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Ki-Tavo: Continuing Journeys of a W(e)ary Traveler – Diary

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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 ArthuReeta.

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 beds!

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 had problems.

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 answer be?

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 campgrounds.

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 to do.

A measly bed in a naked bunk is a small price to pay…

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 world.

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