Two months before my Bar Mitzvah my parents sent me to my first experience at sleep -away camp. The camp was located in Utterson Ontario (150 miles north of Toronto). Situated on a beautiful pristine lake, the camp offered boating, sailing, canoeing and water skiing. In order to be able to participate in these activities you needed to be a competent swimmer and had to pass a deep water swimming test. Although my father of blessed memory was a good swimmer, he never taught me. That first summer I suffered the embarrassment of not being able to participate in all of the water sports, and especially the big canoe trip.
The summer camp program also offered classes on Judaism. I studied with a professor in residence who taught me (in a class on parent-child relations) that the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin lists the obligations of parents to their children. Interestingly enough, providing basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter for a child does not appear on the list. Instead, the list emphasizes spiritual care – such as the obligation to inculcate morals and values in the child. But the obligation that appeared at the end of the list took me totally took me by surprise. Parents MUST teach their children how to swim – or find someone to teach them! During that first summer at camp I learned that according to Jewish law, parents must ensure that their children can survive independently – including by being able to swim.
Now that I am the rabbi at Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood NJ, I am continually reminded of that first summer by our proximity to the water – and of my great admiration for those who protect and defend us on the seas. There is a Coast Guard Training Station in nearby Cape May. Whenever there are Jewish cadets, Beth Judah has the privilege of hosting them on Shabbat morning during their eight week basic training course. Over the years we have opened our doors and hearts to many brave young men and women who come from all parts of the United States, and even from Israel and beyond. The course is extremely physically, mentally and emotionally rigorous, and many of the cadets have expressed how important the few hours of tranquility have been for them. They have spoken emotionally about how important praying, singing, being part of a Jewish community and sharing in the Kiddush lunch has been for their spiritual and emotional well-being.
A couple of months ago a young cadet who had just begun his Coast Guard training came to Temple. His face was very sad and somber. In fact, when I spoke to him after services about his initial experiences he became quite emotional, confiding that he did not know whether he had what it would take to complete the program. I offered him a prayer of healing and for the next couple of months he continued to come to Temple and was warmly embraced by the entire congregation. What made his story even more memorable was that he told us a bit about his family background. He and his family are immigrants from Mexico who discovered that they were descendants of Marranos (Jews who were forced to hide their identity in order to survive the Inquisition in Spain). After learning their heritage, his whole family began the process of learning about Judaism in order to convert – when he was already a teenager! With each passing week the demeanor of our cadet changed. He began to radiate confidence, to smile more, and to participate more comfortably in the service – accepting Torah honors and leading readings. He expressed his belief that the spiritual support of the Beth Judah community gave him the courage, determination and fortitude to continue with the training in order to complete it. Just today I learned that he successfully graduated from his course of training, and saw pictures of him and his proud parents that were posted on https://www.facebook.com/BethJudahTempleWildwood/, along with a message from his parents: “We have no words to express how thankful we are with what you did. You provided him the human support needed for him to continue and finish the first step of his journey. We have been teaching our kids that Jewish life is about service, serving the family, the Jewish people and everyone.”
This story is a powerful reminder of what small acts of kindness can mean — embracing the stranger, offering hospitality to those in need, saying a supporting word to someone who appears a little down, letting our homes and places of worship be opened wide to all who enter.