Psalm 28

Deliver Your people, bless Your heritage; shepherd them and raise them forever. (28:9)

In Hebrew, this verse has exactly 10 words. Because of an odd Jewish bias against counting people, this verse is often used on traditional settings to count people to determine whether a minyan is present. The bias comes from to main places in the Bible:

Exodus 30, where a half shekel ransom is taken along with a national census, possible to “atone” for taking the census.
Samuel 24, where King David took a census and as a result 70,000 people died of a plague.

Counting people or possessions was seen as dangerous, lest it attract the evil eye and cause death. In addition, there is something distasteful about assigning people numbers. Number are dehumanizing (e.g. Holocaust tattoos), and because they are associated with value, numbers may imply that some people have higher value than others. Therefore, Exodus 30 takes a coin from each person and counts the coins, rather than counting the people directly.

So, back to our verse, rather than counting a minyan by number people in the room, you might assign each person a word from the verse:

Hoshia et amekha, u-varekh et nahalatekha; ur’em v’nas’em ad olam.

Of all the verses that have exactly 10 words (I haven’t counted them, but I imagine there must be a good number), this is the one that has become popular. Perhaps because the verse is a plea for deliverance, and if we are going to do something as dangerous and dehumanizing as count human beings (even indirectly), we ought to do it with a prayer for their safety and deliverance, calling upon the shepherd God who takes care of the flock. You hear a popular melody of this verse here.

Psalm 27

One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s temple. (27:4)

This verse brings out a particular religious tension for some. The question is to what extent should a religious tradition encourage its followers to seek complete union with the Divine at every moment such that one is living one’s life entirely in God’s house; versus encouraging its followers to live their lives in service to their fellow humans. At first glance, the Psalmist seems to be living on the side of withdrawal from the world in favor of exclusive union with God.

I learned many years ago from a kind and gentle Buddhist named Ken Wells that this is a needless dichotomy. One can be in meditation all day long while at the same time engaging with one’s job, one’s family, and all of the other tasks of one’s life. Being in intimate awareness of God does not preclude also being intimately aware of human needs.

Not that I have even come close to mastering what I need to do to maintain a meditative mind while taking phone calls, answering email, studying Torah, and taking care of a family. But periodically I come back to this verse, especially to a beautiful melody by Yoni Ganout (you can hear several versions here), and use it as a way to refocus myself when I feel myself becoming distracted and and impatient.

When we begin losing our equilibrium and becoming flustered or angry, taking a breath and narrowing our focus can help. “Just one thing do I ask. I am not asking for help juggling the dozen tasks and concerns on my plate – just help me with one thing. Help me to remember that God’s presence is at the center of everything I do. Help me to remember that the world I am living in is God’s house and the people who are demanding things of me are God’s people. Help me to remember that it is X days until Shabbat, when for 25 hours I can step away from many of the demands on my life and hang out for a few hours at shul among people whom I like.”

Psalm 24

Psalm 24 is sung in our services on weekdays and Shabbat afternoons (and on weekday Festivals) when we put the Torah away. It’s a beautiful, short psalm that begins by reminding us that God is the Creator and in order to deserve a home on this world, we have to treat the landLord and the rest of God’s creatures with respect.

Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in God’s holy place? — One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully. (24:3-4)

Of course, there is no one who has not missed the mark at some point in his or her life. No one’s behavior is unblemished, and no one heart is (i.e. thoughts are) absolutely pure. If thoughts of sin were equal to sin (not true in the Hebrew Bible), most people would be in deep trouble! Judaism has been accused of being so mired in a legal system that recovery is impossible – this is a misunderstanding of Jewish tradition.

In order to ascend the mountain and stand in the presence of God, we need to do the proper work. There is no shortcut up this mountain, there is no tram that takes you up without effort. The work isn’t hard, but it has to be done. Bad habits need to be considered and dismantled. We need to watch our patterns of speech, be careful how we speak about others. Lashon Hara, evil, reputation destroying gossip, will trip us on our journey up the mountain.

I am reminded of a deep Biblical teaching from the beginning of Leviticus, which presents a series of offerings, each of which purify the one who brings it. Large animals, small animals, birds, and grain – each accomplish the same end. The ritual of repentance is open to all, the path up the mountain is fully accessible, regardless of one’s economic power. Judaism has embraced that principle and continued to democratize itself. Judaism is not a race, it is no a closed tribe, it is a way to live your life according to Torah. It is not punitive – it provides a way to clean one’s hands. In the end, we believe that God, the righteous judge, is a loving and merciful God.

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.