I grew up at URJ Camp Harlam, my local Union for Reform Judaism camp in rural Pennsylvania. In my first year on staff, a new assistant director named Sam Roberts started. He came from a foreign land called **California**. He had the sunkissed tan, affable smile and warm personality of a Beach Boys song. But the thing I remember most was his authenticity and confidence, the way he came into a new community seemingly free to be himself. His introduction to us came with a catchphrase that seemed too corny to work, too goofy. But he said it with his whole body – loudly – proudly – and had all of us repeat him. Almost every time that he got up in front of us that summer, we knew it was coming. 


<Congregation repeats>

At the beginning of that summer, I was too cool for school. “I love being Jewish…🙄” But his genuine goodness and enthusiasm won me over. Within a few weeks, I was screaming “”I LOVE BEING JEWISH” with the enthusiasm of Sam. 

His authenticity, his modeling of what it means to bring your full self into a space, his letting go of inhibitions and insecurities, his display of feeling accepted and supported, his freedom to just be him, was everything I valued about camp.

This summer I made my return to camp after many years – with Maili and Aria and Caleb in tow – and served on the faculty of our local Union for Reform Judaism camp, Camp Newman, which is a hub of youth and congregational engagement across the state and region for our Reform movement of Judaism. Our time was magical and filled with special moments.

On my last day of teaching Judaism & Hip Hop to teenagers, a 15-year-old from a rough part of Sacramento pulled me aside. He was struggling with his peers making jokes about serious things that he knew too well; he was struggling, feeling like he didn’t fit in with his friends at home, or his friends at camp; he was struggling with antisemitism at school; he was struggling. 

He had a lot on his shoulders. Camp, for him, provided space to unload his burdens, to find an adult to talk to. Ultimately our conversation led him to understand the power of his voice and use his struggles as a leadership opportunity to speak up. Just a few hours after our conversation, I walked past him talking to a group, having a serious conversation. He told me later that he immediately confronted the issue with his peers and helped them understand. I was in awe.

In the middle of our time at camp, Aria got inspired by her friends and decided to swim and swam by herself for the first time. She and Caleb climbed the rock wall for the first time. They made more friends with campers and staff than I could count, jumped into Israeli dancing and sang their first unit song in front of the entire camp. 

One day I found myself in a conversation with other faculty members – most of whom I was meeting for the first time this summer. One person shared vulnerably about the struggles of raising their child over the past few years, the dangers, the fear, the resources, the time, the upheaval of their life. The domino effect was quick. Another shared challenges with their parents, of having to make hard choices for their career and children, the fallout over feelings of abandonment and isolation. Another shared challenges of having children with special needs. In this circle of vulnerability, it took me no time to share my many challenges in the past few years. 

This summer reminded me of something I seemed to forget – I was my best self at camp. Camp allowed me to “let go of who I thought I should be for who I am” (from Brene Brown) in all my messy imperfection. Camp let me “tell the story of who I am with my whole heart” (from Brene Brown) and remember that what makes me vulnerable also makes me beautiful and special. 

As we drove out of camp’s gates and headed home, I was reminded of the saddest part of camp – it’s not year round. For generations now, synagogues have tried to capture the magic of camp with special camp shabbats and reworked teen programs and calling religious school teachers counselors. But it doesn’t work because I think we haven’t been focusing on the right ingredient of camp’s special sauce. 

Brene Brown, the famed researcher of human connection and vulnerability, teaches that connection is the very reason we’re here – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to human life. But she found something strange when researching connection, something so strange that she had to find a therapist to talk it through because she had, in her words, a breakdown. And in her therapist’s words, a spiritual awakening. 

She went in and told her therapist, “I have a vulnerability issue…it seems it’s the core of shame and fear and struggle for worthiness but also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” 

She found that the key to connection – and also the kryptonite that unraveled it – were both vulnerability. On the one hand, in order for real connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen – REALLY seen. On the other hand, vulnerability can lead to feelings of shame, of feeling unworthy, of feeling I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not rich enough. The key to that healthy vulnerability, according to Brene Brown, is simple but hard; we can let ourselves be seen. 

Camp this summer helped me understand that the key, the fertile ground upon which camp blossoms, is that healthy vulnerability. When we leave that safe space, for whatever reason we tighten back up. We snap back into thinking we need to project that everything is ok all the time, that we have it together, that our jobs are great, that our extended families don’t have drama, that we have no sins.  

Depending on the religious community, letting ourselves be truly seen can be a tall task. There are so many barriers – sometimes self inflicted and sometimes community inflicted –  sometimes so many that we just give up. We stop showing up, or we show up occasionally, or we allow ourselves to be passive members of community or even leave altogether. So many of us willingly opt out of the parts of religious life that bring us the most reward because it’s inconvenient, because there’s little instant gratification, because we’re tired, because we think we can replace community with something else.  

Author Jill Filipovich, who is a sharp critic of organized religion and its forceful impact on our politics & country, recognizes the challenge of the societal downturn in religious community participation. She writes: “Where do we come together across…age, class, and educational lines to mull over big ideas and offer mutual support? My answers are all insufficient. There was college. There was work. There was my yoga studio. None offer quite what has gone missing with the end of religion.” 

Filipovic mentions the findings of journalist Jessica Grose of the New York Times who asked what replaced religion for some: “Meditation, long walks, time spent in nature, physical activity.” Filipovic reiterates: “These are all good things, all with proven benefits for one’s mental and / or physical health…You should definitely meditate. You should definitely take a walk. You should definitely marvel at the beauty of the natural world. You should definitely do something physical that challenges you and makes your body feel good. But none of that is a replacement for community and in-person connection, including with people who come from different backgrounds, see the world a little differently, and are in different places in their lives.”

Jake Meador, a journalist at the Atlantic, looked into the reason why Americans are trending away from religious communities. In part, he reviewed a book called The Great Dechurching which had a rather simple finding: “the defining problem driving out most people who leave [religious community] is … just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. 

Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.” If it’s not obvious, this is bad; not just for houses of worship trying to stay open but for society as a whole. 

This summer at camp was a window into a different possibility. Something we have within our hands the power to build, if we have the will. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a beloved Hasidic rabbi in the Warsaw ghetto who died in the Holocaust in 1943, wrote a book in the 1920s called Conscious Community. The book is a guide for his chasidim, his followers, to build community. He writes: “Our goal is to gradually rise above the noise and tumult of the world, by steady incremental steps…The whole premise of our group is the vast human potential for both baseness and elevation. Our bodies and souls are currently quite unevolved, but our potential for holiness is very great.”

This is the task of community in 2023, in 5784 – to rise above the noise and tumult of the world and work to realize our holiness, individually and as a community. 

In our community calendar, you will find more events and programs this year that bring us together to break bread, to discuss big ideas, to hear different perspectives, to sing and pray, to celebrate, to travel. There is one program in particular that I want to highlight for you – Happy Havdalah Hangout.

On most Third Saturdays throughout the year, our whole community will gather – from our tiniest babes to our wisest elders. The building will be full of activities – baby & me, singing, music, arts & crafts, games, Torah study, and so much more – something for every age led by me and Rabbi Neil and Jessica and Eitan and our ECC & religious school staff. Then, after about an hour of activity, we will gather all together to sing havdalah as a community and welcome a new week.   

But gathering is only one piece of the puzzle, only one of our tasks. My time at camp this summer helped me understand that the key to unlocking the type of community that rises above the noise and tumult of the world and helps us realize our potential for holiness is the healthy vulnerability that Brene Brown talks about. 

Last year I stood up here and shared some of the rivers I had crossed in the past few years. Since then many of you have shared with me that that sermon’s vulnerability spoke to you. But it felt like a one-off, one-directional moment. When I went to camp this summer – and experienced the secret sauce of camp as an individual, as a rabbi, as a parent, as a partner – I understood my definition of Jewish Community: 

it’s not simply where Judaism happens, it’s where I feel safe, where I feel seen, where I don’t have to pretend, where I can be my weird, wonderful, flawed self. Where I can scream “I LOVE BEING JEWISH” and know that I can be accepted and embraced and loved.

One of our first days at camp, as we were walking to the chadar ochel – the dining hall – I heard kids screaming but I didn’t know from where. It was distant but, unmistakable – “i love being jewish” 

Apparently this was the place where Sam started this tradition. Campers hike up to the Jewish star on the hill and scream out for all of camp to hear: “I LOVE BEING JEWISH!” By the end of our two weeks at Camp Newman, the I LOVE BEING JEWISH torch had been passed. 

What I inherited from Sam in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania was passed on to Aria & Caleb where Sam started all those years ago. But more than that, I hope they inherit a community – or communities – where they can be their whole, weird, funky, flawed, beautiful, imperfect selves. I hope they can be honest about their flaws, reflective of their mistakes, and loved & accepted in their process of growth. 

There is a Japanese practice and philosophy called kintsugi. When a ceramic dish breaks, it is not only fixed, but it’s new cracks are highlighted in gold or other precious metal.  As a philosophy, it understands breaking and repair as an inevitable part of an object – or a person’s – history. Kintsugi teaches us that that is something to celebrate, not something to hide.

When I arrived at Beth Shir Shalom two years ago, I was a bunch of pieces scotch-taped together. This community – the people on our professional team – especially Cynthia, the people in front of me here this morning, the people watching on YouTube, the students in our classrooms – helped put me back together. It’s been a journey to learn to celebrate the brokenness and not hide it, but it’s also shown me the power that being vulnerable has to heal, to locate joy, to spark creativity, to belong, to Love Where I’m At.

One artist, over the past few years, has really helped me accept my cracks, my brokenness, my imperfections. Allen Stone brings his whole beautiful weird funky self to his music and has helped me love where i’m at in my journey. In just a moment, Jessica & Eitan are going to sing “Where You’re At,” his song about vulnerability, about allowing ourselves to be seen – REALLY seen, about learning to love ourselves.

I hope in 5784, you lean into community. I hope we can rise above the noise and tumult of the world to realize our holiness exists alongside our struggles. And most importantly, I hope we can all learn to love where we’re at and feel safe to share our whole, beautiful selves with the world.

Shanah Tovah!


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