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Saturday, December 1, 2001

This Land is Mine

                                                                                            December, 2001

Dear G.U.C.I Staff:

Sometimes being a late-night person pays off, at least in the “Watching Old Movies On TV,” department.  The other night I revisited the saga of Tom Joad and his family as they made their trek westward out of the 1930’s Oklahoma dustbowl to the California line.  Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” never hit home with me like it did that night.  Granted, It was late and I was tired, but I sat mesmerized watching Henry Fonda come home from prison only to find that his family had lost the farm to the dust and the bank.  It broke my heart to see those old farmers kneel down and scoop up handfuls of dirt and remember that their fathers and mothers were born and died on that land.  Tom Joad’s grandfather refuses to leave, holding on to a handful of dirt saying, “this dirt is mine…. It ain’t worth nothin’…but it’s mine.”
This is a tragic story of folks being forced off of their family’s land, and making their way to a new place, living on a hope and a prayer.  It’s the story that prompted so many of Woodie Guthrie’s songs.  He was an “Oakie,” and “Dustbowl Refugee (one of his song titles),” when he wrote, “Do Re Mi,” and told us that “California is the Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in and see.  But, believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got that Do Re Mi.”  And out of his dustbowl came, “Pastures of Plenty,” and “I’m Goin’ Down That Road Feeling Bad (and I ain’t gonna to be treated this-a way).” In, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Guthrie wrote the saddest of verses saying, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road. It’s a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod.  The landlords threw us out and drove us from our door.  Now we ain’t got no home in this world any more.”  Along with the better known, “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” Guthrie put Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to music with “The Ballad of Tom Joad.”  These are sad songs of poverty and suffering, but all with a glimmer of hope and great determination. 

One of our recent Torah portions came to mind as I sat in my family room glued to director John Ford’s incredibly powerful visual masterpiece.   How much like the Joads, must Abraham have felt when he heard the words “Lech Lecha…” as he was ordered to leave the land of his birth?   How heroic to grit you teeth and pack your belongings and hit the road. I also couldn’t help but think of the tragedy happening today for all those dusty refugees in Afghanistan making their trek to the Pakistani line.  I’m not necessarily speaking out against our war in Afghanistan, but it certainly is heartbreaking to see anyone who, “Ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

I encourage you to go out and rent “The Grapes of Wrath.”  See if it doesn’t help you understand the plight of the refugee and the heroism of the pioneer.  God knows our ancestors filled both of those roles throughout our history; refugees from Egypt, Spain, Russia, Poland, Yemen, Ethiopia, etc.  And heroic pioneers called Chalutzim, who left the lands of their birth with nothing but a dream, and came to Eretz Yisrael to build that dream in the form of kibbutzim.    They too scooped up handfuls of earth and said, “This land is mine!”  They understood the power of a personal relationship with land, the strength and satisfaction that comes from working the land, and because of that, the magnitude of the tragedy of being uprooted from your land. John Steinbeck and Woodie Guthrie understood and taught all of these lessons well. They just didn’t know how Jewish their message was.      


Thursday, November 1, 2001

Praying For Peace

                                                                                                            November 2001

Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:

Last weekend I participated in a camp-style Shabbat service along with Danny Nichols at Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, Ohio.  It is always uplifting for me to see campers conduct T’fillot in their home synagogues and hear their perceptions of camp.  But in this particular service, because of all of the tumult in our world, one of the prayers that Danny sang jumped out and pulled at my heart.  The Hebrew words, “Shalom Rav Al Yisrael Amcha, Tasim L’olam,” never seemed to have more meaning.  It’s sung in a melody that pleads for God to give God’s people, Israel, a great and everlasting peace.  I really sang it out last Friday, as if saying the words could or would make it happen . 

I don’t know how you feel about prayer, but I’m usually pretty cynical.  Don’t get me wrong, I love going to services, I always find some new idea in the liturgy or come up with some new thought (sometimes not even close, I admit, to what’s happening in the synagogue, but new, nonetheless) that stays with me long after I’ve brushed the crumbs of the Oneg off of my tie.  But, for me, the power of prayer moves in an inward rather than outward direction.  I don’t expect God to grant peace.  I know that we have to make peace if peace is to happen at all.  Yet I say the words and they have power.  How is that?  How can that be?   I’d like not to think of myself as a hypocrite, so how can I reconcile having a feeling of contentment and even joy in prayer, while not expecting prayers to be answered?

The answers to these questions don’t come easily.  I’m sure that the communal environment of a Shabbat worship service is part of it.  Being together with other Jews, saying and singing together, knowing that others around the world are doing the same, all bring me a feeling of comfort and belonging.  And in the case of praying for peace, during these dangerous days here and in Israel, perhaps simply the joining of voices in a group wish is enough to reach in and tug at heartstrings.  I find that sometimes prayer can have a great impact on me.  It often does here at camp where I sit surrounded by children and listen to their prayers.  That definitely gives me strength and hope, and makes me smile. 

But there was something in that Shalom Rav last Shabbat that went beyond the group wish.  There was some distant hope I felt…as if by singing the words with full Kavanah, devotion, just maybe there was an outside chance that it could happen.  Like I said, I don’t expect prayers to be answered.  But maybe, just this once, just this once. SHALOM RAV AL YISRAEL AMCHA TASIM L’OLAM. 

Maybe just this once!  Let it be.


Monday, January 1, 2001

Shoresh Camper

                                                                                                     January, 2001

Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:

Yom Sylvester Sameach (that’s “Happy New Year” in Israel). The years seem to be rolling by rather quickly here at the old campsite. Seems like one just ends and we are already into the next. I’ve been hitting the highways and byways of this great Midwest of ours, to bring the “Gospel According to G.U.C.I.“ to congregants from K.C.to Akron, from Toledo to Nashville. I’ve never really told you what I feel about all the travel we do during the winter for camp. The downside is that it’s taken me away from home a lot, and the road is long. But, there are payoffs. Of course, whenever I hit a congregation our camp is “On The Agenda” and the Goldman Union Camp Institute name is often pronounced and announced and put out there on the front burner. That’s good for camp. But sometimes the promotional trips are good for me as well.

Last week I was at a midweek school session at Temple Sholom in Cincinnati. It’s kind of going home for me as I was the Temple Sholom Youth Director and taught there for a couple of years during my HUC days. My cousin Don Splansky was the Rabbi there back then and we had spent many summers together up in Oconomowoc. Nowadays the Rabbi is Gerry Walter, who’s been there for years, and was a Jr. Counselor in my cabin (I was the Senior) in 1964 at that same camp. Gerry went on to be a Unit Head here in Zionsville. So there are lots of connections with Temple Sholom. In any event, I did my thing there and at the end of the evening a mother and her little girl came up to me. The girl was on the verge of tears. The mom told me that they had signed the daughter up for her first time at G.U.C.I. and that she was very frightened of going to camp, not knowing anyone else coming and being away from home for the first time. I looked at that beautiful little girl and held out my hand for a shake. She took it like a trooper and tried to give me a smile. Her name was Barbara. I said, “Barbara, what do you think my job is?” She told me that she didn’t really know. I told her that it was my job to take care of her at camp, and that taking care of her meant that I was going to make sure that she was safe, comfortable, and that she had fun. I told her that I had been doing my job for a long time and that I’m good at it, and that I would be at camp all the time she was there making sure that all went right.

At the end of the conversation I told her she needn’t be worried about not knowing anyone at camp next summer, that she would certainly make friends as soon as she got to camp and that she already had one good friend at camp… me. She looked at me for a moment, thinking all of this over in that bright little ten-year-old mind of hers. And then, out came a timid little smile.  It grew into a bigger smile.  We shook hands again, and, as her mother led her away she looked back, waved and said, “See you at camp.”

Sometimes these trips mean a lot to me. I drove home down I-74 with a glow, and you can bet that I’ll be looking for my friend Barbara next summer on opening day.