A sermon delivered at Beth Shalom Synagogue on July 14, 2017

Something very strange happens at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion based on what happened at the end of last week’s. For an act of extreme violence, Pinchas is rewarded by God with a brit shalom / a covenant of peace. As many of us know shalom/peace comes from the root of shlemut, meaning wholeness. It seems wholeness can come from unexpected places.

When I think of wholeness, I think of summer. I think of this large bloc of time, inviting, beckoning us with possibility and potential. I almost prefer it before it begins, when the wholeness of the experience lies before you…ripe with anticipation…before those long, hot days actually begin, the period in which we now find ourselves.

What experience were you most looking forward to this summer? If that’s hard to answer, what can you say that you’re most looking forward to in the remaining weeks? One of the things I was most looking forward to was being faculty at Jacobs Camp. Months ago it seemed so far away, and now it is here, as I leave in two days.

Every summer about 10,000 children from Reform Jewish households head off to our movements’ camps across the country. Years ago, I heard that one of these camps existed in the middle of Mississippi, in Utica. Upon hearing this, I stopped dead in my tracks, a look of wonder on my face, and asked the requisite question that my grandmother always used to ask about Jews in places like Mississippi and LA. THERE ARE JEWS THERE? Yes, grandma…there are Jews in the Deep South.

Of course, this is before my ignorance was shattered, before I chose to serve here and discover the richness of deep Southern Judaism.

I think I actually might feel something akin to what many of the campers feel before they board their bus or their parents drive them for the first day. I’m definitely a little bit nervous about going, a bit anxious. Now…I’ve been to summer camp before…I’ve worked at camps, but only as a counselor, not as faculty, and never a Jewish camp.

What if I can’t make an impact on them!? What if my love for Judaism does not shine onto them…or if they don’t like me? Kids can be cruel after all!! I remind myself that nerves and anxiety are natural…they remind me that life unfolds in new, beautiful, and unexpected ways. They remind me that I’m human…and I hope…these normal human emotions will help me relate even better to the kids I will soon encounter.

My friend, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, reminds us that the Hebrew word for camp, machaneh, means to rest…to be covered, to be surrounded, to encamp. He says that what makes Jewish summer camps such a phenomenal experience for children is that at camp they are “bathed in the beauty of Judaism, immersed in Jewish rhythm and time,” and surrounded with other, Jewish peers.

These kids are given such a gift, a gift in time and space, to live Judaism while having the time of their lives.

I never experienced that as a kid…it took me years to appreciate that those two could even be compatible: living Jewish lives while having the time of your life. What a divine realization to have so early on in your life! What a gift! How many of us seem to forget that at times? It seems that all Jewish demographic studies show us the same thing time and time again. Sitting in classrooms and learning religious school is not an effective way to instill strong Jewish identities in children. We need experiential Jewish education, and there are two proven ways to accomplish this: Summer camp and Israel experiences.

Let’s be a synagogue that thrives in both these arenas. Let’s strengthen our Jewish Journeys program to bring more of the camp experience to our own children during the school year. Let’s teach them that Judaism thrives outside the synagogue walls, that the words Judaism and fun are linked together inextricably. We got off to a great start this past year and we’re going to continue that momentum, and enhance it.

We’ll expand our Israel curriculum here in Baton Rouge in anticipation of our congregational trip. And for those who can’t join us in Israel, we’ll bring Israel to Baton Rouge. We’ll continue to show that Louisiana and Mississippi are firmly-planted on the Jewish map.

Camp is a time of campfires, color war, new friendships, secrets shared in a cabin long after lights out. It is a time of pushing yourself out of the boundaries that society and you have made for yourself over the school year. It’s something that can only happen in summer, as summer represents that one giant reset button: to redefine our lives, our purpose in this crazy world partnered with God.

And that message is just as valid for adults as well. Summer is all about embracing life, trying new things, just like these kids. And just as camp gives them rest and relaxation from their everyday life, so too should summer with us.

Though we’re not all going to Jewish summer camp this summer, we can bring its most enduring lessons home to us. We can use the remainder of this summer as one giant gift..of discovery, of learning, of getting to know someone else.

The ultimate gift, one within all our reach, is the one bestowed upon Pinchas: that of shalom / peace and wholeness. Sometimes, like our Torah portion, gifts come from strange places. I have long learnt that life’s goodness is hidden in places you might least expect. Like Utica, Mississippi or Baton Rouge, Louisiana.