I am a Jewish farmer- Rabbi Joel Seltzer

– From Recent blog of Rabbi Joel Seltzer on Haaretz.

Twelve years ago, long before I decided to dedicate my life to Jewish education, long before I chose to become a rabbi, I was a counselor for the oldest kids on camps. It was the hardest and most important job of my life.

It was the end of a long eight-week summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and I sat in a gazebo with my Rosh Edah, my division head, in order to process the summer that was.

summer camp Israeli children participating in a summer camp activity in August 2007.
Photo by: Limor Edrey

“I don’t feel like I was successful” I told him. “I don’t think that I transformed the campers into the leaders that I wanted them to be, the Jews that I dreamed they could be, the mensches that I know they can be. Instead,” I admitted, “I feel like I failed them – I was not the transformative educator that I thought I could be.”

My wise division head, now a rabbi himself, simply smiled and said, “You are an idiot.”
“If you think the job of Jewish education can be completed in just eight weeks, or twelve, or even in a year, then you simply do not understand the line of work that we are in.”

“This is not a job where you receive instant gratification,” he explained. “We must be in it for the long haul, and you will have to wait years, even decades, before you can determine whether or not this summer, and your role in it, was a success.”

Long ago someone had told me that Jewish education was like agriculture: you plant seeds in the soil and wait for them to sprout; some do and some do not. Sometimes, despite the right conditions, despite the constant watering and the endless patience of the farmer, the seed simply will not germinate. Other times you can ignore a corner of your field only to discover it later in full bloom. And like a farmer, all an educator can do is wait and wonder what the results of the latest season will be: feast or famine?

Perhaps the Jewish world is now ready to take this metaphor into the twenty-first century. If Jewish education is like agriculture then perhaps we should be ready to apply some of the scientific advances found in the world of farming to our mission as teachers of Torah. Perhaps we should commission soil studies in order to determine where the most fertile ground is to sow our seeds of study. Maybe we should explore ways of digging channels from large bodies of water – like Israel, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – in order to irrigate the Jewish world that lies in between. Perhaps the time has come to explore subsidies that would help our Jewish educational institutions practice the art of their farming more effectively. If Jewish education is like agriculture, then I am proud to be a farmer – but a modern farmer, one who is willing to explore every available advantage that could allow for a greater, more consistent yield.

The truth is that I often think back to that summer twelve years ago and I think about those campers and where they are now. They are doctors, lawyers, and bankers. They are Jewish educators, artists, musicians and writers. Tragically, two of them are no longer with us: one, a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed in the line of fire in Lebanon, and the other was struck down by an indiscriminant Leukemia. The others are no longer anyone’s campers; instead they are Jewish adults who have celebrated, supported and mourned with one another for the past twelve years.

Just this past Thursday night I was with a few of these former campers at an event celebrating our camp and its past leadership. Suddenly one of them looked down at her phone and whispered some exciting news. “Dara had her baby,” she said, “It’s a girl!” Suddenly, I was transported back to that gazebo twelve years ago and to the wise words of my sage mentor: “You are an idiot.” It was only then that I finally realized that any serious Jewish educator must be a passionate and patient farmer – you can simply never know when the seeds of Torah will sprout.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, R.I., and he was recently named the incoming director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

* This is me again.  It gives me joy imagining you sitting in that gazebo for many years to come. And yes Joel, you are still an idiot. But, aren’t we all?

5 Responses to “I am a Jewish farmer- Rabbi Joel Seltzer”

  1. 1 Lisa Friedman March 21, 2012 at 8:23 am

    I think about that summer every day and feel so lucky to have had you as our counselor!! Hopefully you can truly see the impact you’ve made on all of us and its so incredible to think about all of the campers who you will continue to impact!! Wonderful article!!!!

  2. 2 Alana March 25, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I have just stumbled upon this amazing blog and this amazing article written by Joel. Mazel to you both!

    While reading this article the minchag of upsherin came to mind and the idea that man is campared to a tree,
    – “A person is like the tree of a field…” (Deut. 20:19)
    – “For as the days of a tree, shall be the days of my people.” (Isaiah 65:22)
    – “He will be like a tree planted near water…” (Jeremiah 17:8).

    And the idea that since we are compared to trees we thus follow the laws or Orlah (not taking fruits of the tree until 3 years have passed).

    This not cutting the hair,not taking fruits form the tree, symbolizes the fact that planting is not enough. One has to wait and see what happens, what comes up, what grows. And when the time is right we then take the opertunity to see what the tree can do and what amazing fruits the tree can give us.

    Rabbi Avi you were very wise back then as I am sure you are now. One must plant and wait. Only with time can we see what fruits they might make. You both should be very proud of the impact you have made on so many and byh will continue to make for many many years to come.

    And as I a writing this post my 4 children just happen to be dancing to “life is a highway” and again I am taken back to gesher 2000.

    -Alana “stanger” Weinberg

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