Camps have never been more crucial as a joyous sanctuary for our kids

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Our sages teach
MiSheNichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha
(Ta’anit 29a), “when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing.”

It may seem counterintuitive to say this when, for many of us, the Purim holiday this year (beginning the evening of March 16) coincides with the anniversary of the first major COVID-19 lockdowns in the United States.

Purim 5780 (March 9-10, 2020) remains etched in my mind as the last communal celebration before the virus turned my whole world upside-down.

Na’afoch hu, “it was turned upside down,” a phrase that comes from the first verse of the ninth chapter of Megillat Esther, is both a reminder and an invitation.

We are reminded that, in the critical moment, when the enemies of the Jews sought to destroy them, the opposite happened. We are invited to employ a similar sort of inversion in our Purim celebration, to flout expectations and conventions in favor of unadulterated joy.

So, as we encounter another grim milestone in the pandemic, we must seek to na’afoch hu. We must find a way to turn our mourning into dancing (Psalms 30:11). In doing so, we will realize the words of our sages, MiSheNichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha.

What could be more Jewish than seeking to increase joy in a time of sorrow? The Psalmist wrote, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy (126:5).”

Of the many populations in our community that have sown in tears throughout these pandemic years, there are perhaps none as in need of a joyous reaping than our children.

At the Rabbi Leslie Yale Gutterman Religious School, and elsewhere in our community, we have made valiant and important efforts to support our children through this tumultuous time. We also recognize that there is only so much we can do.

Our children have endured too much. Our children have missed too many critical moments and experiences. But, for so many of them, even as pandemic waves washed over us, camp was the life-preserver that kept their heads above water.

Camp builds resilience and increases joy. Jewish summer camp is particularly important in identity formulation for our young people. Ten years ago, the Foundation for Jewish Camp reported that about 70% of Jewish leaders and communal professionals had attended Jewish overnight summer camp. I can personally attest that camp was intrinsic to my formation as a Jew and a leader.

Camp can be a sanctuary in a storm. It is a sanctuary that every child deserves; this summer, they deserve to reap in joy. But we must be the ones who sow for their sake.

In Parashah Terumah, God instructs Moses: Va’Asu Li Mikdash V’Shachanti B’Tocham (Exodus 25:8), “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.”

But the building of the Mikdash, the Israelites’ portable Tabernacle, is just like the building of any sanctuary – it requires a fully engaged communal effort. Moses took donations, large and small, from all whose heart so moved them.

The Israelites gave of themselves, each according to their own abilities. Sometimes the gift was monetary, but not exclusively. The word terumah, says Rashi, occurs three times in the beginning of the parashah to indicate that the people made three kinds of offerings to support the various functions of the Tabernacle.

They gave goods, time and money, all for the sake of their community.

Terumah, often translated as an “offering” or “donation,” connotes a sort of giving that is more than a means to an end. The root of the word (reish, vav, mem) implies elevation, because the gifts the Israelites gave for the Mikdash raised up the entirety of the community.

If we build camps as a sanctuary, our children will enjoy physical and psychological benefits that will raise up our entire community. Camp increases joy and camp increases well-being. We can create a fitting dwelling place for God, and, if we do, God will repay us in kind. But it takes all of us.

This year, we are blessed with 60 days of Adar to increase joy in our community. But, in order to reap, we must sow. In order to build a fitting sanctuary for God in this community, each one of us must contribute. May we do so intentionally, for the sake of the generations to come.

Let us all give of ourselves for the sake of the children in our community, to ensure that any child who wants to go to camp this summer has an opportunity to do so.

PRESTON NEIMEISER is a rabbi at Temple Beth-El, in Providence.