How Goodly Are Thy Tents
By Rabbi Jack P. Paskoff
In 2003, Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe, well known sociologists studying Jewish life in America, published a book called: “How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. While the book is important on many levels, the authors would readily admit that they borrowed the title. In fact, it comes from this week’s parasha, Balak. Remember the story? Balak, the ruler of one of the many tribes Israel will encounter in the desert during their forty years of wandering, sends for the renowned sorcerer, Bilaam, to curse the people of Israel. The result is that Bilaam can only do God’s bidding, and utters only words of praise, including the words in the title of this book. We probably know these words better in Hebrew, as we sing them in a variety of melodies each time we enter a sanctuary for a morning service: Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael.
I have now completed my fourteenth year on the faculty at URJ Camp Harlam. In the ‘80s, I spent six summers on staff at the Eisner Camp. In all the years I have served as a rabbi, I have watched hundreds of children from my congregation attend our camps, and beyond that, our youth programs of all kinds. I am constantly aware of the role that Women of Reform Judaism, and back in the day, the members of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, played and continue to play in creating and sustaining our programs for children and teens, in providing critical “Jewish socializing experiences”. Religious schools do a good job, but involvement in our intensive youth programs are the greatest predictors of adult Jewish involvement.
I love being able to brag about my congregation’s sisterhood. When the religious school wants something extra, we go to sisterhood. When the youth group wants something extra, we go to sisterhood. When kids, regardless of need, attend a URJ camp for the first time, there is a stipend for the family to help make the camp experience possible. When any child, regardless of need, attends any NFTY event, there is a partial subsidy from sisterhood. When there IS need, sisterhood has often reached beyond the standard amount. For nineteen years, I have been able to promise families that no child will be missing these opportunities because of financial reasons. I can do so with confidence because I have our sisterhood as my partner.
Ours is not a wealthy congregation by many standards, but it is a congregation that has made a commitment to our youth that we stand by. To the members of my sisterhood, and to all the Women of Reform Judaism, thank you.
At our summer camps tonight, hundreds of candles will be lit to welcome Shabbat. May the light of the Shabbat candles in our camps, in our homes, and in our congregations brighten all our lives.
Jack P. Paskoff serves as the Rabbi of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA.