Psalm 42

Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God! (42:2-3)

The human desire to form a relationship with a creator is natural, although the new generation of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, see it as a delusion. We are constantly trying to make sense of the complicated world in which we live by using the scientific method of identifying cause and effect. Every object was created through some process, and if we trace the creation of the object back far enough, we can discover how the object functions. We identify the rules by which the object was created and continues to operate in the world. We might even identify the original purpose of the object, and its original creator or designer.

By understanding the world, we think we can improve it. The desire to understand, to fix, to improve, is part of the same internal soul-inclination that directs so many of us to want to be in a relationship with God, or that directs some of us to loudly and angrily deny that such a relationship can ever exist.

My support of same sex relationships is based on the idea that the desire to be in relationship is a fundamental human need. We need parents and teachers to nurture us as children, we need siblings or friends to teach us about peer relationships, and for many, the desire to marry and possibly produce a new generation of children is our ultimate goal in forming relationships.

I affirm the possibility of reading Leviticus 18 either as a limited prohibition on same sex sexuality or as no longer halakhically applicable, based on a paper by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram Reisner; or as argued in a paper by Rabbi David Greenstein, or in a book by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. The powerful image of a soul thirsting for the presence of God is no less true with respect to a human relationship. To deny a gay or lesbian individual the opportunity to have intimate partnership is to sentence him or her to live without the fulfillment of a fundamental human need.

Psalm 19

The Torah of Adonai is perfect, renewing life… (19:8)

One question that comes up frequently in the comments to my “Ethics and Religion Talk” columns is ‘how can we base a system of ethics on a piece of literature that gives laws which are unethical according to our contemporary standards?’

I have written one column addressing this question in the context of The Hebrew Bible’s apparent acceptance of the (for us) immoral practice of slavery by mandating a set of laws proscribing proper treatment of slaves.

It has also come up in connect with the Biblical law that a rapist must marry the woman whom he raped, and the apparent second class status of Priests with disabilities.

These are some of the questions posed against any religious tradition which holds the Hebrew Bible to be sacred scripture. The only truthful response to these challenges is to say that Torah reflects the reality of the society in which it was created. Its laws were in fact progressive compared to contemporary non-Biblical legal systems, even though they are primitive compared to our laws. Ah, there’s the rub – how can the Bible be perfect/revealed/word of God if they laws of the Bible are not perfect. If God is omniscient and perfect, then why don’t the laws of the Bible reflect a perfectly evolved system of law.

We might understand the Bible as an eternal book whose meaning transcends time, and/or as a product of God’s revelation. Nevertheless, the Bible came into existence as a specific time and place in history, and its language, style, and content spoke to that first generation who embraced its wisdom.

The best way to understand the Bible is to contrast it with contemporary wisdom and law in the ancient Near East. In the code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian law code), we can read about slave treatment that is truly brutal. Against that backdrop, the Hebrew Bible is a giant step towards humane treatment of slaves. It is not unreasonable to presume that the Hebrew Bible deliberately sought to wean humanity away from slavery.

The Bible has undergone constant reinterpretation over the many generations since it first came into being. What was acceptable to one generation was no longer acceptable to later generations. The Bible is timeless because from its inception, it was intended to be a progressive, rather than a static, code of law and behavior.

Why My Blind Son is Coming Home on Sunday, part 2

Just a little more than 48 hours ago, I was told that my blind son Solomon needed to come home on Sunday. It was a decision made by the director of Camp Ramah in Canada in consultation with a number of staff members.
A few minutes ago, Solomon told us that he is coming home on Sunday. This time, it is his decision. In the past 48 hours, a number of remarkable things happened.
First of all, I’d like to reiterate the fact that for the past five seasons, Solomon has been under the care of some remarkable counselors, teachers, waterfront staff, and other professionals at Camp Ramah in Canada. He has been supported, taught, and guided with care and love.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and extremely poor communication, the tremendously painful events described in part one of this post occurred earlier this week. The response to my article was for the most part supportive and helpful. I am grateful for all who commented on the blog, reposted on facebook and/or commented there, and otherwise spread the word. At the same time, my 12 year old daughter Sarah started a petition drive at Ramah to support Solomon, collecting 240 signatures. Other staff members approached the director offering to take a larger role in helping out Sol. The result was that the director experienced a complete change of heart regarding how he handled the matter. He called and expressed a sincere apology, to Solomon, to me, and to my wife. He took a second look at how staff could be assigned for the second month. He assigned one more person to be Sol’s advocate, and at my request, assigned a new parent liaison, Hillel Kurlandsky, to be Sol’s Yoetz, advisor/social worker.
Marisa and I were satisfied that the director sincerely realized that he had made a serious mistake, and took all of the necessary steps to correct it. At this point, the final decision of whether to stay for the rest of the summer was Solomon’s. Given all of the emotional upheaval that had occurred, we were not 100% sure that Solomon would still want to stay at camp. Sol and Hillel had two lengthy conversations, each more than an hour in length. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Hillel reported that Sol was remarkably mature and clear in his analysis of why he should stay — primarily, because so many people had worked so hard to reverse the decision of the camp — and why he should not stay. Of course, I wish Sol would have chosen to stay, but given what he’s been through, I understand why he has made the decision to come home.
I don’t know if he still wants to go back to camp next year. I don’t know if we can or should try to convince the camp to make allowances in a program designed to train counselors and other support staff, to accommodate a camper who currently does not have the ability to function as a counselor in training or a helper in most areas of camp. I’m sure that if the camp was willing and if Solomon was committed to it, we could find an area in which he could contribute meaningfully. I think we need to take a step away from questions about camp right now, and come back to it in a couple of months after the strong emotions have faded somewhat.
In the end, I want you to know that I still believe in the Camp Ramah experience, and I think I can rebuild my love for Camp Ramah in Canada. This unfortunate episode appears to be the result of a chaotic transition to new leadership; a new director, Ron Polster, who blundered quite badly. Ron, I want to thank you for acknowledging your mistakes. We are all entitled to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them and make appropriate apologies to those we harm along the way.
To those dedicated Ramah staff who I have hurt in the past 48 hours, I apologize. I am sorry for the damage I have done to the reputation of Camp Ramah in Canada by bringing this event into the light of public scrutiny. I did so only because I thought it was the only way that I could effect change.

Why My Blind Son is Returning from Camp Ramah in Canada a Month Early

For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.

My almost-16 year old blind son, Solomon, was supposed to spend 8 weeks in the second-oldest Aidah (age group) at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish camping program affiliated with the Conservative movement. My wife and I went to visit him and our 12 year old daughter this week. While there, the camp director told us that he was sending Solomon home four weeks early at the session break because “the camp is not able to accommodate Solomon’s needs for the full 8 week session.”

This is Solomon’s fifth year at camp. Sol went for one session each summer for the previous four years, but this year, called the “Magshimim” year, required campers to enroll for the full summer. Solomon was thrilled to go for both sessions. He loves camp, and for the first four summers, it appeared that Ramah loved Solomon and was completely willing to assign extra staff and arrange for some Braille materials so Sol could participate fully in the camp program. There were some rough spots. Camp staff did not always do everything they could have to ensure that Sol had the proper materials and was fully included in every activity, but we were confident that the director was committed to full inclusion, and neither we nor Solomon let the small things bother us very much.

This summer, a new director took the helm just a month before camp started. He didn’t know Solomon and we didn’t know him. Nevertheless, we assumed that the camp’s prior commitment to accessibility and inclusion would be maintained. We were wrong. Part of the Magshimim summer is a five day overnight camping trip. Although the overnight has three tracks for kids of varying levels of fitness and ability, the counselors, Rosh Aidah (unit head), Yoetzet (advisor/parent liaison), and camp director met and decided, without consulting with Solomon or with us, that they didn’t have the staff to accommodate Sol on the camping trip. Further, they also decided that they couldn’t continue to accommodate Sol for the second four weeks of camp. Ultimately, the final decision to remove Solomon from camp rested squarely on the shoulders of the new director, who decided that the camp was not willing to either hire an additional staff member or redirect a small amount of current staff time to helping with Solomon’s special needs.

Among the reason he gave for sending Solomon home early was that Sol takes too long eating his meals and showering, and requires help moving from activity to activity, which he also does very slowly. He also suggested that the Magshimim program requires moving around camp and engaging in camp activities independently, something which is nearly impossible for a blind camper with no vision to do. Note that at no time did the Yoetzet (advisor/parent liaison) bother to contact us regarding these issues. Had she asked, we could have given her some simple solutions for speeding up Sol. Also note that while it is standard procedure to include 15 year old students with special needs in discussions of their public school Individualized Educational Program, the camp held all of these discussions about Solomon without including or consulting with Solomon.

The first thing that Solomon told us when we saw him on the first day of our visit was that he wanted to return to camp next year, and that he would do anything and give up anything, including a possible trip to Israel tailored to blind students, for the opportunity to return to camp for his final summer. Our conversations with the director took place at the end of the second day of our visit, while Solomon was on a one night overnight with 8 other campers, who also had not gone on the 5 day overnight. We told the director that he had to tell Solomon why he was being sent home from camp early and why he would not be given the opportunity to return to camp at all the following year.

On the final morning of our visit, we sat in the director’s office as Solomon heard the news from the director. Solomon was brilliant. After saying that he was heartbroken at hearing such totally unexpected news, he saw through the holes in the director’s flimsy explanation of why he needed to go home and asked the same question that Marisa and I had asked the night before: “The camping trip is over – what is happening in the second four weeks that would be difficult for me to participate in?” There was no real answer to that question. The director’s explanation boiled down to a statement that the camp is not willing to devote the resources to continuing to include Solomon fully in the program. During our conversation the previous evening, I had challenged the director’s lack of commitment to inclusion – he kept using the language of “not able to fully accommodate Solomon’s needs,” and I got him to admit that the honest answer was that the camp is no longer willing to fully accommodate Solomon’s needs. Solomon knew immediately that it was a case of “not willing to,” rather than a case of “not able to.”

I should note at this point that the Camp Ramah system, consisting of nine camps, has a special needs program called “Tikvah.” Each camp specializes in a subset of special needs, such as ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, learning, emotional, and developmental disabilities, neurological impairments, and physical challenges. Solomon, while blind, does not fit into any of these categories. He attends a public college preparatory high school and with minor modifications, completes the regular curriculum.

The major part of my Jewish identity was formed at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I loved Camp Ramah, and because of that my children went to Ramah. This director has betrayed the values of the Jewish camp that I love. The Conservative movement is on record supporting accessibility and inclusion in our institutions. Camp Ramah in Canada is now on record stating that if you have a physical disability and need greater support than the “typical” camper, they will not devote the resources to fully include you in their camp program. You might say that this is not true – they devoted the resources to giving Sol a terrific half summer, it’s just that asking them to accommodate him for the full summer is expecting too much. To this, I say ask Solomon if being the only camper asked to leave camp early, not being able to participate in the full overnight or in the second half of the program, not being able to celebrate the final banquet with his friends, is enough. You can guess what the answer is – being half way included is not enough.

After that painful meeting, sitting in the dining hall with Solomon eating breakfast, I watched the campers sing and dance to a contemporary version of a teaching of Rabbi Akiva:

“Love your neighbor as yourself – This is the fundamental principal of Torah.”

If I didn’t laugh, I would have started crying again. The camp can sing and dance all they want about loving one’s neighbor, but until and unless they back up the words with action, Camp Ramah in Canada will be a place that Rabbi Akiva would be ashamed to be associated with.

For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.

 

An open letter to the Jewish Federations of North America

I am sending the following letter to the leadership of my local Federation. I invite you to do the same.

In the past year, we have seen the tension in Israel between Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews and everybody else go from bad to worse. We have seen Hareidi campaigns to force women to sit at the back of the bus, signs in some neighborhoods restricting women to sidewalks on one side of the street, a campaign to remove images of women from public spaces, male IDF cadets walking out during ceremonies in which female soldiers were singing, and an eight year old girl from a religious family being harassed and spit upon while walking to school, because some Hareidi Jews didn’t think she was dressed modestly enough.

The non-Orthodox movements still do not receive support from the state, because the ministry of religion is controlled entirely by the Orthodox chief rabbinate. The government of Israel spends at least $450 million a year on Orthodox programs and institutions. There are 3000 Orthodox rabbis on the government payroll. Masorti gets, by comparison, less than $50,000 and no Masorti or Reform rabbi gets government funding. No Masorti or Reform rabbi serves as a rabbi in the IDF, though some have served in combat positions.

It is clear to the leadership of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel that the best thing for Israel and for Judaism would be a separation of religion and State, but the Reform and Masorti (and modern Orthodox) movements simply do not have enough power to move Israel in that direction. There were Masorti services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 64 locations this year, and there is a network of 30 Reform congregations. It is clear there is an openness and interest in non-Orthodox Judaism, but they are limited by a severe lack of funding.

Money alone will not solve this problem, but an infusion of funds into the non-Orthodox movements will help them grow and will fund their campaigns for greater freedom of religion in Israel. I call upon the Federations of North America to take 5% of the money that they would send to National Federation and send it directly to the Masorti and the Reform movement in Israel, with the goal of strengthening freedom of religion in Israel.