Tag Archive | Camp Ramah

Stuck on Israel

detroitsolidarity

Last night, I volunteered at Detroit’s evening of Solidarity with Israel. After attendees passed through a strict security screening process, I gave them each a sticker bearing the logo shown above. Fellow volunteers gave out over 2,700 stickers to Israel supporters.

While the world looks bleak now for all world Jewry, and while radical Islamists spread their fiery hatred for Jews just like the Hitler Youth did in the 1930’s, it soothed my soul to see so many: Jewish, non-Jewish, black and white, coming together for a few hours to support the United State’s biggest ally in the Middle East in her war on terrorism.

By the way, my daughter is still on her trip in Israel. She just returned safely to Jerusalem after a sea-to-sea hike in the North.

 

Last weekend, she did spend some time in a bomb shelter. She heard the Iron Dome obliterate an incoming misile.  But then, after they got the clear, she and a family she was staying with went on with life.

Here is my most recent piece published in the Detroit Jewish News.

A few weeks ago, my parents, husband, son and I were riding down the Belt Parkway in New York to take our 17-year-old daughter to JFK. She was about to embark on Ramah’s six-week Israel Seminar, a trip she knew she wanted to do since she was about nine years old. The news that Hamas murdered the three teenaged boys was less than 24 hours old. Seated in the middle row with my mom, I curled my hand into hers. I just kept squeezing it.
The scene at the departure terminal, though chaotic, was almost healing. Hundreds of Jewish teens about to leave for Israel on one trip or another greeted each other with smiles and hugs.
Expressions on the faces of the parents revealed one thing: we all knew our relatively carefree Jewish American kids were headed to Israel in a time of national mourning. Who could predict that a war would unfold in just days after their arrival?
What have I been doing since she left?
It has been a surreal time. While the program posts photos of the kids having fun on hikes and gazing over the Haifa skyline, while my daughter calls me from Jerusalem telling me about the fantastic time she had working with the children at the Ramah Israel Day camp in Jerusalem, friends in Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Be’er Sheva post on Facebook about dashing for stairwells or shelters when the sirens blare.
On my wrist, I wear a blue Stand With Us rubber bracelet showing my support for Israel. My watch is set to Jerusalem time so I know the best time to call my daughter. My cell phone has become an appendage to my body. I pray daily for her safety, for all of Israel and her Defense Forces.
I thank Ramah Seminar in Israel for their tireless efforts of keeping our kids safe and having as an enjoyable and educational experience as possible while constantly keeping parents in the loop of the changing security situation. After an extended stay in their northern base in the Hodayot Youth Village, the “seminarniks” finally traveled safely to their home base in Jerusalem on July 15. In fact, a parent conference call to update us on the matzav started just as the IDF launched their ground offensive into Gaza.
But life goes on. I have taken the cue from my Israeli friends who endure this daily threat to keep moving on through routine and simple distractions. If my Israeli psychologist friend, an olah from New York, can help spread calm by teaching Yoga to women in a bomb shelter in Sderot, I too will try to find Zen on my mat. I work in my garden and take walks.
Even as the bombs fall, and the inevitability that she may spend some time this summer in a bomb shelter is very real, I have no regrets that my daughter is in Israel. I will not deny the danger or my worry. I know that this time in Israel will be a transformative one for her that can only strengthen her understanding of what it means to be a Jew and never take our Jewish homeland for granted.
When midnight here rolls around, my mind is already seven hours ahead wondering what the dawning day on the other side of the planet will hold for Israel. If you too have a loved one in Israel and find yourself up in the middle of the night, I’m sleepless right there with you.

A Warm Embrace

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athomedetroitThe first month of the school year is almost over, and with it a month that marked the Jewish High Holidays. Though the early mornings and late nights are starting to take their toll, though the unfamiliar hallways I walked through in my son’s new high school make me sometimes wish we were back in our old digs and routines in Rochester, things are going well so far in Detroit. 

One part of my Rochester life I am sorely missing is my weekly routine of writing my newspaper column.  Fortunately, I have picked up several writing assignments in the Detroit Jewish News. 

Here is my first piece, and it’s about (what else?) being a transplant. 

With the sound of the shofar, the High Holiday season signals the promise of a New Year.  We pray for a sweet year of new blessings and opportunities. For the rest of Jewish Detroiters, all this “newness” will happen in the same old familiar surroundings among family and old friends you’ve known for years.

For my family of five freshly-minted Michiganders, everything about 5774 is new.

Last year, as my family prepared to celebrate Sukkot, General Motors announced it would be closing the Rochester, N.Y., research facility where my husband worked and moving his job to Pontiac.  We lived in Rochester for 14 years. It was the only home our three children, ages 16, 14, and 10, had ever known.

After the shock of the news settled in and after my three children realized that no, their friends’ families in Rochester could not adopt them, it was time for us to pull together as a family.  The year 5773 was a journey filled with months of living apart from my husband, long-distance house hunting in a fiery-hot Detroit suburban real estate market, researching school districts, and many long and emotional goodbyes.

Moving can be a curse. In the Book of Deuteronomy, however, the Torah challenges Jews to find the blessing within the curse.

Contrary to what many of my New Yorker friends think, moving to Detroit is not a curse. Beyond the headlines of Detroit’s bankruptcy, we are enjoying the brighter sides of Michigan culture. In the short time we have lived here, we traveled to take in the beauty “up north,” savored homegrown cherries and blueberries, and climbed the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I am learning how to make a Michigan left, which is scarier than a New Jersey jug handle.

We even stood on the curb of Woodward to witness the ultimate show of car culture in last months’ Dream Cruise

We found the blessing in the warm reception we received throughout Detroit’s Jewish community.  During a house-hunting trip that fell smack in the middle of Pesach, friends here hosted us three times for meals. Our children, also blessed with long-standing friendships forged at Camp Ramah in Canada, were invited for Shabbat meals and out to the movies to meet other new kids.   These friends have acted quickly to enfold our children into their social circles even before the moving vans arrived.

While we unpacked and set up our physical home with only one kid in tow (my oldest left Rochester on a bus headed for Camp Ramah), time was ticking for the quest to find a spiritual home. Belonging to a synagogue has been and will always be a top priority to our family. Not because we have to get High Holiday tickets, or have kids who need Hebrew school or a Bar Mitzvah date.   It is because here in Michigan, far away from family, we need a community.

During our “shul shopping,” we were happy to learn that we have many choices. Every congregation we visited this summer gave us warm welcomes on a level we never experienced in other communities. We were showered with greetings and given honors on the bimah within every sanctuary. Everywhere we go, people simply rave about their synagogue

One night, before going to sleep in our new home, I expressed to my husband about my worries of finding employment. He had his work. My kids had school. Once again, like many in my position who move to another town for a spouse’s job transfer, I would have to reinvent myself.

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “I’ll make the living. You go out and make us a life here.”

Wise and true were his words. While my husband worked at his office, I worked at finding doctors, pediatricians, dentists and orthodontists. I finalized details of moving out of one house and moving into another. I phoned school counselors on both sides of the move to assure the proper transfer transcripts and my kids would be signed up for the proper course work for high school. I did all I could so when they got off the bus in Detroit, sad to leave camp and even more saddened to be leaving all that was familiar, their biggest worry in their first days here would be how they were going to get through all that dirty laundry.

This year of transition has taught me many things. My kids are capable of stepping up more around the house. I can trust my husband to buy our next dream house even if I only saw it on Zillow. Most importantly, this move has reaffirmed for me the importance of keeping connected to the Jewish community. You never know where the road may take you, but our kehilah kedosha, our holy community, will always be there to take you in.

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Detroit: The New Jerusalem? “Shul” shopping and Tish B’Av

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view of Downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market

To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.

Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.

This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.

A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”

My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul.  It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.

Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.

We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?

Hardly.

The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us.  The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here.  As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.

The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us.  An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”

We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.

My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.

The third synagogue I went to alone.  It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.

I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.

 

I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.

And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.

An ancient, outdated story?

As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.

But then, in the last chapter, hope.

In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young.  These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.

In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.

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“No, you may NOT tip, Young Man!” And other things heard and seen in a Canoe in Muskoka

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With absolute awkwardness, I got in the canoe, rented from Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville, at the front. I don’t remember canoes being so wobbly, probably because I hadn’t been in one in at least 20 years.

“Are you sure that this canoe isn’t extra narrow?” I called back to my teen son.

My son climbed into the canoe with ease. The one who earned his golden oar after canoeing for five summers straight at camp. I let him take the back.

It was the last morning together with the boys. It had been a blessing in disguise that we couldn’t drop them off for Session II of the summer at Camp Ramah in Canada as early as we planned. That way, we had this one more adventure before we dropped them off for a whole month at camp.

On the first half of our trip, we divided the boys per canoe: My husband and younger son, 8 in one, and myself and my 13-year-old in another. That worked well. My husband and my teen took control, telling the less experienced rowers (my youngest and I) which side to paddle, and actually how to paddle.

Before  that morning’s canoe ride  with my 13-year-old son, I did not know there was such a thing as a C stroke or a J stroke. To me, it was all one thing, put your oar on the left side or the right, put it deep in the water, and pull back. I also did not know that, several times a week at camp, my son would wake up extra early to go canoeing with a small group of campers. Imagine that, a teen getting up extra early, when at home on vacation, I can barely get him out of bed by 10.

He said at camp he also played his guitar in a canoe.

He also told me one of his most spiritual moments at camp was when he and his other campers brought their prayer books and conducted morning services on the canoe.

Prayer books. On a canoe?

Clearly, the campers knew there were times for tipping the canoe, and other times, carrying precious cargo, times to keep the canoe perfectly balanced.

We rowed along a calm lake that had many inlets and narrow passages, so much that it seemed to have a current like a river. We passed quaint houses with well cared for and decorated docks.

We passed under a freight train bridge where a man working on the rails shouted greetings (and advice) to us from above. (You’ll just have to use your imagination here. I didn’t photograph him. Taking pictures, managing an oar,and trying not to tip over proved to be very challenging!) 

“Great day for a canoe ride, Ay? You should steer a little away from the side, Ay? I say, Ay, I think you’re headed for a rock, steer clear, Ay?”

Was my ineptitude that apparent? All those “ays.” I definitely knew I was in Canada.

Things were going well until, exploring the second half of the lake,  my older son insisted we switch. My son wanted to take his little brother under his wing and show him the ropes of rowing. He offered the argument that his edah (Hebrew for group) of campers never socialized with my son’s age group on waterfront activities and this would be his only chance to have some brother bonding on a boat.

Begrudgingly, (but I knew it was a bad idea) we agreed.

First, they got stuck going around a curve in a bramble of branches.

Then, they kept turning in circles as they got stuck in a current.

My older son overestimated my younger’s experience with the  oar. In his mind, he had to be an expert by now. After all, little brother had been canoeing for  an entire hour with dad. It was a lesson in brother bonding, and resisting the urge to throw little brother overboard.

Now that I was in the canoe with my husband, I wasn’t doing much better. Apparently, sitting in the front of the canoe, I pull my oar out of  the water way too fast and was splashing my husband at every stroke. He was clearly the one in charge in this canoe, the backseat rower.

“Stop splashing me, please! “

“Three more strokes on your left, please!”

When I was in the canoe with my son, his main suggestion to me:

“Mom, just sit there and let me do the rowing. We’ll be better off that way.”

I did do some rowing, at my insistence. I needed the workout. Was it my fault I didnt’ spend five summers learning how to canoe as a child?  Also, my son didn’t complain that I was getting him was wet when I oared in his canoe! Getting wet was half the fun, just as long as we didn’t tip. Actually, in the heat, I wouldn’t have minded getting tipped, except I had a new camera on board.

Finally, at a private cottage dock with a little white dog barking at us the  whole time, we regrouped and switched back to our original rowing arrangements.

Rowing taught  us several things. For one, when you are in a boat with someone, squabbling just makes you go around in circles. To get anywhere, you both have to paddle in perfect harmony.

Muskoka & Camp Ramah — It’s worth the schlep

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When people ask me where I send my kids to camp, I tell them I send them to Camp Ramah.

Now, when you live in a town where traveling even 30 minutes to get somewhere seems like traveling to another planet (and I’m guilty of this as well), they then reply, Oh, the Camp Ramah in Toronto.

And then I say, “Nooo, it’s actually two and a half hours further. North of Toronto. In a region called Muskoka.”

The response I hear is: Isn’t that far?

And truthfully, Yes.

Yes. It’s very far.

Yes, I send my kids for a month, and now for my oldest two months, six hours away.  Many see this as a sign of bad parenting. Many cannot fathom why we’d want to get rid of our kids for a month or even two. But, I have a friend who has five boys. Once, when we ran into each other grocery shopping, she spoke to me about the beauty of summer camp.

“Everyone for one time a year gets to live in their own space. It’s really very healthy.”

I’ll remember this produce aisle advice forever.

To get to camp, they travel across an international border and this requires they all need passports.  But that means they are truly away from home, broadening their horizons and meeting kids from many countries and cities who are all bound together by a common heritage and a way of observing this heritage.

This is what I keep reminding myself in the hours my husband and I find ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our way to visitors day.

The first time I drove up to Muskoka, what surprised me most of all was the traffic. I mean, I can accept traffic in the New York Metro area, but traffic in Canada?

Yes, this is my American arrogance shining right through, because I never imagined such a huge population can exist North of the United States.

In reality, the Toronto-Muskoka corridor is packed. If you want to put it in terms of an SAT verbal analogy question, then  Muskoka is to Toronto as the Jersey Shore is to the New York Tri State area.

So, picture yourself on the Garden State Parkway on a Friday or a Saturday and you now completely have an understanding of the traffic scene of “cottage country.”

Except, instead of terms like the GSP, you have roads that start with “the”.

The 400.

The 407.

And at last, The 11.

On the 11, suddenly the traffic opens up, and you find yourself on a road that ambles along sparkling lakes and pine forests.   A road that’s dotted with honky tonk motels and camper parks, kayak rental places, and fruit stands. And you know you’re almost there.

So, getting back to the “why.” Why do we schlep all the way to Muskoka to send our kids to camp?  Why do we send our kids so far away when there are closer camps from which to choose?

For many reasons.

Friendship and Kehilah Kedosha (holy community) It’s the smile on the kids faces that I see on nearly every photo that is posted on the camp website. The photos where nearly 600 children, freshly showered and dressed and arms linked, make their way down to the waterfront for another Shabbat service, that gets me every time. I know that we are doing right by our children for parting with them for a summer of this:

My children are developing deep friendships and in turn, we are also making friendships with the families of these children, all within the framework of an immersive Jewish education program that is nearly impossible to duplicate outside of camp (but I keep trying).

Inclusion: When we arrived at camp for visitor’s day, the very first child my 15-year-old daughter talked about and wanted us to meet was her new friend Julie:

Julie, who has Down’s Syndrome,  is participating in Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program.  Each day, Jolie meets with Julie to tutor her in Hebrew and through these lessons a friendship has blossomed. I am sure the girls will keep in touch long after camp is over.

Family – In truth, campers, and in turn their families, become one extended family. But I have actually reconnected with extended family members on my grandmother’s side that before our Camp Ramah years, I have not seen in decades. Now, the great-grandchildren of my grandmother and her eldest sister attend the same camp. We stay in touch during the year over Facebook and we’ve got plans to visit them in Pittsburgh at the end of the summer.

New Hobbies: Because of his summers canoeing and kayaking in Skeleton Lake, I got into a canoe with my son with confidence. I sat in the front of the wobbly canoe, knowing he would be the one to give me direction on how to stroke and where to steer the boat:

My daughter also took up a hobby, making her own boat in woodshop:

She also painted the sets for and was one of the angels in “Beauty School Dropout” in the Camp Ramah production of Grease.

And all plays at camp Ramah – the lines and the songs –  are performed in Hebrew.

I don’t know how to sing “Beauty School Dropout” in Hebrew just now, but I bet my daughter will teach me when she gets home.

Finally, off camp, there is the town of Huntsville with the world’s most amazing candy store and ice creamery, great restaurants, art galleries inside and out,

and nearby Arrowhead Provincial Park where you can swim in a pristine lake, hike to a waterfall and climb in and see fish swimming around you in the current:

And, at night there is darkness. A rarity in our increasingly lit up world, the skies are dark enough to see THOUSANDS of stars, and even spot a fast-moving satellite:

Really, there are stars in this photo. If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to go up there for yourself. I’ll even tell you which field to stargaze.

So, we’re back. I try not to think about how far away my kids are, kind of how an extreme rock climber just keeps looking up and doesn’t think how high off the ground they are. But we are happy in our space, and they are happy in theirs.

And the schlep is completely worth it.

A lesson on how to treat the blind and the consequence of the “Evil Tongue” Camp Ramah’s Response

It’s been a rough week for parents who send their kids to Camp Ramah. We are reeling from the news that a blind camper was not given the accommodations needed to finish out the summer. We are also reeling from the Internet Fallout of a blog post that went viral from his understandably hurt father.

If you did read that post, I hope in turn you will read this post, written by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Director for the Camp Ramah Commission. And please don’t let this one mistake undo decades of Ramah’s reputation for serving Jewish campers with special needs.

http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/tipping-the-balance/comment-page-1/#comment-107031 

 

What to do when you are the “not-quite-Out-of-Town guests?”

semi-finals at a Bat Mitzvah Hula Hoop Contest. How long can she spin 12 hoops at once?

semi-finals at a Bat Mitzvah Hula Hoop Contest. How long can she spin 12 hoops at once?

To anyone reading this who lives in a BIG metro area like Los Angeles, New York City, Toronto…. let me ask you this:

If you are invited to a wedding/Bar Mitzvah/christening/fill-in-the-blank life occasion across town with a religious service in the morning and party at night,do you get a hotel room for the weekend?

I didn’t think so.

If you are the planner of a big life event occasion and invite many out-of-town guests, do you pull out all the stops in providing them with extra special treatment: (reserve a block of hotel rooms, extra dinners and brunches, goodie bags in their hotel rooms)?

Of course you do, they are the out-of-towners!

This past weekend, my whole family was invited to the Bat Mitzvah of a friend my son made in Camp Ramah. My daughter is friends with the girl’s sister, and our two families have developed this great Camp Ramah connection over the years. We were very honored to be invited to this happy occasion as a family. There are too many sad occasions in life that we juggle our lives to attend,so why not do a little schlepping for the happy ones?

As a kid growing up in Staten Island, I remember going to weddings and bar mitzvahs,  and later on youth group dances “out on the Island” – in this case Long Island. My dad had a special name for this stretch of suburbia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t matter where your destination was on the Island. Any trip from SI to LI was  to a place called “all the way out” on the Island.

I remember the traffic as we traveled and my dads angry muttering at the wheel. There was traffic on the Belt. The BQE. The LIE. And the GCP. (If you don’t know what these stand for, you are not from NYC.) It would take what seemed hours to get anywhere. And still does.

In reality, the distance in miles was only 40 miles or so, but it was the traffic that made the journey take hours.  But never did my parents  think about getting a hotel room or consider staying overnight. Because LI was still considered “in town.”  I remember drowsy drives back to the other island, Staten Island, when my brother and I would fall asleep in the back in our party clothes, my parents singing doo-wop oldies tunes to their heart’s content in the front seat.

Drive over an hour in the New York Metro Area, you are still in the New York Metro area.

Drive over an hour in Rochester, you are in Buffalo

So, at the beginning of the weekend, when we parted with friends at a Friday night dinner and announced to our Rochester friends we were headed to Buffalo for a Bat Mitzvah, they actually said to us “Have a nice trip!”

When you are transplantednorth, traveling an hour to go for a visit is nothing. Staying at a hotel overnight was out of the question.But the question remained, how were we going to pull this day off?

The day came with logistical challenges. We left our house very early Saturday morning to get to the synagogue in Buffalo**. We had to pack two extra sets of clothes for each family member, one casual outfit for hanging around the hotel, and then more formal attire for the evening party. Plus bathing suits because the kids were invited to swim in the hotel pool, so that meant toiletries too, but where to shower?

When we got to Buffalo, we sat through a very nice warm service and at the luncheon reception, known as the kiddush, we made fast friends with several couples who all were from out-of-town to bring their children, also campers, to celebrate their friends’ Bat Mitzvah. I told them we were “from” Rochester, but as conversations went on, our native accents revealed themselves.

As we relaxed that afternoon in the hotel lobby, one of the dads spoke up and asked my husband and I: “You didn’t grow  up in Rochester, did you?  Where are you really from?”

That night, after eating and dancing to the sounds provided by a DJ company called the Bar Mitzvah Boys – who are from Rochester – we didn’t get home until 1 a.m. For my husband and I, it was now our turn to stay awake and sing while the kids slept in the back all the way home.

**Yes, we drive on Shabbat. Conservative Judaism has a decree that allows one to drive if it is to worship at a synagogue. There was some irony to all this, because once we arrived in Buffalo, we had nowhere to go and nothing to do but  read and chat with some real “out-of-town” guests who invited us to spend the afternoon at their hotel. So, we did drive, but in the end had a very relaxing Shabbat.

With friends like NPR and Egypt, who needs enemies?

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Picture this:

New Jersey is its own independent country-state, and it borders with another state – say, Pennsylvania –  that has cold yet peaceful relations. On another adjacent border, let’s pretend that Delaware, is a hotbed territory for terrorist activity bent on destroying the Garden State.

You are on a chartered bus headed down from New York City to Atlantic City via the New Jersey Turnpike. You are with the guys or some girlfriends to have a little getaway to kick back for a weekend of gambling and enjoying the nightlife of and beaches of this resort town. Then, out of nowhere, your bus is ambushed by some armed terrorists who snuck in from Delaware through Pennsylvania.

They shower the bus with bullets and kill several of the passengers on board.

In defense of this bus, New Jersey military forces swoop down on the attackers and kill some of them on the spot, no question asked. But some flee across a state border, a border that is supposed to be monitored by the military of this other country to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into New Jersey. The New Jersey military pursue the fleeing terrorists and as an indirect result, some border patrol soldiers die.

Then, it is New Jersey, not the bordering state, asked to make  apologies by the international community.

Does this scenario sound ridiculous? From the perspective of most Americans, of course it is. For the most part, our borders are secure and generally peaceful.  And American civilians are so rarely attacked by terrorist organizations.

But Israel once again is being criticized for defending herself after tour buses headed for the resort city of Eilat were attacked by terrorists (excuse me NPR, they are not militants) from Gaza.

I first got word of these attacks through social networking: friends in Israel posted links to the news on Facebook. I listened to NPR the whole morning and not a single mention of these unprovoked attacks on civilians by a terrorist cell from Gaza that infiltrated the Israel-Sinai border Israel shares with Egypt.

Only when an Israeli airstrike into Gaza killed several members of a terrorist cell and, unfortunately, a 13-year-old boy, did NPR report the news. And, why did NPR have to use language like “Israel wasted no time retaliating” and record the sounds of people mourning for the gunmen and those killed in an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza morgue? Did NPR list the names and find relatives of Israeli victims and record their crying?

As much as I love NPR’s coverage on any other topic, such as their summer reading lists from All Books Considered, and their cooking segments with Nigella Lawson, they have boiled my blood on Israel coverage for the last time. Don’t count on my support any more.

On the other side of the word, my daughter wrote me from Camp Ramah in Canada. She said that she saw her Israeli counselors crying and comforting one another after hearing the news from Southern Israel. These Israelis were not shouting for revenge, they just hugged and consoled one another. Because no one in Israel wants violence, because any reprisal attack could involve a brother, sister, uncle, or friend who is serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Because many of these counselors themselves just got out of the army.

Though the news from Israel is horrible, I was glad that my daughter was moved by her Israeli counselors comforting one another. It will make her connection to the Jewish state that more tangible and real. She will hopefully reunite with these Israelis on our visit to Israel in December.

Because, yes, we are still going.

Welcome to Canada: Did you bring your Skates?

after a skate, a young couple takes in free samples of beer in a Toronto Brewery

This Christmas vacation, my family took a mini getaway to Toronto.  As an alternative to our New York City visits, we love exploring this cosmopolitan city to the North for its great restaurants, theatres, shopping, and museums. Going round and round on an outdoor skating rink in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures we regret to say was the farthest thing from our minds.

Because our children go to sleep away camp north of Toronto, not only are we having fun getting to know Torontos’ sites but its people.  My daughter spent much of our visit not with us but  with the family of a friend she made from summer camp.  All arrangements were made over Skype through the girls and without one conversation between the adults. All directions were found via GPS. Welcome to long distance friendships in the 21st Century, I guess. 

We dropped Jolie off at her friend’s house and were greeted by the girl’s mother. In the small entryway of the house, we made some awkward chit-chat as the girls settled in for a weekend of catching up and shopping. When we mentioned that we were staying at the Westin Harbour Castle, the mom’s first reaction was:

“They have a lovely ice skating rink just a block from your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”

About a half hour later, the father came home after participating in the traditional Canadian Boxing Day, which is the equivalent to our Black Friday for shopping deals and sales. We were introduced and then his wife went down to the basement to get something from their pantry.

In another awkward introductory chit-chat, the father of my daughter’s friend independently asked us the same question:

“There is this great outdoor ice skating rink near your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”

Now, both my husband and I looked at each other with great amusement. We were struck that Canadians make the assumption that we actually – all of us – owned our own pair of skates. And there was this second assumption that – upon our arrival to this vast cosmopolitan city, the first thing we would want to do was skate.

Another inquiry of our skating habits was made as we were checking out of our hotel. As we waited with our luggage, the bellhop looked at me and my boys and asked me in his French Canadian accent: “Do your boys skate? Do they play ‘ockey?” I had to say no and I asked him why he asked.

He then pointed to a well dressed young man standing in the lobby. “Because, ma’am, that young man plays hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is only 20 and makes over 2 milion a yaear. So, your boys should liarn to play ‘ockey!”

Now, I am sorry to say that I did not recognize this young man, so this brush with fame was completely wasted on me. And I also appreciated this bellhop’s hope that my young sons held the athletic prowess to be hockey stars, but again he was sorely mistaken. I’m afraid, Canada, that we Americans are just not that into skating.

Or are we? Do you skate? And if so, do you own your own pair?

Hungry, Fasting, yet Happy Campers

It’s the middle of the afternoon and it hasn’t quite hit me yet, that my two oldest children left this morning for a month of sleep-a-way camp at Camp Ramah in Canada.  Even though we packed them up, four duffel bags worth, handed  their passports over to a young capable looking bus counselor, and hugged and kissed them goodbye.

After all,  I  say goodbye to my kids every morning for the entire school year – sometimes with a kiss, sometimes not.

It’s tonight that will be hard. When they don’t come home. When there will be two less at the dinner table and when my daughter’s bedroom will be empty. When my oldest son won’t be in the top bunk and my youngest son will have no one to fight with or talk to all hours of the night as he usually does. Then it will hit me.

Tonight will also be hard because tonight begins one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar — the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, or Tisha B’Av.

This is the first blog entry I have mentioned I am Jewish.  I don’t intend to make this a blog about Judaism, or write this blog only for Jews. But because I am Jewish, and a Jewish educator, Judaism may come up from time to time. And if it helps to lift some of the mystique of what Judaism is beyond Hava Nagila and Hanukkah, all the better!

What makes this day a sad one? On this date in the Hebrew Calendar many tragedies fell on the Jewish people -including the destruction of the two Temples – one in 586 BCE, or BC and the other in 70 CE or AD by the Romans, followed by a 2,000 year exile of the Jewish people.  Heavy, sad stuff.

Jews observing this solemn day  hold a fast from sundown to sundown, starting tonight, and read from the Book of Lamentations. To demonstrate the sadness, many sit on the floor.

I can just imagine the scene at their arrival at camp:  my kids will have to get off the bus, have a screaming, squealing joyful reunion with friends,  and then get ready to fast. Because this holiday falls in the summer, when school and Hebrew school is not in session, many Jews don’t know much about it.

Unless, you go to a Jewish summer camp. Tish B’Av has claimed its right in the Jewish religion as a very campy holiday.

A camping experience that begins with a fast to commemorate the saddest moments in Jewish history probably does not sound like a good time to the outside world. But my kids live for their time at Camp Ramah.  They talk about all the fun they have there, the friends they make and the songs they sing, the whole year long. They count down the days until they return, to live Jewishly every day with friends they only see this one month a year.

Unlike most who will be fasting alone  or at work tomorrow, in the supportive community of camp, I know that my son and daughter will find encouragement to either fast the whole day, or the wisdom from counselors and staff who will determine it’s time to get something to eat or drink.

Next, I will write about the good points and adjustments of having two out of three children away at sleep-a-way camp. And to all of you who are observing, an easy and meaningful fast.

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