A South African Rabbi in North Carolina

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So how does Rabbi Greg get to be running around a baseball field in the middle of a scorching hot American summer in July? In January I got home from Netzer summer camp and wondered how that experience compares with an American Reform camp. I put some emails out, one thing led to another and the next thing my middle son, Tantan and I were booking flights to 6-Points Summer Camp, North Carolina.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was how much I felt at home and yet also totally “foreign”. This was ‘camp’, my happy place where I spent so many summers growing up, and at the same time, it was totally unlike anything that I had experienced before. You see this is the new niche camp launched by the American Reform Movement called 6 Points, and this one was a sports camp (there is now a 6-Points Sci-Tech and from next year a 6-Points Arts and Drama). As director Danny Herz — an ex-South African — described it to me on the phone, “all sports, all Jewish and all camp” — all three all the time.

Fast-paced, exhausting even. From the moment kids wake up at 7am to bed at 10pm they are moved from morning stretch (Modeh Ani while stretching) to breakfast to sports majors (you choose one major sport to focus on for the full 2 weeks from sports like soccer, tennis, baseball, swimming etc) to lunch to electives (here they could choose different ones each day like ultimate frisbee, lacrosse, gagaball, fitness etc) to rest, to dinner to majors again to siyum (bedtime sh’ma) to bed. Every day, all day, relentless and amazing. Professional coaches, high standards for athletes, and serious approaches to fitness and sports make this a paradise for Jewish teenagers.

The most amazing thing for me was being part of a rabbinic team of 5 top rabbis, all of whom were integrated into the sports camp every moment. We ate with the kids, stayed with them (I was the dorm parent for the Tel Aviv Tigers, aged 10-11, very very cute), ran with them and are pretty much rabbi-coaches for the whole camp. I tried to move between all the majors and electives which amounted to the most rigorous cross-training I have ever put my body through. From familiar sports to me like basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis to the brave new worlds of baseball, cheer-and-dance and my first ever softball and lacrosse scrimmages.

Incidentally, that softball scrimmage resulted in one of the best rabbi jokes I heard all summer, care of the wit of Rabbi Steve Weisman. I batted first, hit and ran to first base. Rabbi David Spey followed, and after that Rabbi Leah Citrin, at which point the bases were loaded with rabbis and Rabbi Steve chirps — “oh, it looks like we have a beis din”! (A Jewish legal court).

So where is the Jewish? It’s threaded throughout. The camp uses 6 Core Jewish Values which they have printed on coloured bracelets. Every time a counsellor, coach or rabbi sees an opportunity they will award a bracelet to a camper with a message — often teaching a Jewish principle or sharing a Jewish story from Torah or Talmud to go with it. And in this way, Judaism is imprinted on the day-to-day life of the camp, through the sports. It’s an amazing thing to see.

I did a full dvar torah on Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Francois Pienaar at the World Cup as a way of teaching the concepts of Tzedek — justice with Chessed — compassion. It totally resonated with these sports-crazy kids. And gave me the opening to each about Joel Stransky and the Springbok minyan. Oh, and that wasn’t the only South African input to this camp — “R-U-G-B-Y, come play with the [clap] Rabbi!” That was my promotional chant for my afternoon rugby elective.

With a Shabbat in New York on either side spent with two of the most innovative shuls in North America, all in all, this was a very different and very inspirational trip for me. There were times that I gasped (actually for breath as well as amazement), that I laughed and that I was moved to tears by what I saw. It will certainly inform and enrich my rabbinate here in Cape Town.

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