Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Talmud Camp

Aug 22, 2019

Over the last hundred years, The American Jewish community has built an extraordinary system of Jewish summer camping programs. Their goal is to give our well- integrated American kids the chance for total immersion in a thriving Jewish community experience, 24/7.  In this way they strengthen their Jewish identities while they continue to grow as Americans. 

When my twenty-four-year old daughter suggested that she and I spend a week together at an adult Jewish summer camp in July, I enthusiastically accepted her offer but I was also a bit apprehensive.  My wife and I, with my parents’ support, packed our three kids off to camp for many years, as campers and as staff.  Camp has been one of the most positive and enduring Jewish and social experiences in our children’s lives.  My experiences as a young camper in my early teens were not so positive. I was a shy, awkward and unathletic bookworm who never figured out how to fit into the teen pecking order.  I still hesitate when considering whether to attend a camping program, even a brief retreat.

I quickly got over my apprehensions because the program we were going to was right up both our alleys: we were going to Talmud camp.  The Talmud is the massive, ancient literary work of Jewish legal argument, religious tradition, legends and wisdom.  Jews have studied the Talmud in study groups, religious academies, and universities for more than two thousand years.  It is one of the most complex pieces of religious literature in the world, and it is sacred text to us. Studying it is the mark of serious engagement with Jewish faith and ideas, and an entryway into the dynamic conversation that is Judaism.  My daughter and I share a love for Talmud study; at Talmud camp, we would be able to sit for hours each day, in peer groups and large-scale lectures, learning the flow of detailed religious and interpretive arguments, as well as the values and concepts underlying them.  Certainly, good food, friends old and new, hiking and swimming in the mountains, and being with each other, added to our motivation to be at camp.  But the secret sauce in this camp experience was going to be embracing the tradition through Talmud.

Though not exclusively so, Talmud camp is designed as outreach to Jews who identify as queer.  The founders of Talmud camp describe their overall year-round program as radically inclusive.  Their goal is to create positive encounters between Jewish tradition and queer identifying Jews, many of whom continue to feel or to be marginalized within organized Jewish life and religion.  Camp is intended as a safe, sacred space for LGBTQ Jews who want to immerse themselves in the fullness of Jewish religious texts and practice.  It makes clear to them that they do not need to make forced, heartrending choices between their Judaism and their sexual or gender identities.

This intersection between Judaism and Queer identity, though not foreign to me, was certainly outside my conventional personal experience.  While, to paraphrase the young people, I like to believe that I am pretty “woke,” I am a white, upper middle class heterosexual male clergyperson.  I am not ashamed of who I am, but I recognize that I really have no clue about what it means to live on the margins of society and culture, lacking power and privilege.  Apart from the occasional stupid anti-Semite, I have never feared for my safety or my dignity because of who I am.  Everyone at Talmud camp was wonderfully welcoming.  Yet, howbeit in a most mild and limited way, in that space, things were reversed. I was the one on the margins, hearing the faint echo of the outsider I felt like when I was a kid at summer camp.

My experience of marginality was over as quickly as it began.  At the end of Talmud camp, I returned to my comfortable, conventional life.  However, I re-learned a critical lesson.  The culture and literature of the Talmud were created by rabbis who themselves lived as marginal minorities among often hostile people who hated and persecuted Jews.  In a grand sense, my rabbinic ancestors were themselves “queer”: a community of the marginalized trying not just to survive, but to live fully against terrible odds, through religious commitment, study, and radical reinterpretations of tradition.  Talmud camp reminded me that, for all their conventions and rules, religious life and community are indeed “queer” in nature.  They call to all people of faith to see through the lies and conformist oppressions that at times make up conventional society; to dream with God of a radically inclusive and loving world in which all people are God’s blessed congregation, embraced equally by the One who created us.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

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