls of this old, magnificent theater comforted me. Turning to my hosts to ask just what the heck was going on, the wise one signaled me to "Shush and watch the screen." But as dreams would have it, the movie reels were out of order. It didn't start at the beginning.
                                                          
We saw a ragged bunch of European Jews walking slowly across the screen, pushing carts filled with belongings. They sang of Anetevka, their village, as off they marched to unknown destinations in new worlds. I remembered the saga of Tevye the dairyman. He had problems with his daughters Tzeitle and Hodle. I remembered Golde and her dreams, and the tailor, Motle. I remembered the Pogroms. "But what has any of this to do with me, I thought? It's a movie. Ancient history. After all I'm dreaming of the Chicago Theater." Now the most incredible dreamlike thing happened. Tevye turns to talk to the Jews behind him, but instead he’s looking right at me.

"Nu, nudnik?" He said. "You think you're not part of this poor journey? Why this is the very community that gave birth to your great grandparents. Our trouble, our experience, our faith and nostalgia are the cornerstones of your Jewish life. Like you, I sat at my family's Seder table and heard the story of our Peoples' flight from Egypt. I never expected to lead my own community from a kind of slavery to a hope of freedom in new lands. We lived in a little Jewish town…not exactly a suburb, but a very Jewish place. When Shabbat or Passover, or any other holiday descended on our village, everyone shared the warmth of the holiday, every family, every person. We could hear the family in the next house singing Dayenu, a few moments before or after we sang it. We were each other's echoes. We wore the warmth of those communal feelings like a suit of armor to protect ourselves from the outside world. But the armor proved thin. It couldn't keep us safe.  As you can see," he continued, "My family and I are forced to venture out into the unknown. Who knows what will be? One has a cousin in New York, another, an uncle on a Kibbutz in the Galilee. But what we do know is that this is not the first time our People have journeyed forth from their homes. What we do know is that we have faith in our God and the love of our families. Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Maimonides, many generations of Jews, no different from this one, have learned to face the trials and anxieties of challenges like ours. You'll face them too, in your own way, in your own time. God only knows what will happen to us …and he's not telling. But whatever happens to the poor Jews of Anetevka, the story of our journey will be etched into the identity of your generation."

Then Tevye turned his eyes to heaven. "Dear God. You have made me a poor milkman, but one who now understands the anguish of Abraham, the dilemmas of Moses. Give me the strength to lead my family as they led theirs…and if, along the way, we find some nice new Shtetle… like Shaker Heights or New Rochelle…even Skokie…well, who would mind?"
                                                    
The old velvet curtain that once opened and closed the vaudeville shows of its time descended over the screen, ending this historic, if nightmarish performance. My restless sleep had carried me over centuries and continents. But my hosts, the smart, the not so smart, and the quiet one were hardly done with me. Slowly they turned, inch-by-inch, it seemed, they raised their eyes to mine, silently questioning, "Now do you see your own connection to the journeys of our People?"

I must admit the skeptic in me had weakened. Even I was a sucker for the Sunrise, Sunset nostalgia of our more recent past. But there still lurked a question or two in my This-is-the-twenty-first-century, and I'm-a-modern-Jew mentality. "I can relate to the journeys you've shown me. I can see how they have built the character of my generation. I can appreciate being a link in the chain of this tradition," I admitted. They flashed a glimmer of a victory smile in my direction. "But what journeys are REALLY mine?" I still wondered. "Where are the drama and the challenge, and the hope of my generation's future? Do we have a 'Lech Lecha,' a Sinai, an Anetevka of our own?"

And so I returned in my dream to that Seder of my youth. There my grandfather sat during the meal and told us of his younger days, coming to America. I heard him tell of the orthodox lifestyle his family had maintained in the "Old country," and how America became his religion. The Yiddish, and the Jewish, he explained, was the old way, the greenhorn's way. He wanted to be "An American."   We sat and listened to him admit to leaving all his Jewish practices behind him in Europe. He laughed as he recalled that even his name changed when he passed through the gates of Ellis Island. They couldn't pronounce his Jewish sounding name and he was happy to take on the new, Americanized pronunciation as his introduction to the New World. My grandfather's eyes always twinkled when he told this story.

"So Nu? How come we sit together tonight at a Seder table, if I left our Judaism on the boat?" he asked. We all knew, but would wait for him to answer his own question. "It wasn't that America could be our religion," he'd come to realize. "We needed to be Jews even in America. But what kind of Jews? That was the question." My grandfather was the wisest man I ever knew. He was the bridge from Anetevka to my Seder table. Now I remembered how he taught us. "We needed a new Judaism. Special (sp.) made for the modern world." He said. "That's how I came to talk to the Reform Rabbi at our synagogue, and that's why we are sitting at the Seder table tonight."

When we opened the Haggadas in my dream that night, I had a minor revelation. We read of the four children, the wise, the simple, and one unable to ask. My dreamy hosts described to a tea. "But what of the wicked one?" I thought. "What happened to the one who says "You," and not "We?"  Well, there I was, to round out the foursome. And so the lesson was well taught.

I'd come a long way during that restless night. I'd dreamt of a Seder long gone, and the hardships and faith of our People. It was a good dream, one of my ancestors and my grandfather and me. It was a dream of our journeys, not someone else's.

Now that I'm the Papa, I'm beginning to understand.

Thursday, January 20, 2000

The Camper in the Ark

                                                                                                                 

                                                                                                    January, 2000


Dear G. U. C. I. Staff:

                             
One of the things I enjoy most at camp each summer is teaching the Machon program.  Machonikim are first-year counselors, experiencing, observing, and learning about counseling techniques, child development, and program planning.  Almost all of them have had camper years either here or in other camps upon which to draw memories.  I’ve learned how important it can be to remember those mentors we admire in our lives, identify what exactly they did to create such positive impressions on us, and emulate those good qualities.  Of course, the opposite is also valuable, to identify those we hold in low regard, examine why that is the case, and try to avoid incorporating those characteristics in our work and relationships.  Machonikim are fresh, usually excited about the work, eager to share their ideas, open to suggestions.  They stoke my camping fire. 

When we speak of remembering those who have the most positive Jewish impacts on our lives, I can’t help but remember my camp rabbi, Rabbi Ernst Lorge.  I’ve written to you about him.  He was a pioneer in our camping movement.  I worked with him for many summers at our camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  He was a hard-nosed, yet compassionate Rabbi who never failed to amaze my cabins with late-night, lights-out stories of his experiences as a chaplain in Europe during the Second World War.  As Olin-Sang-Ruby turns fifty, I’ve been thinking about some of my early experiences as a camper and staff member there.

All counselors have favorite camper stories.  Not stories about favorite campers. I mean outrageous stories about strange campers.  I have mine as well.  In one of my cabins in 1964, I had the dubious pleasure of caring for Robbie S. (name withheld upon request…. my request).  Robbie was actually a nice boy who did pretty well at camp except for one minor quirk.  Robbie liked to hide.  Almost every day we had to stop at least one activity and search for him.  Once we found him it was right back to whatever we were doing.  Robbie usually hid in the outdoor broom closet behind the Bayit, the main building of the camp.  It had kind of latch on the door that closed itself and couldn’t be opened from the inside, so if someone went in and let the door close behind them, they had to yell for someone else to open the door.  Robbie never yelled.  He liked it in there.  It was the first place I always checked whenever my Co-counselor Don or I realized Robbie was missing

One Shabbat morning we had all slept a little late, as was the custom.  Seeing that Robbie was missing, Don, my Co, went to check the broom closet while the other boys in the cabin and I made our way to Shabbat T’fillot with the rest of the camp in the outdoor chapel. 

The service began and proceeded.  Rabbi Lorge, was conducting the service.  Rabbi Lorge was a pretty serious, no-nonsense, Old World rabbi.  He spoke with a German accent.  He was a great, old-school, Reform Rabbi.  He was, after all, one of the founding rabbis of U.A.H.C. camping.  We all rose as he turned to open the wood-crafted ark for the Torah service; and were astounded to see my camper, Robbie S. seated, curled up, next to the Torah, IN THE ARK!  What Rabbi Lorge did then was beautiful.  With one hand he removed the Torah from the ark, and held the other hand out to Robbie, inviting him to join the rabbi in blessing the Torah.  It was as if it was a natural thing for Rabbi Lorge to find a camper in the ark.  Like, it happened all the time.  (I thought I was going to die)

Robbie smiled and came to sit by one of his friends when the Torah was placed on the lectern for the reading.  And Rabbi Lorge never said a word to me about finding Robbie there.  But, anyone’s natural reaction to finding a child in the ark might have been a raised voice and wagging finger, or at least a “What’s going on here look?”  I remember most clearly Rabbi Lorge’s outstretched hand, inviting, compassionate, understanding.  Therein lies the lesson.
Needless to say, I kept a keen eye on Robbie for the rest of the session.

Ron