Judaism for the People: Summer Camp, Deuteronomy, & Kavana

I've just returned from a few weeks away from Kavana -- a welcome change of pace for me after a very intense year.

I've just returned from a few weeks away from Kavana -- a welcome change of pace for me after a very intense year. I spent this time with my family at a Jewish summer camp in the Colorado Rockies. It felt so good to me to be there... luxurious, in fact (and how could it not be? - I was in the most beautiful natural setting, my kids were entertained, and someone else was preparing three meals a day for me!). Even more profoundly, after almost a year and a half of Covid time, seeing the whole camp gathered for Friday night services (albeit outdoors, and with Covid protocols in place) and hearing hundreds of voices singing tefillot together in harmony was enough to bring tears to my eyes!!

It was through working in the world of Jewish summer camp that I first decided I wanted to be a rabbi. At camp, Judaism is joyful and built into the fabric of everyday life. And as much as summer camp focuses on the camper experience, the setting is equally transformative for the young adult staff population of counselors and specialists. Jewish learning and skill-building happens at every level; every individual plays an integral role in building the camp community; the goal of camp is absolutely to meet people where they are. The informal education model of Jewish camps -- focusing on people, first and foremost, and helping them construct positive Jewish identity -- has undoubtedly influenced Kavana's philosophy and approach to Jewish life.

This turns out to be a perfect week to be reflecting on these themes. Over the last few weeks, we have wrapped up our reading of Bamidbar/Numbers, and this Shabbat, we move into the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. As we turn this corner from the Torah's fourth book to its fifth, it's easy to feel a shift in orientation between the final verse of Numbers and the opening verse of Deuteronomy. These two back-to-back psukim (with only a blank space between them in the Torah scroll) read:

Num. 36:13:

אֵ֣לֶּה הַמִּצְוֺ֞ת וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּעַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב עַ֖ל יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃

These are the commandments and regulations that the LORD enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.

Deut. 1:1:

אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב׃

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab...

Reading these verses side-by-side, it's easy to see that their structure and syntax is incredibly similar. However, the final verse of Numbers emphasizes that the content that has come up to this point has primarily focused on God's words to Moses, whereas in contrast, the first verse of Deuteronomy makes it clear that what will follow in this new book is Moses's words to the people. The Pulpit Commentary (a 19th century Christian homiletical commentary) teaches that the wording serves to distinguish the two books, characterizing Deuteronomy as "emphatically a book for the people."

Indeed, the book of Devarim retells so much of the history of the preceding three books, now through Moses's lens, and with a focus on helping the Israelites make sense of their own story and identity, with all of its ups and downs. Riffing off the language of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, we might call it a book "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Returning to Kavana after a few weeks away, I have returned to a calendar already filled with events: summer social events for different groups and with multiple hosts, an anti-racist reading group, a new Book Club selection, a Breaking the Silence presentation, the Dayenu Circle's new focus on clean electrification, and more. All of these are partner-driven initiatives... powered by the people who make up the Kavana community, working in concert with our cooperative model and sharing their personal interests with others. This weekend, too, our Erev Tisha B'Av event will feature multiple people's voices -- teaching, chanting, reading and sharing -- as we delve into some of the darkest and saddest chapters in our history. Focusing on personal meaning, making sense of our collective history together, and building a strong and vibrant Jewish community "for the people" is at the heart of what Kavana (like both Jewish summer camp and the Book of Deuteronomy) is trying to accomplish.

Now that I'm back, I look forward to reconnecting with each of you over the coming weeks and months -- either online (like at this Friday night's Virtual Candle-Lighting) or in person (like this Saturday evening for Erev Tisha B'Av). Together, we will move through these days of mourning leading us into Tisha B'Av and we will continue to navigate Covid decisions in light of the Delta variant; together we will prepare ourselves for the New Year and all the renewal it will bring (amazing High Holiday programming, hopefully a return to more in-person services and educational programs, a shmitah year, etc.). As always, I am grateful to be part of this people-powered community!

Looking forward to seeing many of you soon,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum