This week for me was dominated by summer camp. I confess that I have always been a summer camp kid. The things children learn at both Day and Overnight camp are so critical for life lessons. The relationships they develop can be lifelong and I loved day camp and while my first overnight camp experience was challenging and not fun, I attribute that to being a bit too young. My second overnight camp experience was transformative and more than 30 years later I still talk to friends and even staff from that time. When my long-time camp director passed away, I was interviewed by the Baltimore Jewish Times about his impact. He was a mentor, guide, and friend.
This week I not only saw pictures and posts of friends picking up their kids from camp but also those dropping them off. I read about friends going to volunteer at my overnight camp and felt jealous that they got a week there as an adult. I walked around The Roth Family JCC and saw and heard the children attending Camp J laugh, sing, play, and smile. I watched the activity in the swimming pool and out on the back field. My heart was filled with joy. I got emails and phone calls from families whose children were having great summers and wanted to add more weeks before the summer ends. And I was blown away as I got to see and talk with a family who due to Covid had been isolating for over a year and Camp J was their first big outing. Their daughter was so excited to be able to attend Camp J and I couldn’t decide who was happier and more moved by what Camp J meant to her – the child, her parents, or me. When I got home that night I couldn’t wait to share this story with my wife. It’s why all of us who work in the Jewish world do what we do. We impact and change lives.
I decided to reach out to both Amy Geboff who runs Machane Ohev and Reuben Romirowsky at the Rosen JCC who have their own Camp J. I wanted to hear their stories and the impact of camp this year on them and their campers and families. As expected, I heard amazing things with amazing impact.
In speaking with Amy, the most powerful words she told me were, “It was amazing! Kids longed for it.” The importance of being together was highlight for Amy, especially the unplugged time together where they could just be kids. She told me that it truly became a Kehillah K’dushah, a holy community. Almost echoing my personal experience, the campers, counselors, staff, and parents found it to be “rejuvenating, motivating, and reminded everybody why we all do what we do – bringing Jewish kids together, it’s why we do what we do.”
I love stories and my favorite was when Amy shared this one. One the last day, Amy asked one of the campers what her favorite part of camp was. The little girl responded, “Just being with my friends.’ This is the power of camp.
When I spoke with Reuben Romirowsky, the CEO of the Rosen JCC, he was just as enthusiastic about the impact of camp this summer. They were pleasantly surprised with the robust registration of older kids as lots of new, older kids wanted to participate in Camp J. One of the most important things cited was the kind and respectful culture. Jewish values in practice! The desire to get back to normal and back in the building while also being safe and smart were important factors.
During the past year, it was easy to ask why we do what we do. We couldn’t be in person and the challenges of the pandemic were real. Just like Amy and me, Reuben was effusive about how Camp J was a reminder of ‘Why we do what we do. There were happy parents, grateful parents, and happy kids.’ Despite the challenges of the pandemic this was the largest number of campers in the history of Camp J at the Rosen JCC. Reuben said that camp brought life back to the Rosen JCC with an atmosphere of ‘controlled chaos. Lou and with an energy that has been missing. It was busy from 7 am to 7 pm.’ The other thing Reuben told me that I found significant was how Camp J provided campers with an opportunity to for them to talk about the stresses at home. The past 18 months have brought unprecedented stress to all of us and children often struggle to find the words to share their feelings. At Camp J they have found a place where they feel safe to explore their feelings and work through these stressors. What an incredible gift.
As we enter Shabbat, I hope I have given you a different way to look at summer camp. It’s not just a place to watch your kids in the summer when they aren’t in school. It’s not a place that just entertains your children and tires them out, so they sleep well at night. Camp is a transformative experience. It provides relationships, not just a transaction for care, that enable growth, development, exploration of values and Judaism. As a true camp kid myself, I long for the days at camp with my friends and often dream about finding a way to create an adult summer camp to allow us to experience the joy and relationships that our children do. Imagine how much better our lives would be if we could let go and spend a week or two immersed in joy, friendship, exploration or learning.
Last weekend was Independence Day. Celebrating the 4th of July has always been a favorite time for me. Growing up we would visit my grandparents and cousins and spend the time at the beach in Connecticut. On the 4th we would go to the parade and celebrate the birth of America while honoring the military veterans who marched in the parade. These are some of my fondest memories.
As I got older, the 4th of July weekend became a time when I got together with friends. For the past 29 years, a bunch of us get together and spend the long weekend reconnecting, celebrating, and just having fun. We got together this year; however, it was a bit different.
Getting together with the same group of friends means two things. One, I’m very lucky to have such longtime, good friends. Second, we’re getting old. This year highlighted both. One of our friends couldn’t join us as he was put into hospice with two different forms of cancer. He passed away early this morning. Another friend did join us after he finished his chemo treatment this week. Cancer in both lungs. He’s halfway through chemo and when he finishes, he’ll undergo radiation for another cancerous spot that was found. Yet another friend, who has never joined us, went public with his terminal cancer status, letting everybody know that he has stopped treatment and is now saying his goodbyes. When I think of his little daughter who is preparing to lose her father, my heart cries in pain.
As I think of my friends battling or accepting their fate, I get filled with both sadness and gratitude. When you have these types of friends, it’s as if we have made a vow to each other to always be together. To always be there for each other. This week’s Torah portion, Parashot Matot-Masei focuses on promises, oaths, and vows. Judaism teaches not to make a verbal commitment unless you really mean it. Such a commitment is something one is morally obligated to honor, even if it later becomes inconvenient. That’s what these friendships are. Long time commitments, oaths, and promises to each other. When these friendships are impacted by health challenges and even impending death, it highlights just how important these oaths, vows and promises truly are.
One of the great things about the Jewish community is how we care for each other. Every day we make a vow and commitment to take care of our fellow Jews. One of our guiding principles is Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. We don’t make these promises, vows, and oaths lightly. And we strive to live up to them each and every day.
As we prepare for Shabbat, hold your loved ones a little tighter. Call those who don’t live close. Invest in the relationships with friends that truly matter. Enjoy the wonders of our vows, oaths, and promises to each other. Our time is fleeting and it is our commitment to each other that truly makes our time special.
On June 24, 2021, at approximately 1:30 a.m., the Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in Surfside, just outside Miami, collapsed. The video of the collapse was horrifying and if you are like me, you wondered how anybody could have survived. Eighteen people have been confirmed dead and there are still 145 people unaccounted for. We all pray for those 145 people and hope for the best while expecting the worst.
Surfside is a very Jewish community. As a Miami suburb and located on the beach, it has been a popular place for Jews to live and build a community. With many friends in the area, I was concerned if anybody that I knew lived in the building and have followed the story closely. While so far it appears none of my friends lived in the building, there were employees of Jewish organizations who lived there. Luckily, the ones I have heard of are all safe. Members of the Miami Beach JCC lived there, and some remain unaccounted for. Family members of my friends lived in the building and remain missing. My heart breaks for what they are going through. The one story that remains with me is that of Jay Kleiman, who flew to Miami for a friend’s funeral and spent one night at an apartment in Champlain Towers South. June 24, 2021 was that night. He is among the missing, presumed dead. As I read the article about Jay, my friend Mark Baranek, Jay’s flag football coach, is quoted in the article. It’s one degree of separation.
This is the essence of the Jewish community. We are closely tied to each other. It’s only a degree or two until you find the common friends, relatives, or associates. I’ve never met Jay Kleiman, yet we are tied together by Mark Baranek. There are many others who are missing that I’ve never met but we are tied together with a common friend or relative. Being part of the Jewish community is being part of the Jewish mishpacha (family). And family takes care of each other.
As we prepare for Shabbat this week, let’s hold our families, our friends, and those we have in common just a little bit closer. Let’s make that phone call or FaceTime with our family members or friends just to say hello and Shabbat Shalom. Let’s make sure we connect with those that are important to us. We never know when it’s our June 24, 2021. We never know what the future brings but we can act today. In the words of the Alter of Novardik, “A person should be willing to give up all his tomorrows for one today, so that he doesn’t end up wasting all his todays on one tomorrow.” Let’s make sure that we don’t waste today.
If you want to donate to help those in Surfside, The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has a fund set up to help. You can donate to that fund by clicking here.
I had a chance to get away with my wife for a vacation and then with my kids for a father-sons trip in early June. It was much needed and gave me a chance to rest and recharge. After the past 15 months, I didn’t realize just how exhausted and how deep the exhaustion actually went. It made me realize just how exhausted our Jewish professionals in Orlando all must be. For the past 15 months they have been working tirelessly in strange and difficult situations to provide for the needs of our community. Those working with seniors weren’t able to see them in person or have their group gatherings. Those with college students were limited to outdoor events and increased stress. Our clergy were doing religious services and Simchas on zoom and sharing Torah to an empty room while people watched on their computers. Our mental health workers and food pantry had to do it virtually and couldn’t interact in person. Our Jewish educators did some virtual classes and had to teach in rooms with masks with new rules about social distancing and interactions with other rooms of children. I’m getting more exhausted as I write this and think about it all.
What I really want to do is say THANK YOU to all of them. It’s easy to forget just how much they have all given and sacrificed for the betterment of our community. It’s easy to focus on our amazing health care workers who put their lives at risk. When you see one of our amazing Jewish communal professionals in Orlando, please make sure to thank them. It’s only their commitment and then efforts that kept our community going during the pandemic.
As I took the time to relax, reflect and take in the past year I noticed the toll it has taken on all of us. The emotional rollercoaster and trauma have affected all of us in different ways. Our community needs healing and unfortunately, instead, we are experiences extremely high waves of antisemitism and hatred. With the rise of anti-Semitism, we are all a little more wary and concerned. I had the privilege of co-authoring an Op-Ed on Sunday in the Orlando Sentinel with Representative Stephanie Murphy. There are two lines in the Op-Ed I want to highlight for you. The first is, “We need leaders in Washington, Tallahassee, and communities around the country to condemn anti-Jewish conduct is morally unambiguous language, without any attempt to excuse, rationalize, or justify such behavior.” And the second, perhaps even more important, “visit ActAgainstAntisemitism.org, which offers information about concrete steps you can take to make a difference in your community. Please, make your voice heard. Rather than being a bystander, take a stand.” We live in a time when we cannot be silent and we must speak up. I hope you take action.
And as we prepare for Shabbat this week, I am proud to share that The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando has adopted the IRHA definition of anti-Semitism. This definition gives us clarity about what anti-Semitism is and has been adopted by many countries, businesses, etc. I encourage you to read the definition and use it when people as what is anti-Semitism.
The past weeks have been filled with challenges. Bombs falling on Israel, a rise in anti-Semitism throughout the country including things locally. The news is filled with reports of increased Jew hatred and even Aaron Keyak, the US National Jewish Engagement Director, tweeted, “if you fear for your life or physical safety, take off your kippah and hide your (Star of David)”. Google’s Chief of Diversity was found to have stated in a 2007 tweet that Jews have an “insatiable appetite for war” (he has since been reassigned). Officials at Rutgers University made a statement against anti-Semitism and then retracted it because it upset the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic population. It’s easy to get depressed and be filled with worry and concern.
And then something happens like on Tuesday. I got an email from Amanda Jacobson, both a parent and volunteer leader in our community, about her daughter’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah, and her Bat Mitzvah project. Sammy Nappi, Amanda’s daughter, had a desire to expand the scope and opportunity for people to get involved and make a difference in our local community. We met on Tuesday afternoon and my hope and faith were given an incredible boost.
For her project, Sammy is doing something she is calling, “Fierce Foster Friends”. In Sammy’s own words, “Everyone deserves a loving family and a home of their own. Your family makes the home and foster children don’t have either a family or a home to call their own. Foster kids are often moved from temporary home to temporary home with few belongings and fewer friends.
The items we collect for them can make a foster child feel loved, wanted and seen by the community.”
Sammy is committed to collecting items for foster children and making a difference in the lives of people who don’t even know her. She has done her research and knows that the items most needed are:
Good toothbrushes and toothpaste
Silk pillow or bonnet for children of color
With all that is going on during the pandemic, it’s easy to forget about foster children. To be honest, despite all the things I have been paying attention to during the past 16 months, foster children have not crossed my mind even once until she brought them up.
Hearing her passion for helping others, specifically those who ‘aren’t as fortunate as me’ was inspirational. I do my best to help my children understand just how lucky they are and how fortunate we are as a family and to hear another child’s appreciation of what they have and how they wanted to help others who aren’t as fortunate was truly moving. Her eyes lit up as she talked about the time she has spent with foster children and how important it is to her to help them and make a difference in the world.
I found myself ruminating on this throughout the rest of the week. This is a core value of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando – making the world a better place, starting in our local community but also throughout the Jewish world and in Israel. Through our partnership city of Kiryat Motzkin and the projects we fund there to help Holocaust Survivors and children at risk to our Coleman Israel Scholarships to help teens in Orlando visit Israel and have a meaningful immersive experience; from our partnership with CC’s Wish List which gets new clothes to people in need to our new partnership with Temple B’nai Torah in Boca Raton’s TLC Program’s Little Free Pantry, bringing free little food pantries to Orlando; from our Food Cart from the Heart, ensuring those in need in our community have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to our partnership with Jewish Family Services to ensure there is a community Rabbi available for those in need, the Federation’s goal is to make our community better, stronger and more vibrant. As I write this, I hear the theme song from the old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man in my head, as we can build it, “Better, Stronger, Faster.” Your Jewish Federation is invested in making the lives of everybody in our community better. We only do this through your help, both in volunteering and financial support which make these efforts happen.
I hope that Sammy Nappi’s words, efforts, and her Bat Mitzvah project inspires you the way it has inspired me. I hope you will bring something to The Roth Family JCC lobby to drop off in our collection box for Fierce Foster Friends. I hope you will make an effort to get more involved in our community – every organization, agency, and synagogue can use your help to make our community ‘better, stronger, faster’. We can all do a little bit to change our local community and by changing our local community, we change the world.
Last night, I sat in the JCC auditorium as we held our first hybrid program. Approximately 30 people joined in person while many more joined us on Zoom for our community’s B’riut program on Substance Abuse in the Jewish community. This is truly a community program as nearly every Jewish organization, agency, and synagogue has agreed this is important and to be a part of the effort. It felt so good to be in a room with other people and to hear talking and interaction. I hadn’t realized how much I had really missed it.
As we listened to the speakers on the panel speak, it was incredibly moving. Ashlynn Douglas-Barnes, the Clinical Director of Jewish Family Services (JFS) was our moderator and has also been a key driving leader in the creation of B’riut. If you ever need a place to start with questions or addressing substance use disorder and needing to know what to do next, she and JFS are the place to begin.
Sheriff Leema from Seminole County was our first speaker. It was truly incredible as he explained the data about addiction, the changes that have created the current crisis, and the impact he has seen in Seminole County. There were more than 100 accidental overdose deaths pre-Covid and during Covid that spiked by 37%! His officers now carry Narcan to help save lives. Listen to a well-educated senior law enforcement officer talk about a totally different approach to public safety was inspiring. Hearing him talk about how it isn’t about criminal charges but about helping sick people get well was refreshing. In a time when law enforcement faces incredible criticism, this was another example to me about how lucky we are in Central Florida to have the law enforcement leadership we do.
Michal Osteen spoke next. Her personal tragedy of losing her son Ari to an accidental overdose has been public and she has devoted her life to ensuring no other family has to endure this tragedy. Between Sheriff Leema and Michal, it was made abundantly clear that fentanyl is now in every type of substance and it’s impossible for the person using to know if there is fentanyl in it or not. When asked about ‘how people could find safe drugs from having been cut with fentanyl’, Sheriff Leema put it best when he said, “Safe drugs are called medicine. Otherwise, there are no safe drugs.”
Our third speaker, Dr. Biff Kramer, has been in recovery from addiction for 40 years and has been a leader in creating the model that encourages impaired medical professionals to seek help without risk of automatically losing their medical license. I was deeply saddened when talked about how 40 years ago when he went to treatment in Atlanta and along with a handful of other Jews in the program, they reached out to the Jewish community to get support and were turned away. Hearing his gratitude that the Jewish community is doing the opposite right now was heartwarming and highlighted just how important this work in our community, by our community truly is.
Our next speaker, John LeBron, is a younger person in recovery. He highlighted the challenge of being Jewish and seeking help, the stigma that exists, and how important it is to have others to connect with. He also emphasized how important getting the entire family educated about addiction really is, since the family system often contributed to addiction and can often enable relapse if change doesn’t happen.
The final speaker was Houston Spore, also a person in recovery. He works with project Opioid, which is dedicated to stopped deaths from opioid overdose. They provide free Narcan, a drug easily administered, which reverses overdoses to enable the person to be alive while 911 is called and emergency services are called. Everybody attending in person was given Narcan to take home. The amazing thing about Narcan is that if it’s not an opioid overdoes, Narcan simply does nothing. And if it is an opioid overdose, it can save lives. Anybody can access their free Narcan by going to their website, https://projectopioid.org/, and fill out the form. In a week or two, it will arrive in your mailbox.
The question-and-answer sessions was robust as this is a complex and important issue. The entire session was recorded and will be available on the Federation’s YouTube page for viewing.
You may find yourself wondering, “Why is the Jewish Federation doing this”? It goes to our core mission, taking care of the needs of our Jewish community. No longer can we pretend that addiction doesn’t occur in the Jewish community. No longer can we pretend that members of our community aren’t dying because of drug addiction and the opioid crisis. No longer can we be unprepared to deal with this life-threatening disease. The Jewish principle of Pikuach nefesh demands that we act. I’m proud of our community, our agencies, organizations, and synagogues who are stepping up to take on this responsibility. I’m proud that we are not allowing this to remain in the shadows and are working to remove the stigma so nobody has to die due to embarrassment.
Together we can change our local community which changes the world. As a community member both involved in the creation of B’riut and who attended our panel last night, I have hope that we are changing our Central Florida Jewish Community and will continue to do so.