By Rabbi Jill L. Maderer
In a recent article in The Economist, “Immersive Experiences, the Future of Philanthropy,” a study explores the impact that technology offers to awaken our empathy for a social justice need by bringing us closer to a cause.
We might not be able to travel to Africa to see the mutilated elephant corpses robbed of their feet and tusks, but a virtual reality film can connect us more deeply with the experience. From virtual reality for philanthropy, to long-distance robotics for surgery, to social media for personal contact with people from around the world who are different from me, I celebrate the connections that technology makes possible.
And yet, even for virtual reality, I question the term “immersive.” For a truly immersive experience reminds me that technology cannot duplicate it. And for two weeks, I am blessed with a truly immersive experience, as I am now away in the Poconos, serving on the faculty at Union for Reform Judaism Camp Harlam.
Here at camp, I just saw a hiking instructor from the Teva (nature) team wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a compass and a caption that reads: “Just because I’m wandering, that doesn’t mean I’m lost.” The shirt captures precisely the reason why I come to camp and why I am so grateful for the immersive experience it provides our youth. Here, campers have the space to wander — to be on a journey in a safe space. And, at the same time, they are guided by Jewish wisdom in an intentional way.
This week, our Torah portion Ekev sets the Israelites on a path. In Deuteronomy 10:12, the text teaches: What does the Eternal demand of you? Only this: to revere God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God and to serve God with all your heart and soul.
One way our campers are guided on God’s paths is through their focus on the middot, the character virtues provided by the Judaism’s Mussar tradition.
The middot that camp is highlighting this summer are: finding joy, thinking about others, pushing through a challenge, compassion, confidence/independence, finding inner beauty and seeking meaning. Often challenged by distractions in our wanderings through life, the middot offer us tangible goals to keep us focused and help us to become our best selves.
This spring, our Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia had a cherished opportunity to study with a leader in the Philadelphia rabbinate and contemporary Mussar scholar, Rabbi Ira Stone.
In Rabbi Stone’s interpretation of the work of Avinoam Fraenkel, he commented that this practice of Mussar — focusing on our character traits — is a form of radical religious humanism. Mussar, he teaches, is our reminder that the world depends on our ethical endeavors.
Rabbi Stone highlighted an interesting angle: He warned that our hyperfocus on our yetzer harah/evil inclination, on the areas of our character we need to improve, can be a little too much fun. How tempting it is to get wrapped up in our sin, so much that it becomes too much our focus. Instead, Rabbi Stone taught, find ways to grow the yetzer tov/the good inclinations in our character.
In one recent experience, I was privileged to witness our campers grow their yetzer tov.
In an exercise about gratitude, the campers interviewed a member of the kitchen staff. As the group spoke with Annie about her kitchen experience, they asked: What dessert does she most like to bake (Hungarian apple cobbler)? How long is her work shift (10 hours)? What frustrates her about the work (When people neglect to say please or thank you)?
The exchange helped the campers to try not to take the camp food for granted — to remember that there is great effort that goes into the food they eat.
Then the interview with Annie went beyond her kitchen experience.
What is she involved with at home in Hungary? (Theater.) What is the biggest difference between Hungary and the U.S. ? (Everything in the U.S. is bigger.) How many countries has she visited from Hungary? (Too many to list here.) What does she enjoy most about the U.S.? (Culture.) Why did she choose to work in the kitchen rather than as a cabin counselor? (She was concerned her English is not good enough.)
As the campers quickly began to see Annie not only as a member of the kitchen team but also as a whole person, their appreciation for her work in the kitchen grew.
Their new understanding brought a heightened sense of gratitude and, with that, a deeper connection to Birkat Hamazon, the blessing of grace after meals. Their newfound perspective broadened their world. Through a deeper understanding, campers could connect.
The opportunity to come to know someone who was different from them lifted up several of our middot: thinking of others, pushing through challenge, compassion and seeking meaning. The experience helped our campers to journey through this world with intention, that they might be wanderers, but not lost.
Rabbi Jill L. Maderer serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.