Camp is a magical place. It is. I don’t know of any other institution that inspires in both children and adults the same deep love. When I talk to someone about their camp experiences, their souls open up. Even their body language changes, their eyes get larger, their shoulders roll back, as if freeing the heart at the center of their chest to the world. And for good reason. Camp is a space that we have set aside, one that is safe for our young people to be whoever it is they would like to be. We remove the pressures of society and family, and just let them explore.
Camp Simcha is run every summer in San Dieguito Park, California. The camp is broken up into 8 weeks, each of the 8 including one field trip and 2 swims, but every day begins with circle time. 300 kids seated on a smoothed out cement floor underneath a large gazebo complete with a stage. Craig Parks, our beloved camp director, begins with a song, usually a bluesy rendition that includes the words Boker Tov, good morning, in every goofy voice you can imagine from squeaky to Elvis. What happens from there is truly anyone’s guess. There have been a number of ongoing shticks over the years, mechanical gorilla, I can’t believe it’s not butter, even the water balloon catch, which challenges a counselor to catch a water balloon thrown clear over the gazebo, which for reference can hold 300 children sitting in a circle. The water balloon rarely survives. But the entire thing is done based on what any one of the counselors feel like goofing off with in that moment. We would make up skits on the spot, climb on top of each other and build an entire game around the odd placement of a leaf on the ground. And each day that set the mood for camp. To prep us, Craig had us come up with back pocket activities and shtick. During the week leading up to camp we would run circle time for each other, practicing jumping in when we saw another person running out of ideas, and learning the words to the songs we would sing throughout the summer. The last day of staff training my first year as a CIT, we finished a rousing game of chip in the ear, where we all listened carefully as someone slowly ate a Tostito, and then Craig had us all sit down. “Now there’s something you should know” he told us, “after you do all this shtick, after circle time and the kids see you goof off, they’re going to come up to you, and call you weird.” Craig looked at us “You should know, that they mean that as a compliment.” He was reminding us of something so easy to forget: different is a good thing.
We pride ourselves on giving children safe spaces to be themselves, to be different, and often we are quite successful at it, engineering environments where they can be safe from ridicule, where they can live and explore who they are. We fight bullies for them, and orchestrate their world to be free from the burdens of adulthood. But as we grow into adults something changes and we start to loose this for ourselves. We are confronted with the pressures of adult life, of paying rent, of addressing challenges that don’t have easy answers. And as we grow older it becomes more and more difficult to throw out societal norms because we don’t have that curated space anymore. Unconsciously our society begins to push people into a mold. So many adults fall victim to the same peer pressure that we fight to protect our children from. The same bullying, the same social pressure exists when we’re older but it’s harder to find a safe space from it. We talk about the deep spark of the divine that rests in each of us, and we forget to let that spark shine.
I always imagine Hannah Arendt with a cigarette in her hand. The many photos of the great Jewish thinker always seem to include one, with some thoughtful or exhausted expression, as if she went through her days in the same way a runner might complete the final journey around the track, barely through the finish line. She embodied the New York intellectual in every respect. She was intense, a thinker who cast off confining labels like philosopher, Arendt explained herself as a thinker. She could have taught at any school in the United States, but insisted on working at the New School in New York City because of the alternative approach they had to education and thought and activism. She wrote thick books, ones where not only did the publishers cheat by sneaking in rice-paper thin pages, but where each page required the reader to pause for minutes or hours to assimilate the dense content contracted and stuffed into the carefully chosen words. Arendt is the Heschel of the world of philosophy, despite her eschewing the term, she inspired almost every social critic after her, and was prophetic in her vision. She began her career as a prodigy of thinkers. At Marburg University she caught the attention of Martin Heidegger, at the time and still one of the most influential existentialists. Their intellectual relationship blossomed into brief but intense romantic one. And after their fling she continued to study with a who’s who of other great philosophers in Germany. She was the darling of the intellectual world in Germany until the outbreak of Nazism. Arendt fled the country first to Paris and then to New York. From afar she watched the horrors of the Holocaust unfold and at her writing desk she tried to make sense of it. In 1951 she published the book The Origins of Totalitarianism, where she tried to explain how such a catastrophe could happen to such a civilized society. It has always been required reading in academic circles studying politics and the Holocaust, but with such violent rhetoric so commonplace today the book has made a resurgence in other circles. In her book she wrote that “Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from a political into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals.” Arendt reminds us of the dangers of any society that has no tolerance for different. A danger she was all too well acquainted with. This is why Jews are critical for the health of secular society. I’ll explain, but first another story.
In late 1978 Ron Stallworth responded to a paper add, recruiting for the local Klu Klux Klan. He wrote up a letter, sent it off, and then forgot about it entirely. At the time he was busy with his work at the Colorado Springs police force and among all of his casework he completely forgot he sent the letter out. That is, until he got a call on his work line asking for Ron Stallworth. Now Ron was an intelligence detective, and it was very unusual for anyone to call him on his work number, which was unlisted and even untraceable. All his phone calls went out, not in. And it was even more peculiar for him to get a call on that line asking for him by name, he always went undercover and had a series of names that people knew him by. Later when he recalled the moment he said he had a “brain cramp” when writing the letter, a rookie cop he forgot to change his own name. No problem, he chatted up the man on the other end of the line, telling him how he hated all kinds of non-whites. That the country was being infested by them. They spoke for a while. “You’re just the kind of man we’re looking for,” said the recruiter, “when can we meet?”
Now this took Ron a little off guard, as I said, he completely forgot that he had sent in the letter in the first place, and he was a rookie detective. He had done a little work, but nothing that major, and to complicate the matter greatly further, Ron Stallworth was black. In fact he was the first ever black police detective in Colorado Springs. Like a professional though, he kept the recruiter on the line, agreed on a time and place, wrote it down, and then hung up the phone. He then turned straight to one of his co-police, and handed him the slip of paper. Chuck met up with the group later on, and over the following months they infiltrated the ranks of the Klu Klux Klan. Chuck in person, while the real Ron Stallworth stayed hot on the line in communication with the members of the local chapter. He even worked all the way up the phone tree to David Duke the national head of the Klan, and was in line to be the president of the chapter when the case broke open and the police made arrests.
It’s hard to believe, but this story is actually true, as so often truth is able to push the limits of our imagination far greater than fiction. A black man joined the Klu Klux Klan. Recently Spike Lee has dramaticized the events in his movie BlacKKKlansman. There are many timely and pressing moments in the movie, but one has been vivid in my mind since the moment I saw it.
In the scene, Ron Stallworth is prepping Chuck for his first meeting with the members of the KKK, filling him in on any number of things he might have said to the people over the phone. The two of them needed to know all of the same things if, after all, they were going to pass as the same person. Ron, himself still a rookie was busy creating contingency plans when their other partner, slick back hair, short and skinny to Chuck’s towering frame, points to Chuck’s chest and tells him that if he wants to pass as Ron Stallworth, a white supremacist, he “probably shouldn’t wear that Jewish necklace.”
Now, the actual officer that partnered with Ron has chosen to remain anonymous, but in the movie the veteran filmmaker Lee adds a touch of brilliance, and the anonymous white cop is named Flip Zimmerman. Perhaps inspired by the all the Anti-Semitic rhetoric Ron recounts in his book, Lee decides to imagine Chuck as a Jew.
This shakes me every time I think about it. Ron Stallworth could pass as white over the phone, carry on conversations with the KKK that reached all the way up to a friendship with David Duke, but couldn’t walk through the door because of his skin, but Flip, who was Jewish, could attend every meeting pretending to be someone else. Because Jews are more different than different.
It’s always difficult for me to fill out surveys and questionnaires. Inevitably there is a section for demographics, charting the different elements of my identity that might point to some corollary to whatever is being charted, and when I reach the section for my ethnicity I select white. Am I white though? Jews in the United States can pass for white. But I don’t always feel like I’m white. Years ago I started experimenting with when I wore a kippah. I found that I had an extra awareness when I wore it. My ears perked up just a little more when I went to the grocery store or out on a walk with the ritual object on my head. And I even think people treated me a little differently. There were the obvious times, when someone would ask me if I was Jewish, or what thing on my head was, but in a general sense I didn’t feel like I was a part of the club, I felt different. I can only imagine what my entire skin would signal, what a black person experiences every day.
But there seems to be a societal push to whiteness, to sameness so powerful that when I remove the kippah I become white. And this worries me. It seems the goal of bullies and tyrants to force sameness on every person, to categorize into us and them, and to cast out anyone who doesn’t belong. That’s certainly the aim of white supremacy, to try and recognize a white race, to claim it as superior, and similarly to claim the United States as it’s rightful home. This is done with violence and with nationalism as its justification. Nationalism, that creed that claims that it is right to set borders on identity, to claim purity and division and then legislate, and militarize on that exclusion.
Which is why it is so powerful to imagine a Jew sitting in the meetings of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s. Because other than the fact that he was claiming a name that he did not have, different history and beliefs, the person he was could fit perfectly in a club that excluded him. Because as soon as we start drawing lines we find out they don’t stay. Like dragging a pen across a block of ice the foundation is not stable, it flounders. It will melt.
Moreover it illustrates not only the role of the Jew in American society, but our societal role for millennia, we will not fit. Our very existence frustrates the calming schemes of purists and racists who want to have a world not painted in but divided by colors. But this is who we are.
And we should be, and can be and are a beacon of hope to the understanding that there are no boundaries where humanity is concerned, only those born in one place or another, at one time or another and not color but circumstance determines that.
And that is nationalism. That ideology that asserts that there is a norm, that basterdizes the knowledge that we are all connected with the insistence and demand that we all be the same. Racism is the end of it, but the beginning is not celebrating difference. When we are not able to acknowledge that difference is inherent and something to be celebrated, we not only snuff out the light that burns in each person, but we stamp out the light of our collective soul, that unique destiny that can only be brought by each person letting their own self shine.
And we can fall into that, each of us, and even here. There are moments at IHC where we fail to recognize that not every member here is from Eastern Europe, not every person who walks through our doors can enter restrooms divided into men and women, not everyone here has enough money pay their rent, we do not all share the same politics, and we do a disservice to the ideal of our community when we lose sight of that.
But that is also why I love the synagogue. There is no other place in the United States where people who vote differently, who live differently, who think differently can share the same space and share it intimately. Our synagogues are a shelter from the storm of a wider world that demands conformity. We as Jews in our sacred space proudly let the light of each person, the divine spark that is in each of us, shine uniquely.
And that too is the work we do on Yom Kippur. Each year we come to this point looking around and seeing that somehow, at some point we began to drift away from who we uniquely are. We allowed media, peers and anxiety to pressure us into wearing certain clothes, acting a certain way, and we come into the synagogue, close the door to those influences and try and respark who we are. This is the work of teshuvah, to return. I invite us this year to return to who we are, and to let that shine brightly. May our community be a place where we celebrate each person in it, and may everyone in our country someday so too be inspired.