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Jewish Camp is a Gateway

Recently I had the honor of speaking at a dinner at the Foundation for Jewish Camp‘s Leaders Assembly 2018 in Baltimore. It was a wonderful conference. Unfortunately the sound was not really working during my speech so well so I figured that I would post the speech.

With Passover soon at hand I wanted to share with you a special story about leaving Egypt, but not the one from our Seder tables.

In sixth century BCE, when building the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a  man named Nicanor set out to attain a special gate for one of the doorways of the Temple. We learn in the Gemara in Yoma:

Nicanor went to Alexandria in Egypt to bring the doors, on his return a huge wave threatened to engulf the boat. To save themselves the ship’s crew took one of the precious doors and cast it into the sea, but still the sea continued to rage tossing the boat around. When the crew prepared to cast the other door into the sea, Nicanor rose and clung to it, saying, ‘Cast me in with it.’ The sea immediately became calm. He was, however, deeply grieved about the other door [lost to the sea]- mitzta’er al haverta- literally- he was saddened about its friend. As they reached the harbor of Akko, the door broke through and appeared from under the sides of the boat.  [Yoma 38a]

Nicanor  teaches us the lessons of grit and determination, selflessness and reward. Just like my mama told me, ‘The harder you work the luckier you get’. Nicanor was willing to give of himself  because for him “Good enough was simply not good enough”. He really wanted these special doors to be in the Temple.

Often when we think about the utility of a gate we think about who it is keeping in or keeping out. That was not the case for Nicanor. He went back to Egypt —  a place of our bondage –for a gate that would adorn the experience of coming and going at the holiest communal space. Like our camps, these doors would house much more than simply people, but holy memories and experiences that form our personal and national identity.

Tonight we come together as a community to celebrate the people who, like Nicanor, really have given of themselves and inspire us with their grit and determination. Camp professionals sacrifice sleep, personal resources and free time in order to go above and beyond in the pursuit of providing meaningful Jewish experiences that shape people’s lives. The Jewish knowledge and experiences we gain at camp give us access.

Jewish camp is a gateway.

Jewish camp is a gateway to make friends for life.

Jewish camp is a gateway to learn valuable skills for our future careers.

Jewish camp is a gateway to get the building blocks for making a Jewish family.

Jewish camp is a gateway to belong to a Jewish community.

Tonight we celebrate just a few of these extraordinary professionals whose hard work and dedication to excellence deserve recognition. Mitzta’er al haverta – We would be at a loss without you friends. First, we will acknowledge some monumental milestones in our field. These are the people who have made the long journey. We are blessed in this room to have people who have been working with generations of campers and staff members, impacting entire communities. 

Next,  FJC, with the support of Avi Chai Foundation, is proud to recognize three early career Jewish camp educators. Though closer to the start of the journey, these professionals  have already inspired their camps with their creativity and commitment to opening up Jewish life to the next generation. Each will get a generous investment of $3600 to be used for continued education to support them in their journey.

And then Genesis Philanthropy Group will recognize one camp that has   made great strides in accessibility for Russian Speaking Jews in our community and the iCenter will recognize two camps which have gone above and beyond to reimagine Israel education.

Tonight we express Hakarat HaTov– gratitude- to people who have clung  to the gate to ensure that Jewish Life is accessible to our community. Each of our honorees shows us that the harder you work the luckier we all get. Their efforts have ensured that more campers, staff members, and their families pass through our gates and connect to the majestic experience of  Jewish camp. They are inspirational.

I also want to take a moment to express my Hakarat HaTov– gratitude to Julie Finkelstein and the rest of the FJC team who have really clung to this Leaders’ Assembly to make it everything thing it is. We all appreciate your self-sacrifice for excellence. And I can see the second gate coming out of the water now.

Thank you  


Welcome All to Leaders Assembly

Here at Foundation for Jewish Camp we are excited and gearing up for Leaders Assembly 2018. We are thrilled to welcome close to 800 leaders in the camping community to Baltimore to see how we might move the field forward.

This week we start reading the book of Leviticus. It is fraught with information about sacrifices that can seem meaningless to the modern experience. In our Torah portion we read that when a leader sins, he brings a he-goat as a sacrifice (Leviticus 4:22-26). This is in contrast to a commoner who is charged to bring a she-goat or a lamb in the same circumstance (Leviticus 4:27-35). What is the purpose of the commoner and the leader bringing two different offerings? What is the reason that we allow the commoner to bring either a goat or a lamb?

To explain, I wanted to share with you a great custom I heard a couple of years ago quoted in the name of Danny Siegel. Synagogues put out two color cups for their Kiddush receptions after services. The Rabbi announces that all new comers are invited to partake of the blue cups, so that all of the people with the white cups know to whom they should introduce themselves. This custom allows the community to be welcoming without forcing the newcomers to feel like outsiders; you are always welcome to pass and take a white cup.

Similarly, in our week’s portion, we read that the commoners had the option of which sacrifice they wanted to bring. In either case, the priest would know they were outsiders, but that information need not be public. The outsiders could choose to pass and bring a goat.

All too often, when we make an effort to bring people in, it has the reverse effect of indicating them as outsiders.  Camp is an amazing gateway for people to experience belonging to the Jewish community. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones this week in Baltimore. I have no doubt that together we will find new ways to make people feel welcome in our community. Surely, there is no great sacrifice in making our community more inclusive.

Shabbat Shalom!


-Also posted on 

The Best Kind of Gift

Have you ever had to go shopping for a gift for someone you love? For that special someone you have to actually go to the store and walk around thinking what does this person really need? And what if that person is blessed to have everything they need? Then you are left just trying to get them something that they might want. In that case it seems that you are left trying to get them something that appropriately expresses your feelings for that person. So, even if they do not like the gift they appreciate the sentiment.You do not need to worry that this was a ploy to get a belated birthday gift. Rather, I believe that this is a good explanation for the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah. We read that God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “Let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivated him you shall take My portion“(Exodus 25:1). What do you give to a being that created everything and gave it to you? For God, isn’t everything by definition a re-gift?

The Israelites were so close with God that they knew in their “hearts” exactly what to get God. It is hard for me to imagine being that close to God and knowing how much to spend. I love my wife and live with her and I still totally freeze up even thinking of what to get her for her birthday. But the Torah portion goes on to list many details about the construction of the Sanctuary that the Israelites build for God. God either tells them what to give God or God is gracious enough to accept what ever they give.

To better our relationships with the people in our lives we should try harder to tell them what we need and what we want. This is the beginning of better communication. We also should strive to understand the intension of the gift even if we have limited use of the gift itself. In so doing, surely we will make space for them in our lives.

Wake Up Rage: MLK Today

The other day I went into my sons’ room trying to wake them up. I found myself singing the chorus from Rage Against the Machine‘s song Wake Up. The lyrics discuss racism within the American government and the FBI. A portion of the song is taken from an actual FBI memo in which its director J. Edgar Hoover suggests targets for the suppression of the black nationalist movement. The song makes references to prominent African-American figures targeted by the government such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and goes as far as saying that the government arranged their assassinations.


In memory of Martin Luther King Jr. I offer you to listen to this song and read the lyrics.

Rage Against the Machine sing:

‘Cause all these punks
Got bullets in their heads
Departments of police, the judges, the feds
Networks at work, keepin’ people calm
You know they went after King
When he spoke out on Vietnam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

It is clear that the assassination of King was a wake up call. While there are still large forces of racism a live in this country, on this holiday we need to also remember the King who “spoke out on Vietnam”. Now more than ever we are living in a time when we are turning the power away from the have-nots.

What will be our generation’s wake up call? I sincerely hope that it does not take a shot.

Almond Prequel: On the Collapse of Empire

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read about the plagues. Aaron’s encounter with Pharoah’s magicians is an interesting prequel to the plagues. There we read:

Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staves.(Exodus 7:10-12)

What is the significance of it being Aaron’s staff and not Moshe’s? What is the meaning of this prequel to the plagues?

Later in the book of Numbers we read that Aaron’s staff blooms into an almond branch (Numbers 17: 23). The almond tree is thought to grow very quickly. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, we learn that the rabbis thought that it took 21 days from the first bloom of the almond tree until it bore fruit (TJ Taanit 4:7). This period of 21 days corresponds to the time between the breaching of the wall in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Thus, there is a connection between the collapse of the Second Commonwealth and the almond tree.

With all of this in mind, what was the significance of Aaron’s interface with Pharaoh? Not only was his staff going to eat up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Israelites were going to grow quickly, and Aaron was also giving them notice of the upcoming collapse of the Egyptian empire. It seems that nothing lasts forever, especially empires.

As I have quoted a couple of times before, in a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

 I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside.
As we learned in last week’s Torah portion the new King of Egypt did not remember Yosef and enslaved the people out of fear. There we read:
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.( Exodus 1:10)
Is it possible to understand this in light of Justice Souter’s insight? Was there really a reason for Egypt to fear their enemies, let alone that the Israelites would join them? Maybe this tyrant only became king because he enslaved the Israelites.  Like Augustus and Trump, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, this new King came forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve their problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. As we see with the plagues, the destruction of Egypt is not because the Israelites joined a foreign invasion, rather the process of the plagues Egypt was destroyed from the inside out. Aaron presents his almond staff to express how Egypt will collapse. It is a cautionary tale. 

Awake,Arise, Abram Orlow: A Prescient Poem from 1918

I am named for my father’s father Abram Orlow. To a great degree he is a mystery to me. This is what I do know. He was born May 3, 1900 and died April 30, 1950. He was born in Poltava, a town that I have visited during my stay in the FSU. His family emigrated from northern Ukraine to Philadelphia when he was young. His first language was Yiddish, but he seemed to do fine in English. He went to University of Pennsylvania where he later was a political science professor. The story goes that he was the first Jewish professor at Wharton.


Image result for abram orlow

Abram and my grandmother Lena had two sons. My father James Joseph and his younger brother David. Abram, Lena, and my father were all immigration lawyers. In fact in 1948 Abram was the Second President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Interestingly Lena went on to be the president of AILA in 1954 and twenty years later  my father was president of that organization the year I, Avram Orlow, was born. My father was younger than Yadid when his father died, so there is just not that many people I have ever met who knew much about him.

Years ago I found a poem that he wrote which was published  January 11, 2018 in The Jewish World. Seeing that is has been 100 years it seemed fitting to share the work of  person for whom I am named. Like my grandfather, Abram Orlow, I am a Zionist. To me the modern State of Israel is central to my Jewish and human identity. As hard as it is to imagine what the world looked like a 100 years ago, it is harder for me to imagine a world before Israel existed. Reading this poem I am filled with wonder. What do we make of the romantic call for a reprisal of the Hasmomean military victory from the pen of an 18-year-old? How did he balance his fierce nationalism with a universal appeal to flock to this yet to be realized Zionist “standard”. He is simultaneously asking Palestine to be born so we can be like ever other nations and also be exceptional and a model to the nations. I have no idea if my grandfather ever stepped foot in the land of Israel. What was Palestine to an immigrant from the Ukraine who would go on to spend his career as an immigration lawyer in “Goluth“?

Reading this poem I find myself looking back to look forward to look back again. Abram’s poem for the ” Jewish Homeland” is prescient. We are still striving to fully realize the Zionist ideal.  We are still struggling with Diaspora identity in “Goluth”.  We are still coming to terms with the challenge of wielding the power of the Maccabees. We are still trying to fuse our commitments to particularism with our universalism. And all the while I have not done much to demystify the person for whom I am namesake, but I hope you have found it interesting nonetheless.

Camp on the Hill

Our family has been doing a lot of driving over the last few days as we we went to visit my parents in Philadelphia. A number of times during our travels we heard the song Castle on the Hill by Ed Sheeran. The theme of the single surrounds Sheeran’s home town of Framlingham, and he reminisces his life as a teenager. He recounts the place that he grew up in, the cast of characters in this life, and where they are now. The line that stuck with me is “these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home”

As great at it was reminiscing about a home, I realize that this mythic home for me is actually camp. Camp is really my Castle on a Hill. I was recently interviewed for Michelle W. Malkin‘s podcast It’s Who You Know.  In this podcast I shared some of my thoughts on the power of Jewish Camping. I encourage you to listen to it, I did not sound that stupid. And to all of these people who raised me, thank you.

-The podcast- 


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