On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Formed in the Wilderness - Parashat Vayigash

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs sits with Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of The Foundation for Jewish Camp, to discuss the impact and benefit that Jewish summer camp has on so many young people. They make a connection between Joseph’s relationship with his brother Judah, from this week's Torah portion, and how that connects to the sense of growth that summer camp fosters.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he has a guest, and this is one of those weeks. He was joined by Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

A longtime camper himself, Jeremy and Rabbi Jacobs spoke about transformation both for Joseph and about our own selves. And they wonder what led you to be the person that you were meant to be.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parshat Vayigash, the book of Genesis. As you know, we've been progressing through the Joseph narrative, and in Vayigash we really have in many ways the most dramatic moment in that saga. And one of the most powerful moments in all of, frankly, religious literature. I am thrilled today to be joined by Jeremy Fingerman, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Jeremy, welcome.

[Jeremy Fingerman] Thank you, Rick. It's really a pleasure to be with you.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And I know that this is a parashah that is special to you. They're all special to rabbis. We have no preferences, but this one's extra special to you.

[Jeremy Fingerman] It is. This is the parashah of my bar mitzvah 46 years ago, and I brought with me just to share with you the chumash, the Torah commentary that was given to me on my bar mitzvah. If I could read the inscription presented to Jeremy Fingerman in the eternal city of Jerusalem on Shabbat Vayigash December 29, 1973 in celebration of his bar mitzvah. How special for me that I have this connection to Israel and to Jerusalem.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Perfect! I love that. In fact, that's the perfect doorway into the parashah. Because one of things that's so powerful about the Joseph narrative is we see this Joseph growing up right before our eyes. You know, he starts off being a slightly bratty young boy not really sure of his place with his brothers, very painful separation being sent and sold into slavery. But here in this week's parashah we see him really grown into a full and inspiring mensch-- a really caring, thoughtful person.

Can you just reflect? You lead the most impressive organization that's helping to raise up Jewish camping, and yet this is also the parashah that you were a young boy, and now you're a grown leader.

[Jeremy Fingerman] Right.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] What's the power of thinking about camp, thinking about Jewish ritual, that helps us grow into the people we were meant to be?

[Jeremy Fingerman] Well, one of the special features of summer camp is that you go away. You're away from your parents, away from home, and you find a new community, and it's a place where you grow Jewishly of course, but grow in every dimension.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Right.

[Jeremy Fingerman] And you return the special nature of returning to camp year after year with your same community, but as you grow and age it becomes really a part of defining who you become as an individual. It played that role for me, and I hope for my kids too. Very, very special to have that time away from home, but then to come back, and as you come back each year a little bit changed, a little bit different. And that helps to evolve yourself, and even your own family.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Beautiful, beautiful! So in the parashah you have Joseph, who frankly reveals his identity to his brothers, and in that moment the brothers are stunned because they literally assume that he's no longer alive. And he says in this one very powerful line ani joseph, cha-oda-vi-chai-- I'm Joseph. Is my father still alive? And they almost can't even speak. They're just stunned, A, because of the horrific thing they did to their brother, and it's a moment that really also you talk about kind of growing up and healing some of the rifts.

It's incredibly powerful. What do you make of that moment?

[Jeremy Fingerman] Well, the moment before he says cha-oda-vi-chai-- is my father still alive-- he asked everybody to leave. All the Egyptians to leave. It's now he's just with his brothers, and the verse in the Torah talks that he sent everybody away, and yet he revealed himself with tears crying.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Right.

[Jeremy Fingerman] But in a way that was heard throughout Egypt, it says, even into pharaoh's home. So the first thing is, you know, obviously it was a big revelation to the brothers, but even a far greater impact because he's now revealing himself to all of Egypt. So he's coming clean, if you will. He's becoming who he is and admitting that, I think. Really interesting.

So the fact that cha-oda-vi-chai-- is my father still alive-- in one sense, also you're away-- let's say if you're in a camp, you're away from your parents. Well, you want to make sure they're still writing you every day, you're getting the mail.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Right, right.

[Jeremy Fingerman] And that there's still care about you even though you're far away.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] That's beautiful. I also love that in some ways we still recognize this guy Joseph because he says cha-oda-vi-chai. He doesn't say is our father still alive. He says is my father. So you still feel like he's still that remarkable leader that is in some ways a little bit removed from above the others because he's literally saved the world by his now a leadership Egypt. What he's done with the pharaoh, they've now basically been able to store rations and to save, which is why the brothers come down.

He's not just a nice guy. He is a transformative leader, but he also still seems to have a little bit of that extra ego, and one of those things that, you know, may grow up in our lives, but do we fundamentally change our very nature? And I just think that as we think of-- and again, not everybody listening to the podcast had the great joy of going to camp. Maybe some would think of sending their own kids or maybe nieces and nephews, but where are those places where we can really be helped into the people we were meant to be?

Because I'm sure that you were a camper along the way. I was. I'm sure there are things I did and said that would be a little bit embarrassed by my 12-year-old self, but in that environment there's such an amount of love, education, and acceptance. What's unique about those kinds of settings that really would help the Josephs of today to find themselves?

[Jeremy Fingerman] So one of the powerful aspects of camp is that you have these role models that are near peers. Your college age counselors who may only be a few years older than you as a camper are these amazing people, amazing role models. They're cool, they've made both camping cool, living in the bunks, Judaism cool, sports cool.

It's remarkable the influence that they can have, and in a sense they're the parent for the summer. But it's a cool parent, and it's a parent you definitely have fun with, and so there becomes a relationship there that is also part of the magic of the experience of these counselors that are your role models.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Beautiful, and they're also having the transformational summers themselves because that's where they take the next level.

[Jeremy Fingerman] And that they're passing down the tradition. Like, they generally have been campers, they become counselors, and now they're passing on the tradition of the camp and of the experience onto that next generation, but as teacher now.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Right.

[Jeremy Fingerman] So that becomes a really powerful, powerful element.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Hear, hear. So if I could just reflect on the opening. It's almost this soliloquy from Judah, the brother who first of all knows the pain that Joseph's death caused dad, not knowing that he's still alive. And then now with Benjamin potentially also, and he steps up and gives the most passionate plea that this young man Benjamin can harm him. And in some ways he expresses what we most want to teach not only at summer camp, but everywhere-- this deep sense of responsibility for our siblings, our genuine siblings, our biologic, but also our wider community, our friends, and even the people with whom we have tension.

And the religion is named after this. Judaism, right? Because of his love for others.

[Jeremy Fingerman] Wow, that's amazing! And what's also the lesson I think here is standing up. Stand up and be counted, and he's modeling that. Judah is modeling that to his brothers, but now we can look and say at any age. Especially we know our youth are wonderful at stepping up and calling us out in society today, that all of us have a voice, all of us have a chance to step up just like Judah finally did here. And how important that is, and what a great lesson for all of us.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So can I just step out and ask you a question about Jewish camps? I mean, this is this unbelievable phenomena. Is it a growing phenomenon? Are we seeing a proliferation of opportunities for many kids day camp, overnight camp all over? Give us a little, if you don't mind, kind of a reglachai on one foot.

[Jeremy Fingerman] So it's a great question. We have about 300 Jewish day and overnight camps across North America. Collectively they serve 180,000 campers, teens, youth teens, and college age counselors in any given summer. That field has grown about 10%. No, it's grown to 20% in the last 10 years. About 2% a year. I call it slow, steady growth. But, as you well know, we don't have many things in our community that are growing at a slow, steady rate.

So, number one, it's a great industry, if you will, or a field that is robust and growing. One of the areas of growth is we've realized that not every camp is right for every kid, so we have to create camps that can attract every different type of diversity of today's Jewish community. And the URJ, the Union for Reform Judaism, you're one of our strongest partners, if not our strongest partner, that is also developing specialty camps.

Shorter sessions, but we have the URJ's 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy for those who are interested in science and tech, the sports academy. If you're a serious athlete, you can get serious skill building but still be in that powerful Jewish environment. And now URJ Creative Arts Academy, so it's a wonderful partnership, but we need those options to attract kids who might not otherwise go to camp.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So thank you, and I also point out for us we did a little study of the impact of our summer camp experiences over time, and we had an alumni survey. And it turned out that particularly the alumni of our overnight camps, that four out of five are deeply connected to Jewish life today. And they're not connected because somebody wagged their finger at them and said you better join a synagogue, you better get involved. They found something so nourishing, so inspiring and connecting that they can't imagine living their lives without it.

[Jeremy Fingerman] Look, in a way I call this joyous Judaism. Camp Judaism is joyous Judaism, and it's reflected in so many of the URJ congregations, the song, the liturgy, the prayer are really came out of the Debbie Friedman and about the camp environment. But to offer that chance to all the things we've said, but to do it in this joyous, joyful Jewish environment. That's why I'm not surprised four out of five they want to stay involved and stay connected, because it's so, so powerful.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So, you know, just thinking about leaving home, which for some of us was a little scary. But as you say, those counselors and the staff that create a kind of envelope of love and acceptance, so the first time being away and being a little tentative at bedtime and the rituals. It really helps us into some of those natural things that we have to grow into, and thinking about not just the amazing Jewish enrichment, but also the human development.

[Jeremy Fingerman] Well, and especially now in the age in which we live where our world is changing at such a rapid pace, accelerating pace of change. And camp is probably even more important than it's ever been, because you need a break from the screens, you need a break from-- you need to learn to communicate face to face, you need to learn persistence and grit. The skills you develop as a camper, as a counselor, are the skills you need to really function in today's world, and those are the skills we'll really need to be successful moving forward, those skills that are developed being away in this environment in camp.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs]  And something we've just noticed, and Jeremy maybe you're noticing it in a wider sense, and it has to do with the name of the parashah. Because we actually have plenty of campers who are coming to camp as their first Jewish point of contact. They're not coming to us from a synagogue or from an early childhood center. The word Vayigash and he drew close, and it's how do we draw more people close to Torah, close to Jewish community, close to the values that inspire us.

So maybe as a last thought, you know, camp as Vayigash, as a place where we draw close to all the above. You know, outside in a beautiful setting, feeling a sense of the holiness and the creation around us, holiness of being part of a community, holiness in learning Torah and feeling like it's integrated into my daily life. It's kind of a beautiful thought that that's a big part of what we're doing.

[Jeremy Fingerman] And think about our religion was formed in the wilderness in the desert, and it was Moses who finds the burning bush, right? We go to camp in the wilderness, and we're away from home and away from screens. And do we find that little bush, that spark that's going to stay with us, in a way in the wilderness away from home? It's incredible. I've got to close just with one final thought.

You started with cha-od-avi-chai, and I just have to give a shout out. I know you feel the same way that the Avichai Foundation has for 35 years been the prime driver and thought leader in terms of philanthropic support for the field of Jewish camp. And I don't remember exactly how many years ago they made a decision that they would sunset in December of 2019. And I remember hearing that and saying, oh, that's a decade from now.

I think when I came in it was a decade from now, and here we are. It's happened, and I think what we'll miss not only their financial resources, but the thought leadership that they brought. And I think when you ask the question cha-od-avi-chai, I think at least we can say in the field of Jewish camp, yes, indeed. Avichai still lives, because we're going to carry on and keep driving what we know is this central powerful experience of Jewish expression.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Beautiful! Perfect. Perfect conclusion and Vayigash. You've helped so many young people, Jeremy, over these years draw close in all the ways, and thank you for sharing your bar mitzvah parashah with all of us, all those lines of connection to you and to Jerusalem, and to the generations of your own family. Very, very powerful bit of Torah echoed through all these amazing institutions, and particularly the incredibly powerful Jewish summer camp. Vayigash.

[Jeremy Fingerman] --to be with you.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Pleasure.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit reformjudaism.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat!