There are moments when it becomes incredibly clear to me that I am reaping the benefits of decisions I have made. These are times when my previous actions and experiences culminate in a convergence which in an instant affirms my past.
Tonight after dinner my boys were running around the living room with toy musical instruments. I took an old songbook off the shelf. It was a songbook that I used at Camp Ramah over twenty years ago. This year, my two older boys, Shemer who is nine years old and Maytav who is six are attending the Ramah day camp here in Jerusalem. They got excited to see the Ramah songbook and we began to sing.
As we sat in my living room in Jerusalem, we sang songs like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold), “Od Lo Ahavti Di,” “Noladati LaShalom” and “Halleluyah.” These were songs which they, like I, had learned at school and at camp and which we enjoyed singing together. They showed me the dances and movements they had learned to these songs and knew most of the words by heart. As the golden sunset reflected on the Jerusalem stone of our balcony, I captured that moment in my memory, a moment connecting with our people, our land and our history in our home.
A few days ago, an Israeli friend of mine asked me what was the one experience which most influenced my being such an active Jew. I told my friend of junior congregation, Knesset Noar, at Temple Beth Shalom which was lead by a young college student named Joel Katz. I was in the beginning of elementary school and Joel would step into a closet and come out dressed as a character from the weekly Torah portion. His charisma, excitement and creativity, coupled with the enthusiasm generated by Carlebach melodies to the prayers were reinforced by Israel’s victories during the Yom Kippur War when I was I was six years old and at Entebee when I was nine. In those three years, my commitment and identity were solidified.
Joel went on to make aliyah and, now known as Yossi Katz, become a professional educator at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education. He has returned to the USA as a shaliach and influenced many at Camp Ramah and in USY. He just celebrated the thirty year anniversary of his aliyah and continues to teach at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education which hosts the Barak Hebrew Academy students spending a semester in Israel, turning them on to Judaism and Israel as he did for me many years ago.
I am fortunate that my life and work in Israel overlap with important educational initiatives like the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education and Camp Ramah. My company recently completed a redesign of Muss’ Web site at http://amiie.org and we have also worked with the Ramah camps in Israel and in the United States. My children are attending the Ramah Day Camp and my family regularly hosts students on these and other programs, opening our homes as others did for us, giving them a glimpse of our family’s life in Jerusalem.
On the first day of camp this year, after dropping off my children, I continued on to the office to drop off some forms. As I walked, I caught up with the director of the Ramah Programs in Israel, Joe Freedman, who was my teacher when I came to Israel for a semester in eleventh grade. We stopped by a group of children sitting in a circle on the grass, singing the weekday morning prayers accompanied by a guitar.
“How lucky these kids are,” I thought. “having such positive Jewish experiences.”
These are the experiences that lay the foundations of our future.
Many of us who made aliyah did so as products of camps and youth groups which, through informal experiential Jewish education ingrained our Jewish identity within us, not as a series of rituals and customs, nor as history or texts, but as a holistic way of being, a lifestyle and a community. We felt a part of it and wanted to continue to be a part of it. Not only was it exciting, but we realized that Judaism is a part of who we are – a part of our being.
My kids return from camp saying “It was great!” When we sit down using my old Ramah songbook to sing the songs they know and like, we not only reaffirm the decisions I made in my past, but the meaning of our lives in the Jewish homeland and the continuity of our people.
For my children, this is reinforced with their schooling and with our community in Jerusalem. Moreover, in Israel, it is further reinforced by the surrounding majority culture and the pulse of the country and its people.
My children sing of Jerusalem, the city of their birth, in Hebrew, their native language.
While I may have been educated to experience and live Judaism, my children were born into a world that I only knew as part of summer camps and Israel trips. These were the stepping stones to our life in Jerusalem.