Elul 9 5762 – Schwenksville, Pennsylvania
Yes, Schwenksville! Don’t worry. I also never
knew it existed until today.
Schwenksville – a hicktown 30 miles northwest
of Philadelphia – is the place destined for me to celebrate
Shabbat Parshat Ki Teitzei, the fifth of the ‘Seven weeks of
comfort.’ How fitting. As we read the words of the haftorah
“Sing barren one,” I don’t know many places as barren as Schwenskville.
I think of the contrast to any big city and especially New York.
Is anything happening, anything big happening in Schwenskville
tonight? Any night?
How much more barren is this town in the boondocks
when you think about its spiritual contrast to rich Jerusalem!
Yet, G-d created many more “Schwenksvilles” in
the world and only one “Jerusalem.” The globe is filled with
barren cities and towns. And still, it is Jerusalem that is
called the “barren one” this Shabbos. Is it because only Jerusalem
is conscious of its barrenness, while other places go on oblivious
of their own frailty?
I don’t know. But I do know that Jerusalem exposes
the barrenness of Schwenskville. Yet, we are told to sing, so
sing we did.
What am I doing singing in Schwenskville? I am
here for a Shabbaton, a weekend retreat together with around
80 college students. As part of something called the “Jewish
Heritage Program,” I was invited for this “Israel Leadership
Retreat” to help inspire and train the students to become active
leaders in the Jewish community, and educate and influence students
and faculty in their respective campuses about the importance
of Israel in our lives and the critical need to support the
Holy Land and to make everyone aware of the true facts around
current events. I was asked to convey to the students the profound
spiritual connection that Jews have to the Land.
Why Schwenksville? Am not exactly sure. But this
is the place they chose. We are here in a summer camp called
As we drive in late Friday afternoon, we are rudely
awakened by the first question: “Did you bring sheets?” “Sheets?!
I look at my friend Greg, no one ever told us that we are coming
to an overnight summer camp, where you need sheets to cover
the plastic mattresses on a broken spring bed. Sheets – and
towels, and soap and shampoo and…
Ok, this is going to be a great Shabbat. I feel
it in my bones.
Forget about sheets; if you think sheets are a
problem, you should see the beds. Flimsy, missing half their
springs. Even with a sheet – or for that matter, ten sheets,
it’s going to be some experience to negotiate sleep in these
And did I mention the heat? Unbearable. Hot, humid,
no air conditioning.
Man, is this what summer camp was all about? 35
years ago I spent many memorable summers at overnight camp.
I don’t remember – and neither does my friend Greg – these miserable
beds. Nor the cramped bunks. Nor the – how should I call them
– showers and sinks. Did we actually sleep in these type of
conditions for TWO MONTHS with 15 other campers?!
All I remember was the fun. I remember the soda
cans we would hide in the toilet tanks to keep them cool.
I remember the raids, the sports, the all night hushed discussions
and laughs we would have – shining flashlights in each others
eyes to check who was still awake. I must admit that I broke
the record for being the last guy awake each night, always
looking for a buddy to whisper to. Hey, Moshe, hey, Jack,
hey anybody – is anyone still awake?
The only bad memory was reveille. And now that
was the only good news – after a miserable night of trying to
not fall into the holes between the springs, it was a refreshing
relief to finally get out of bed.
(In the wee hours of the morning I did have a
prophetic brainstorm, one of those early in-and-out half-asleep,
half-awake type of dreams, that if we were to place an extra
mattress on the bed springs, perhaps it would balance the bed.
So I tried it, and guess what? It made things worse. I barely
was able to climb out of the two mattresses as they folded over
and engulfed me in their monstrous hold. I guess, prophecy is
not my destiny…)
Man, how life has changed. Adult frameworks and
comfort zones sure alter – and taint – our pure childhood experiences.
As we harden into adults we lose touch of the free abandon of
childhood, that is simply oblivious of the ‘comfortable realities’
of adult life. Children frolic in the snow, unmindful of its
coldness and wetness.
So here we are stuffing up the holes in the screens
with toilet paper to prevent bugs from getting in. But, we forget
about the bugs that already were in the bunk, oh so casually
spending the night with us, and reminding us of their presence
as we woke up scratching ourselves.
The camp’s caretakers finally get us some sheets
and pillows. We discover some old soap. We shower and off we
go to Shabbat services. As we walk down the path I literally
experience a flashback: Potato kugel… I hadn’t thought it about
it for years, but Friday night in summer camp three decades
ago I always associated with the potato kugel we were served.
Wow, how deeply embedded are our childhood memories…
A simple service in a simpler setting. We pray
in a large gym that seems to double as the night activity hall.
On the wall Color War banners still hang. Brings me back to
the benches we would sit on as our counselor would try to get
us to piously pray. “Daven, Simon, so we don’t lose bunk competition”
was the unconvincing argument my fellow campers would use to
persuade us all to sing loudly. What resonated more was our
counselor telling us: “If you want your prayer to be meaningful,
think about the meaning of each word.”
As I sit and pray the evening service the whole
scene comes back. I guess this debunks the idiom that ‘nostalgia
is not like it used to be.’
Following the service, they divide the students
into three groups, what they call ‘break the ice’. Each group
sits in a circle while the leader of each group holds a ball
of yarn as (s)he introduces the Shabbaton to the students. Then
the leader throws the ball of yarn to a student across the circle,
while holding on to the string. Each student progressively introduces
him/herself and then passes on the string to another. Effectively,
creating a web network of strings connecting the entire circle.
Good idea. We’ll use it for our upcoming camping weekend.
Next, we make Kiddush and celebrate together the
Shabbat meal in the large dining room.
The heat is unbearable. Large fans circulate some
air, but provide only temporary relief. Big decision before
us: The whirring sound of the fans will drown out the words
of any speaker. Do we remain in the dining room with these fans
and not hear the speaker, or do we go out into the heat? Life
decisions can be very difficult. And you thought you
Well, a child solves our quandary. Accidentally
she pulls the plug. Whew. I feel a sigh of relief. It was going
to be difficult enough to get the attention of these students
even with absolute silence.
I speak about the historical times in which we
live. About our vital role in this generation. About the eternal
power of the Jewish people. Our connection to our past. To Abraham
and our forefathers and foremothers. Our crisis today is a spiritual
one: One must have a spiritual identity in order to survive,
let alone thrive. In Israel spiritual identity is a matter of
life and death. If we don’t have a spiritual connection to the
Holy Land what the hell are we doing there?!
I leave the students with the question: What are
you doing for your brothers and sisters living in crisis in
Israel? One day you will be asked this question. What will your
It’s quite challenging to speak to these students.
I usually speak and teach audiences in their 30’s and older,
women and men who have already experienced some losses in their
lives and are more receptive to the search for deeper meaning.
These students – many very secular, uninterested in Shabbat,
Judaism or Israel – are living their happy-go-lucky lives, with
no inkling of higher direction or purpose.
I should qualify this by saying that many of the
students were seriously interested and dedicated to really doing
something about affairs in Israel and the world today.
After the meal many of us take a peaceful walk
on the campgrounds. My friend, Greg, notices a building called
“Comfort Zone.” “I really would like to go in there,” he tells
me. “If you go in,” I reply, “you will find it very difficult
to come out.” He doesn’t go.
We walk to the lake and then back to our bunks.
The 18-22 year old students are doing their thing all over the
Greg and I finally enter our bunk. Due to the
heat and just general discomfort which will prevent any real
sleep, Greg threatens that I better be ready for him speaking
to me all night. We have many laughs and finally he does fall
asleep and so do I, only to wake up at around 5AM, in some convoluted
position, with half my mattress under the springs… My back is
killing me, but I have to smile… I love adventure and the unexpected…
Tossing and turning my thoughts go back to more
comfortable nights in great five star hotel beds. So what? Is
physical comfort that important? Why do we find comfort so vital
to our lives? Of course, we should all be blessed with all the
physical comforts we need. But some of us have problems getting
our of our ‘comfort zones,’ and as a result, we do not move
or grow. And even when we do, it is still on our ‘own terms.’
Like the arrogant doctor that says “I will tell you when you
need a second opinion.”
Physical comforts – ah. So many people I know
are physically comfortable and surround themselves with ‘teddy
bears’ and ‘security blankets’ of all sorts – trying to distract
themselves from their inner misery. Lying on this miserable
bed, staring up at the rafters – remembering playing many a
game of rafter ball – I realize that I am happy within. Yes,
this bed is quite uncomfortable, but I am comfortable with myself.
Each morning when I awake I am excited to be alive, I am blessed
with the work that I do, I am around quality people, I feel
that I am making a difference – and feel driven by so much more
A measly bed in a naked bunk is a small price
I have to smile. Schwenskville. In Yiddish, and
I guess in German, “schwenk” means “rinse.” (Why would anyone
name this place “Rinseville, USA”?) But I know this: Here I
am in Rinseville, USA being rinsed (soaked is more like it)
through and through, and in the process – with each new rinsed
layer – learning new things about myself, going back into my
childhood, as I prepare for my future.
All through Shabbat I can’t help but mutter Schwenksville,
Schwenskville. You see, I am quite obsessed with this name.
I just find it hilarious and can’t get over the fact that I
am sitting in a summer camp in a place called Schwenksville…
I apologize that this obsession, dear reader, is at your expense.
Shabbat day – the second service. They give me
maftir, and I read in the ancient song of the haftorah (so movingly
rendered by my Rebbe): “Sing, barren one…”
Following the service, David tells Greg and I
that he was freezing last night. You see, 14 years ago he spent
summer in this precise camp and remembers the heat. So he brought
along a portable fan. Now, that’s resourceful. Wish all of us
would remember and learn from our childhoods.
Kiddush and lunch. More talks. The heat wears
us down. Everyone is looking for relief. There are water coolers
(not electric), and the water is ice cold, but it doesn’t refresh.
It feels like its nutrients are missing, or something. I walk
to the kitchen to get a drink, and in passing open up one of
the large walk-in refrigerators. To my surprise, Greg and David
are huddled up in the fridge, ever so leisurely eating and laughing.
I join them. A few minutes later one of the Rabbis suddenly
opens up the fridge only to find us all three… We felt like
kids caught at the cookie jar.
A few hours later I took more refuge in the cold
cavern. This time several students were in there. “Sorry, taken.
Go to the next one.”
And so, an interesting Shabbat proceeds. The highlight
of the weekend was the discussion we had late afternoon. All
the students gathered on the bleachers of the basketball court.
And I posed the question: Do you feel that you really matter
in this world? That your life is indispensable? That if you
were never born it would make a difference?
Oh, you had to see the reactions and responses!
Honestly, my only way to get through to these kids (they don’t
see themselves as kids of course) was to go back to my own teenage
and young adult years. Not that those years are very far away
from my mind, but at times the experiences rise to the forefront.
I shared with them some of my own rebelliousness – anarchism
some would call it – my desperate search for something truly
meaningful. My disappointments with establishment, adults, teachers
and the general system. My realization that you cannot look
for scapegoats; you must forge your own path – find your way,
and passionately embrace it.
We candidly discussed drugs, teen suicide, high
school violence, sexuality, friends, entertainment, sports –
how to find your personal mission statement.
Frankly, as I told the group, the search for your
mission may not be your priority today, but hopefully some of
my words today will plant seeds and one day emerge and resonate
(I add the word ‘emerge’ for my dear friend who has heard me
use it ad nauseam). All you can do is try to talk words from
the heart, which we are told enter the heart.
I invite the students to join us in our upcoming
Labor Day camping weekend, which I invite you readers to as
well. Trust me, you will not regret coming.
Though the weekend was filled with rich experiences,
I would like to conclude with my ping-pong obsession. Or, table
tennis, using the more proper name. At the ping-pong table we
played for hours on end, talking Chassidus, learning lessons
from the way people interact. Greg’s wicked backhand slam, with
all due humility, my own drop shots, David teaching me the game
of bear-pong (without the actual guzzling) – all contributed
a surreal feeling that bordered on the spiritual.
You see, when you approach things with a deeper
focus, even simple things take on greater meaning. I remember
the words of the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak about the Alter Rebbe:
“He taught us the smallness of big things and the greatness
of small things.”
Ping-pong. G-d. College students. Shabbat. Heat.
Discomfort. Raw bunks and rawer beds. All in Schwenskville USA.
Yes. Today, we take Schwenksville. Tomorrow, the