Rabbinic Reflections: Visiting God

It is Visiting Day at camp. In keeping with a decades old tradition in the American Jewish community, my older children are at a Jewish sleepaway camp nestled in the mountains. In the idyllic environments built by different organizations and owners, nature is just an excuse for where God really shows up, in community.

To be clear, I failed as a Jewish summer camper. I tried two different overnight camps and did not go back to either. I found other summer sleepaway programs, and I got some of what comes from a great camp experience — memories, lasting friendships, and opportunities for growth and independence. I did not quite achieve experiences of community until I was a staff member.

Community is a rare find these days. It requires attention and dedication. People similar enough to come together, to commune, need to find unity: comm-unity. That coming together rarely happens by accident. It takes intention, inclusion, and the dynamic process of group formation. Camps, or good ones at least, are excellent at speeding along group formation to get past any storming, beyond even the plateau of norming, to get to performing, to use Bruce Tuckman’s language.

At camp, a day is like a week, a week is like a month, a month is like a year. That much life happens because of the community that is built day in and day out a few hours at a time. By living together in tight quarters, sharing countless little moments, and also enduring big challenges, campers find their common humanity no matter how different they may be from one another. It is in that space of mutual appreciation, of mutual valuation and respect, that God shows up.

It is true, not every camper fits in. I did not. I did, though, see what others around me achieved. In my youth, I would never have called it spiritual, but I felt it was a palpable “good.” On staff, I worked extra hard to make sure that especially the campers who felt on the periphery were valued by others. I will never forget the group chant my bunk initiated in honor of their peer who left camp early. He was valued, he was treasured; and, when he left, we all felt like a piece of God had left us, too.

I am not likely to find God at my children’s camp on visiting day. There will be a bit too much competing for space and time to be together as a family, dividing the special community the camp has built over the last three and half weeks. If I slow down, though, and listen to what my children have to tell me about their time and experience, I fully expect hear testaments to their experience of what I hope one day they will call experiencing God’s presence.

In a world so filled with individual pursuits, recognizing that we can find the divinity within ourselves and in others by spending quality time appreciating what each of us has to offer is just a beginning. We need the multiplier effect of a whole bunk, a whole unit, or a whole camp doing the same to see more than a mirror of the divine. If we do, we might God’s worldly presence, God’s dwelling, the Shechinah. Let us visit God by revisiting community; there is so much to gain.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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