“Summer Camp” is The Jonah Maccabee Foundation’s summer fundraiser for 2015. Throughout June and July 2015, we’ll be remembering — through the writing of his friends as well as some who watched from the sidelines — experiences, both great and small, that were part of Jonah’s seventeen years (from age 1 to 18) at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. We’re hoping you’ll be inspired to help us help Kutz continue its wildly successful work of helping teens blaze a summer’s path to a whole, healthy life. Please consider making your tax-deductible gift at jonahmac.org. Thank you. You’re the best!
Billy Dreskin remembers …
Unlike Jonah’s early years at Kutz – when I would get him up in the morning, see him bounding across camp many times throughout the day, and put him to bed at night – once he became an actual program participant at age 15, I mostly lost sight of and contact with him. He was busy living the life of a Kutz camper which, if you ask anyone who’s ever been one, is one of life’s greatest states of being (with little, if any, time for something so mundane as a parent). So I had to rely on reports both public and covert (I know people!) to understand what he was up to there (even though I was living only a few hundred yards from where emerged his greatest stories of mischief – more on that from his friends in future postings).
In 2007, all of that changed for a brief while when Jonah signed up for one of my classes. Stunned, and nervous at the prospect of having to prove myself not only as dad but as rabbi and teacher, I wasn’t sure if this was such a good idea. But it turned out magnificently. I was teaching a class on storytelling, and how to meaningfully weave narratives into larger presentations.
Jonah was a clown, to be sure. Ask anyone who knew him and they’ll tell you how often he made people laugh. So of course I was fearful that all he would do (when I would be attempting to teach something to my students) is make people laugh. But Jonah had a very special soul. Frankly, I don’t understand how he was able to do this in front of his friends, but he always listened to what I had to say, contributed thoughtful ideas to our conversations, and only clowned around at brief and appropriate moments. No, there was no exchange of gifts or money under cover of night.
Our final project was to use storytelling during a Friday evening service to interpret and introduce some of the prayers. Jonah introduced Alenu, a prayer that asserts the responsibility we have to proclaim the One God of all. This can be a difficult and divisive piece of liturgy, as some believe it acknowledges Judaism as being superior to all other religions. Jonah would never have volunteered to introduce Alenu if he felt that was what it really meant.
It took a bit of detective work to locate the story Jonah used for his introduction, but I was able to do so with the help of Mark Pelavin, Chief Program Officer of the URJ. At that time, Mark was Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and he gave a d’rash at the Saturday morning service that weekend on the theme of social justice, during which he said, “Part of our work as Jews, our part of the partnership with God which Jonah Dreskin spoke about last night, is to be among its repairers.” Oh, if I could only remember the story Jonah told. But alas, Mark’s words couldn’t nail it for me.
Shortly after Jonah’s death in 2009, when I was scurrying around trying to collect and preserve as many memories of Jonah’s life as I possibly could, I asked Mark if perhaps he remembered what story Jonah had used that evening. Mark said he was sorry but that he couldn’t. He then reminded me that the service that Friday evening had been notable for the number of participants who had walked out in protest because it wasn’t traditional enough for them. For both Mark and myself, Jonah’s words, spoken in the midst of harsh and angry actions, had provided an important moment of affirmation, reminding us that teens care deeply about what’s going on in their lives, and they often act boldly in response. Mark told me, “I do remember being moved by [Jonah’s story], that it was [a] bright spot in what I found to be a [difficult] evening.”
Eventually, I located some notes from that evening which revealed to me that this was the story Jonah had shared:
The young boy was on his way to Sunday school. His mother had given him two dimes: one for ice cream, and the other for a donation. As he walked along, one dime fell into the sewer. “Oh, God,” he exclaimed, “there goes Your dime!”
Jonah’s point, which both Mark and I appreciated, was that Alenu describes Judaism’s hope that, one day, all people will share a belief in the One God of the universe. Our religious customs and rites may reach out to that God in vastly differing ways, but our visions and dreams ought one day be the same; namely, one family of humankind united in understanding, acceptance and peace.
It was a pretty powerful message from such a silly story. “Silly” was something I got often from Jonah. I rarely witnessed Jonah doing stuff that showed he was growing up. This was one of those moments and I was lucky to have been present when he shared his “big idea” with the community.
Kutz Camp is an extraordinary place for a teen to do important work toward growing into adulthood. The intellectual, spiritual and communal challenges placed before each participant provide them with abundant opportunities to move their lives forward.
As Jonah’s dad who simultaneously served as a member of the Kutz teaching faculty, I received a very rare and wonderful opportunity to witness my little boy growing up into a man. While Jonah’s young death certainly limited the number of memories I get to have of him, those weeks we spent together at Kutz will forever remain among my most precious and very favorite memories of all.
Do you have a memory of Jonah at Kutz? Share it as a comment below. And please donate to our “Summer Camp ‘15″ campaign at jonahmac.org/donate. Thanks!