The Best Tool for Jewish Living and Learning

by Rabbi Eric Siroka

Reform Jewish summer camping has something for everyone. From Judaica and sports to aquatics and hiking to nature and the arts, the programs offered at the URJ camps provide the opportunity for every one of our children to be enriched and flourish in a safe, nurturing, inclusive environment in which they can expand and express their Jewish identity.

I am privileged once again to serve on faculty for Tiferet at OSRUI. Tiferet, the arts unit, is one of the unique programs offered by camp (along with Chalutzim – the Hebrew immersion session and Tour L’Agam – a biking tour around Lake Michigan, both for entering 10th – 12th graders). For 20 years now, Tiferet has enabled artistic Jewish youngsters to engage such creative areas as music, dance, drama, media and visual arts to explore topics and texts from our sacred tradition. As the campers use their talents to breathe innovative and improvisational life into their work, so too do these young Jews draw rich, long-lasting meaning from the experiences they share.

Campers at OSRUI earlier this summer

This session, our theme is Midrash Rabbah, for which we are using the great Jewish process of midrash (interpretation and investigation) to address the stories from Genesis. In four studios – dance, drama, music and visual arts (which serve as the campers’ “major” for the session), we have tackled diverse and important ideas such as: the conflicts in Abraham’s life; the voices that are “missing” from the narratives; Jacob’s ladder and his subsequent wrestling match with God/angel/himself; and Joseph’s journey from young dreamer to dream interpreter whose wit saves all from treacherous famine (and these were just last week!). We have taken our texts and pulled them apart to search their meaning for the values they teach. More so, we have used these teaching to inspire acting, movement, lyrics, notes and design. Tiferet is blessed to be guided by absolutely gifted moomchim (specialists) whose professional talents are matched by their care for the students, along with fabulous staff of dedicated madrichim (counselors).

I have long believed that summer camp is the very best tool for Jewish living and learning that our Reform Movement sponsors. I was fortunate to have the chance to grow up in the Reform camp community, which gave me the gifts of confidence in myself and passion for progressive Judaism. As a camper, staff member, and now faculty, I have witnessed the power of camp in cultivating caring, committed, knowledgeable Jews. More so, camp allows each child, each adult, the opportunity to live up to his or her promise as b’tzelem elohim – being fashioned in the Divine image. Each of our children deserves this opportunity, one that camping provides like nowhere else.

Like every worthy endeavor, Reform Jewish camping needs our ongoing support: send your children (and grandchildren) to our camps; ask your congregation how it participates in maintaining these programs; contribute to the camper scholarship fund at your synagogue or one of the URJ camps; be an advocate for camp by promoting its possibilities for every Jewish child.

Camp has something for everyone. I hope you will join me in continuing to sustain this vital cause.

Rabbi Eric J. Siroka is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in South Bend, IN.

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11 Responses to “The Best Tool for Jewish Living and Learning”

  1. avatar

    Absolutely! totally agree.
    My daughter participated in both Tiferet and Chalutzim. She is now (among other things) teaching Hebrew in our Religious School.
    Dave Henig

    Member of Temple Kol Ami, President of the Metropolitan Detroit Federation of Reform Synagigues, Member of the Central District Council, the Joint Commission on orship, Music and Religious Living and The Guild of Temple Musicians.

  2. avatar

    I agree that our camps are an amazing tool for Jewish Living and Learning but I also have a question.

    Our camps have Israeli counselors and scouts, but very few Israeli campers. Why?

    If we want Israelis to see Reform Judaism as a religious alternative to Orthodoxy would it make sense to sponsor Israelis to join us at our camps? In this way we can showcase what we believe Jewish Living and Learning is without tefillin or a mehitzah.


    • avatar

      Mr. Maniscalco, while I am personally averse to tefillin, and would have my worship experience totally ruined by their being worn in my presence, they really are in a different category from the mechitzah. Tefillin do not oppress women or keep families from worshipping together. They can be used in a very egalitarian way, and for reasons that are different from the standard orthodox reason of believing we are literally commanded to do so. Compared to the mechitzah, tefillin are rather harmless, though I would argue that they are incompatible with Reform Judaism, just as the mechitzah is incompatible with all non-orthodox Judaisms.

  3. Larry Kaufman

    Jordan, I completely agree that mechitzah and tefillin are in completely different categories, but I do not see why tefillin are incompatible with Reform Judaism. Indeed, the Union Prayer Book tells us “thou shalt bind (these words)as a sign upon thy hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. It’s truly too bad that you are so easily distracted from your worship experience that your neighbor’s tefillin would ruin it for you. If tefillin elevate worship for somebody, it’s inappropriate for you to be censorious and to use the outmoded formula of defining Reform Judaism by what we don’t do — because some of us do indeed do it — and our Reform Judaism is every bit as authentic as yours.

    • avatar

      R’ Larry,

      Why is a mechitzah minyan incompatible with Reform Judaism? I don’t see anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t offend anybody.


      • Larry Kaufman

        I did indeed imply, although I did not state, that a mechitzah is incompatible with Reform Judaism. A mechitzah minyan was not even on the table. Your hechsher for the mechitzah minyan includes the caveat that it not offend anybody. Well, clearly it would offend Jordan, and this would be one of the rare occasions when I would be joined with him. As I understand the mechitzah, it synbolizes from the git-go that women go to the back of the bus, which is totally incompatible with Reform’s egalitarian reading of the Torah, which tells us that humankind is created b’tselem elohim, in the image of God, male and female He created them. Moreover, the mechitzah is intended to protect the male daveners from being distracted from their prayers by the lascivious thoughts that would emerge if the female congregants were in easy view–which elevates the yetzer harah, the evil inclination, beyond its place in normative Reform Judaism. Back in the day the Reform movement was characterized as half a million of Jews of diverse beliefs held together by the Union Prayer Book. While today no single siddur unifies us, I doubt you could find a dissenter among the million and a half Reform Jews from our core principle of egalitarianism.

        Meanwhile, if the honorific R’ you placed before my name, signified a fraternal Reb, as in Reb Yid, fine and dandy, but if it was meant as an abbreviation for Rabbi, I must demur from accepting a smicha I haven’t earned.

        • avatar

          Of course I agree with and welcome Larry’s sentiments, but I must reluctantly admit that the presence of a mechitzah, while I find it reprehensible, TECHNICALLY does not have to negate “egalitarianism”. There is some precedent, both in the most radical, rebellious factions of “open orthodoxy” and in historic European Reform Judaism, for separate seating for men and women, but equal participation allowed on the Bimah. In some European liberal synagogues, women were generally in a gallery or balcony with full view, and allowed to go on the bimah, just not to sit together with men. In some “traditional egalitarian settings”, there is a divider down the MIDDLE, with both “sides” having full visual and ambulatory access to the Bimah, and with participation of both in leading the service. I do not approve of this, but it is, in its own way, truly egalitarian. There can be an egalitarian mechitzah, but it flies in the face of Reform values of family seating. Even providing for both mixed and segregated seating, as in the great liberal synagogue in Stockholm, in my view, would not be appropriate for a Reform setting.

  4. avatar

    First off, I want to say what a wonderful experience UAHC camp was for me growing up. I spent many summers at OSRUI and that was BY FAR the most meaningful Jewish experiences that I had (outside of those with my immediate family) as a child. Mr. Maniscalco, I think it’s a wonderful idea to get more Israeli children to camps where they learn that one can have religion without Orthodoxy. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if it’s Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative, as long as it is egalitarian and open.

    To Mr. Friedman and Mr. Kaufman, we ARE told to wear tefillin, both in the prayer book and the Torah. If you don’t want to, fine, but last I checked, the URJ preaches open thought and personal decision-making, not concerning ones-self with your neighbor’s “worship experience totally ruined” which is just absurd. If you’re not praying with your brother (or sister) and rather and judging their garments, you cannot have a meaningful worship experience. Judiasm (particularly in the Reform movement) commands we do not sit constantly in judgement of others, but rather learn for each other. I have great difficultly seeing how any Jewish tradition that can be undertaken by men and women equally can be “incompatible with Reform Judaism.

    As someone whose worship experience would be so ruined by tefillin, might I ask, Mr. Friedman, if you would take similar steps to assist other’s worship experiences? For example, it bothers me when someone does not wear a Kippot and Tallis during a Torah Service. So, if we were praying together, would you wear these things? Or would you just prefer I not wear tefillin?

    • avatar

      Mr. Dreyfuss, a few responses to you:

      I spent some time at OSRUI during Temple retreats in the early 2000s. I found it fun and meaningful, admittedly because the unusual level of neo-traditionalism it represents was all I had known, growing up at a Reform Temple in Skokie, IL which had always been on the more traditional end of the spectrum.

      Reform Judaism, even in its contemporary neo-traditional school of thought, affirms pluralism and diversity with regard to belief and practice, and advocates INFORMED PERSONAL CHOICE with regard to individual Jewish practices. Absolutely, everything that can be egalitarian is theoretically fair game. Nothing is “too traditional” or “too conservative” or “too orthodox” if it is meaningful. My personal pet peeves about what I find “obnoxious” or detrimental to my own worship experience are MY problem. I will get over it, and I will have to because I intend to become a Reform rabbi. What concerns me is that in the same comment in which you criticized me for caring about and “judging” my fellow worshippers (I do not, in fact, judge their character), you mentioned that it bothers you “when someone does not wear a kippot [sic] and a tallis during a Torah service”. If that bothers you, then you’re not being very Reform. Generations of Reform Jews, including greater rabbis than I could ever hope to be, worshipped and read Torah bareheaded, and it was no less holy or valid Jewish worship than that carried out in the strictest ultra-Orthodox shul.

      Apparently, OSRUI did a bad job of educating you about Jewish Tradition and practices, both historical/orthodox and Reform/Progressive. Many things which the orthodox think are “commanded” of us are understood not to be literally commanded in Reform and even Conservative Judaism. But, in the case of kippot, they’re not even technically required or commanded by Orthodox Halacha!!! They are JUST A CUSTOM, and there are exhaustive halakhic responsa to prove it. Furthermore, even if it WERE commanded according to a traditionalist halakhic structure, why would it be worse to go without it during a Torah Service than any other Service? Presumably, the “disrespect” would be the same in any setting, and not more because of the Torah Scrolls being taken out, which are, after all, just wood and parchment. The object of our worship and our reverence is and must always be the Holy One, and nothing else. When those who choose to wear kippot do so, they are showing reverence for God, not for the Torah Scrolls. Otherwise, we have an even bigger problem!

      I am always amazed at how much ignorance regarding traditional AND liberal Judaism there is among the generations of Reform Jews who grew up in the supposedly more Jewishly informed educational settings. They have no respect for the roots and main thrust of Reform Judaism as well as a poor understanding of Jewish Tradition in general.

      It is worth noting that the rabbis who were responsible for the minimalist stance of early Reform Judaism towards traditional practices were themselves educated in Orthodox Yeshivot in Europe, and had a deep understanding of and reverence for Tradition. They knew exactly what they were rejecting, and the Judaism that emerged from their labors was based on impeccable scholarship. The recent impulse to correct for their mistakes by endowing Reform Jewish practice with more warmth and a few more gems from Tradition is a good impulse, but I’m afraid the educators at OSRUI who were responsible for forming your preferences and sensibilities were going overboard in the worst way.

  5. avatar


    I’m glad you understand the advocacy of informed personal choice. My example about my preferences was simply to respond to your suggestion about tefillin. Per your plans to attend HUC (I’m assuming), what if your first job is in a temple similar to the one in which I grew up, a URJ temple in Chicago’s South Suburbs which was rather strict about covering ones head and wearing a prayer shall on Saturday mornings?

    Judgement can take place in the physical as well as mental forums, and I would submit that judging one’s choices of personal person practice is a judgement upon their character, just as you would certainly not like being judged by more Orthodox Jews for choosing not to wear tefillin. As you said “If that bothers you, then you’re not being very Reform.” I am aware Kippot are “just a custom” but customs and articles have great significance to many people. Psychologists know that people have trouble breaking customs and doing certain things, even if they serve no hyper-logical purpose, because they are comforting. With that in mind, how can you in one paragraph, suggest that history and customs (of NOT WEARING kippot or tallit) make the continuation of such trends appropriate, while in the following paragraph suggest that customs are pointless when it comes to WEARING kippot? If customs are out the window, because they serve no present purpose (aside from the study of hisory), then saying “this worked perfectly well in the past” is irrelevant.

    Religion partially involves giving things, be they ideas or objects, deeper meaning. Be they the “just wood and parchment” Torah or the “not technically required or commanded” Kippot (by the way Hallacha has not be usurped by the orthodox last time I checked), these things provide inspiration and a sense of Adonai to many many people. I can’t logically justify that in a way that you would accept, but I know it to be true, and if that brings people closer to Adonai, why deride these things? We can’t all have such unyielding faith.

    When Reform Judaism started in Europe, it was not Classical Reform. It was liberalized Orthodox. Classical Reform did not materialize until the late 1800s, just another idea along the way. But that’s not the point, what’s old, what’s tradition, that doesn’t matter much, right? We should do what works today. That’s Reform Judaism. That’s what I learned in my upbringing. Modern Judaism. It’s been 127 years since Pittsburgh. I think we can stop rebelling against the orthodox and define Reform Judaism in a way that makes sense TODAY.

    As for OSRUI, I learned a great deal of factual, useful information. I’m sorry you didn’t. I hope you know (I’m sure you do) that when you go to HUC, their students might be wearing kippot, tallit, keeping kosher or kosher-style, saying prayers in Hebrew, leading more traditional miyanim. According to one former Rabbi, you even have to learn to lead Conservative and Orthodox minyanim. Just understand, it’s not 1920 anymore, and the movement has changed (and isn’t going to suddenly revert back tomorrow). A lot of what I’m espousing here is how Reform Jews approach Judaism. I’ve been a member of a temple in a large city (Chicago), a small city (Nashville, TN), a small town (Galesburg, IL) and I’ve never heard a call for Classical Reform to be reintroduced. In fact, people seem to like their temple today more than the one they went to as a child. Maybe we’re learning from our experiences as a movement and moving forward, instead of backward. That’s definitely a good thing in my opinion.

  6. avatar

    Alright, we’re clearly having some misunderstandings and rhetorical mis-firing.

    I think you have not kept abreast of recent developments, whereby neo-Classical thought and minhag have become a larger niche than they were previously. HUC has instituted an awareness curriculum in co-operation with the SCRJ, a non-profit founded to advocate for Classical Reform. This is in no way a “backwards” trend. I’ll leave you to do your own research on that. Try as a starting point.

    I believe I am quite well versed in the historical development of Progressive Judaism, thank you. The earliest “reforms” in German-speaking countries were only aesthetic reforms, though I don’t know if I’d call them “liberalized Orthodox” either. Gradually, the movement grew into a spectrum of Reform, with the “orthodox-with-pipe-organ” on one end, and the “kippot optional, prayers in the vernacular” on the other end. By the time the Holocaust wiped it all out, there was indeed a constituency of German Reform that looked rather like American “Classical” Reform, which had been transplanted to this country early in the movement because the “radical” reformers didn’t get as far in their native countries.

    I am also well aware of the various challenges and opportunities I will be met with at HUC. I don’t think it’s a problem, because I intend to follow Rabbi Yoffie’s advice to “experiment on both ends of the spectrum”, and I expect by the same token to be taken seriously for who I am. What might have been questionable a few years ago, but is now quite assured, is that I will find a community that either actively wants or is willing to work with a rabbi of my sensibilities. I am, after all, not “pure” Classical, and am open to other ideas. The only thing that I will never tolerate, though, is neo-halakhic legalism masquerading as liberal Judaism, as one finds in some Conservative/Masorti circles. I believe the Reform Movement has gotten dangerously close to that in some circles, but I know that it would never be tolerated as a norm.

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