By Jaclyn Fromer, URJ Camp Newman Education Director 2011
The Birkat Hamazon is the longest and most frequently invoked prayer we do at camp. It is a long series of blessings over sustenance. We chant it after every meal, giving thanks for the bounty which we have just enjoyed. This means it is done a whopping six times a day: early and late meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In one of its benedictions, we chant:
“Harachaman, hu yitein ahavah bein b’nei Yitzhak, u’vein b’nei Yishmael.”
Loosely translated, this means, “[Blessed be] the Holy One, who promotes love between the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael.”
This fundamental statement has been a part of our Birkat Hamazon for a very long time. This particular benediction recognizes the connection we Jews have with our Muslim brothers and sisters, encouraging those who invoke it to reach for connections and common ground.
On Monday August 8th, I had the pleasure of hearing this verse chanted by 70+ Newman campers and staff in the dining hall of the Salam Center, an Islamic cultural center and mosque in Sacramento.
Hevrah, the social justice Eidah at Newman, has spent the past three weeks learning about Muslim/Jewish relations in America. They have learned about the pillars of faith of Islam, the beliefs and practices of different sects of the religion, the intensified Islamaphobia which has increased in this country tenfold since 9/11, and the value of speaking out against injustice and prejudice. The Eidah has also devoted a portion of their summer to learning about the Arab/Israeli conflict, spending a great deal of time learning from our Mishlachat (Israeli delegation) and other guest speakers of Jewish and Islamic faiths.
The campers and counselors of this eidah have spent their summer learning and doing the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world. Guided by two amazing Rashim, Eliza and Amanda, and the incredible Rabbi Jim Kaufman of Temple Beth Hillel in Los Angeles, this eidah has molded and created budding social activists. It has pushed the envelope and challenged people young and old to think about their actions and choices. And it has inspired the entire camp community to be bold and determined, embracing the values and principles we as Reform Jews stand for.
On August 8, Hevrah took to the streets in their annual Project Day. Following a three-week long period of meeting in task forces (which include lobbying, publicity, education, and guerilla theater) the campers were ready and prepared to promote tolerance, acceptance, and education in California’s capital city.
First stop: the Capitol Building in Sacramento, where the lobbying task force took the stage. Twelve campers sat in the Committee Room, seated in gigantic leather chairs at an elevated round table. These exceptionally eloquent young men and women lobbied for increased education in public schools on religious sensitivity and awareness. They spoke of religious tolerance and pluralism, and on the growing threat of Islamaphobia, among many subjects. These campers were poised and prepared, mature and detailed. They demonstrated a nuanced and impressive handle on the subject they had studied the past three weeks.
The campers spoke to two members of Darrell Steinberg’s staff. Steinberg is the President Pro-Tem of the State Senate and a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. His staff members, one of whom is a Muslim American, were beyond impressed with their presentation. They stated they could not remember a more eloquent or mature group of teenagers presenting such a well-thought-out case. They assured our teens that their voices were being heard; that their words would reach Senator Steinberg and make their impact.
Next stop: Old Town Sacramento. Straight off the bus, Hevrah campers jumped headfirst into their giant flashmob, taking over a central chunk of the area to perform their choreographed dance number. The song to which they danced, “Who’s Going to Change the World Tonight,” matches Hevrah’s theme and cheer.
Hevrah campers then petitioned around Old Town for about forty-five minutes. Each mini group was charged with educating passersby about their various topics. Some people were receptive; some were clearly not. Yet Hevrah campers were exceptionally brave. They stomped through Old Town Sacramento with determination in their eyes.
Later on in the afternoon, Hevrah continued their meetings and followed them with T’filah on the Capitol lawn. Designed completely by the campers themselves, this T’filah was a chance for each of us to collect ourselves and our thoughts; to pause and reflect and allow the meaning of the day to resonate within us.
The day concluded with a visit to the Salam Center, a complex on the outskirts of Sacramento. For many of us it was our first visit to an Islamic house of worship. While there, we took a tour, met with representatives from CAIR - the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and observed an evening prayer session. It was exceptionally touching and mesmerizing to watch.
Finally, as we visited the center during the holy month of Ramadan, our visit ended with an Iftar: a breaking of the daily fast after sundown. At this iftar, members of the community made an outstanding meal for us to enjoy: curried chicken, rice, hummus, eggplant, salad, and a delicious soup. After a day of lobbying, petitioning, and expanding their minds, the meal was a welcome celebration for our Hevrah campers.
As we headed back to Santa Rosa after our long day in Sacramento, it dawned on me just how meaningful this day was. Looking behind me on the bus at the dozens of sleepy teenagers, I saw looks of fulfillment, contentedness, and pride. To end the day knowing that they had taken what they had learned this summer to the streets of California’s capital, raising their voices and making their impact, was nothing short of exceptional.
To strive for peace amongst all peoples, to live in a land where all are equal; this is the essence of repairing the world. For this education director, knowing our campers learned as they taught the masses this summer and on their Project Day, well, there is simply nothing more rewarding than that.