Posts Tagged 'MESSH'

Yearly Yearning: Another look at Hunger in Jewish Life

To live as a Jew means that we do not just eat to live. And at the same time, we do not simply live to eat. We have a complicated and nuanced relationship with food. We center Jewish moments around particular foods: from honey dripping on apples on Rosh HaShanah, to the drops of it on our first approach to Jewish text, to salt on the challah on Shabbat, to debating the merits of a hamantaschen vs latkes, our culture is replete with a cornucopia of flavors. We feast to celebrate our survival and success. We fast to remind ourselves of past troubles, purify our inner being and to cement our relationship with God. We bless what we’re going to eat and express gratitude for what we have eaten. Food bonds us to our family, friends and faith.

With the advent of the month of Elul we start our preparations for the High Holidays. Part of our preparation is, not surprisingly, around food. While we might spend some time thinking about the symbolic foods we will have at our Rosh Hashanah table, or the best brisket recipe to use, fasting on Yom Kippur takes center stage. Are we going to decaffeinate to avoid the headache? How hungry will we be? What is the best thing to eat to prepare for the fast? As much as we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we are already thinking, “What will I break the fast with this year?” 

While global poverty, food insecurity and urban deserts are problems that need to be addressed, each of our personal hungers are never fully resolved. The nature of our being means that we are only sated for a limited time. We will always need more. Maybe reading all these words about food are even making you feel a little peckish!

Similar to fear and pain, hunger is an essential warning sign. The sensation of wanting nourishment reminds us of the fragility of our bodies, and our ongoing need for physical sustenance. This feeling helps us live. What about the other things that make us hungry? We crave things beyond just food — be it love, connection, sleep, wisdom or meaning. What are the other yearnings that inspire us and plague us?

The two of us, a rabbi and a psychologist, started to wonder about this broader issue of what are we yearning for. The research has pointed out that many of us identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Many are disappointed in the offerings of traditional religious practice. Many of us are seekers who do not yet know what we are seeking. What do we yearn for? How might Jewish professionals and innovators respond to the needs and hungers of those who are dissatisfied with our traditional offerings?

The prophet Amos reminds us that while we may yearn for food and water, a time is coming when people will hunger for meaning in their lives. (Amos 8:11). Maybe that time is now? We have the opportunity to use this time in Elul to prepare for the High Holidays. And not just getting ready for the physical fast, but we also have the opportunity to open ourselves up and explore our souls. Working through the often closely linked lenses of psychology and Judaism, we drafted a resource to assist Jewish organizations, congregations and any gatherings of Jews in a search for meaning that is relevant both to this time in our history and the Jewish calendar. Please share it with people. We would love your comments and suggestions. We also want to invite you to join in this exploration, please share your yearnings with others in the comments. Maybe our shared yearnings will give added meaning to both our communal and our personal yearly experience of the High Holidays.

*Originally published in eJp with Betsy Stone who is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.

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Work Ethic

In Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

…Thus shall you do for them, so they shall live and not die; when they approach the Holy of
Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and to his burden. But
they shall come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die.

(Numbers 4:17-20)

In the time of the Tabernacle, Aaron and the priests coordinated the community to contribute meaningful gifts and offerings in the spirit of maintaining the integrity of the community. Though the high priests
had a lot of responsibility, without delegating and empowering other people to participate, they would not have been able to function. Both the Hobbit and Harry Potter celebrate the importance of the everyday person in accomplishing big tasks. Best articulated by the wisdom of the seniors in the community, Gandalf says, “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay;”

Albus Dumbledore says, “Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.” In this holy work of Jewish education, we may sometimes feel like the everyday person who is
fighting for power, and we may sometimes be the high priest who is given all of the authority.
Through our work, how are we involved in the most important parts of camp? How do we let
other people glimpse our goals and processes so they can be a part of the work we do?
What are the goals of where you work? What are your goals where you work? What more can we do to motivate people to step up? Responsibility without power can be crazy-making. I need to accomplish something I’m not equipped for. What power do you already have to accomplish your goals? Can you articulate these goals?

Fire, Water, & Wilderness: Acquiring Mental Health

As the old joke goes:

A congregational Rabbi invites a young to congregant to the synagogue for Havdalah. It is going to be a special Camp Shabbat. They are going to do the special camp tunes that the happy camper came to enjoy at their summers at Jewish summer camp. Despite all of the arguments the camper is just not interested in joining. When pressed by the Rabbi, the young person says, “It will just not be the same without the lake”.

This joke brings to light the significance of immersive experiences. When we come at things head-on we might try to avoid them, but camp allows us to come at things side-ways.

I was thinking about this when reading Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion. This week we start reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). With Shavuot only a day away you might expect us to say that the the way to acquire Torah is revelation of Torah at Sinai or learning Torah. It is interesting in that this midrash is depicting fire, water, and wilderness as alternatives to this formal or direct instruction. The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness), all modalities of experiential and indirect instruction.

For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19, a war in Ukraine, gun violence, and the mental health crisis that these issues has brought to light, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all struggling with issues of uncertainty, anxiety, and too much isolation. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

Darwin Falls Wilderness - Wikipedia

This is why I am excited about summer 2022. We are about to send our youth off to be campers or counselors at summer camp. We need to look past the campfire ( fire), lake or pool (water), or hiking trip (wilderness) of camp to make meaning where we are. All these explain how we might use camp to help our youth acquire Torah through indirect instruction, but how might we help them with their mental emotional spiritual and social health ( MESSH) needs?

I want to offer a subversive thought, maybe in this context might direct instruction regarding Torah learning would do the trick? Overt Torah learning could be the means to an end of getting to discuss what is most important. It is a Trojan Horse that gets past people’s guards to open up and to engage deeply with things that matter. And in turn, having tended to these MESSH needs, our deeper emotional connections can also bring us back to Torah. The camp setting allows this cycle of human connection, personal growth, Torah and Judaism.

Along with my friend noted psychologist Dr. Betsy Stone and some colleagues at Foundation for Jewish Camp we put together a MESSH Torah resource for camp leaders for this summer. In a camp context leaders have the opportunity to speak to their staff members and to their campers all the time. What will they say? How might they authentically support their community? What strengths might they draw upon to do this holy work? How can they elevate their strengths, so that they are using their superpowers, rather than focusing on deficits?

Our intention with this packet is to create a space of overlap between our two fields: Judaism and psychology. How does psychological thought intersect with Jewish ideas? How might we use Judaism to support personal growth? What does the wisdom of our tradition have to teach us about the very real struggles we face today?

In the immersive experience (water) of camp they will explore their passion (fire), and reconnect with nature (wilderness). As we find ourselves in this new wilderness, we should use the Torah we have acquired to support our MESSH needs. To acquire Torah we need fire, water, and wilderness. To acquire MESSH we need Torah.

This is a draft. We recognize that it is far from complete. It is part of an interactive and iterative process to provide deep, accessible, and relevant resources for the field. Please give us your feedback and other content you would like to see us put into these notes for next year. avi@jewishcamp.org


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