Jun 01, 2022

By Shalom Orzach

The period following Pesach is practically obsessed with counting. It occurs in a manner that powerfully resonates for our community of Israel educators. We count and recount, conjuring the similarities of the Hebrew words that are also intrinsically related—lispor, to count and lesaper, to recount, to tell a story—sipur! While we diligently count the weeks, even the days, from one holiday to the next, we do not recount the actual story of the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, arguably a seminal moment in the history of the Jewish people. On other holidays, when we celebrate such momentous events, we do so following explicit accounts and instructions. On Pesach, we recount the story of exodus from Egypt while conducting our seders; on Sukkot, we recall the miraculous protection received in the desert while sitting in our very own booths. So why is Shauvot presented in the Torah only through its agricultural features, and the seven weeks leading up to it?

Whilst the retelling of our encounter at Sinai does make an appearance through the liturgy and reading from the Torah, the main story we recount on Shavuot is the Story of Ruth. The story recalls how Ruth, a Moabite, became a member of the Jewish people and, eventually, the great-grandmother of King David.

The story of these relationships almost circumvents the main event and strikingly re-focuses our attention on the receiving of the other. It’s almost as though we cannot receive the Torah without first being in relationship with and able to receive each other. In fact, it is Ruth who embodies this important message. In imploring Naomi to allow her to remain by her side, she states what has become an iconic proclamation of empathy and re-membership—Amech, Ami … Your People are my people … Through her passion, we learn and understand that to be a part of this people is to take on their very essence.

The Torah portion read the weekend before Shavuot recounts the story of another counting. This time, Moses is instructed to carry out a census, to count the people. The classical medieval commentator, Rashi, explains the curious terminology that is used to describe this process: שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל  elevate the heads of the congregation of the children of Israel. He reminds us that we count that which we love. Counting people is not an act of arriving at numbers, rather it becomes an act where metaphorically or even perhaps literally by lifting someone’s head, we make eye contact, we encounter their Panim פנים (their face), and their pnim (their essence). We learn and celebrate their story which, in the spirit of Ruth, becomes our story.

At The iCenter, we see great significance in both this “telling” of the Shavuot story and in Ruth’s striking and impassioned insight. We strongly believe that experiencing Israel is contingent upon experiencing Israelis—the people. It is our relationships that provide the crucial context for our experiences. They enable the meaningful and lasting connections that afford enduring insights harboring lifelong learning in the field of Israel education. And as Israel educators, we too perform similar roles to Moses; we are constantly ensuring that everyone is present by elevating them and making their perspectives truly count.

I reflect on these ideas as we excitedly prepare for our summers in Israel and at camp, as we supplement our accounting of events and places with the counting of people. We are reminded to shift our focus from the Israel experience to the Israeli experience, as it is through these relationships that a fluency of Israel is procured, a familiarity grounded in Jewish and Israeli experiences.

Our rendezvous with camp and Israel are both places that we call home. As evocatively captured in his celebrated poem Tourists, Yehuda Amichai reminds us that the romance of the encounter is less about the sites, and more about the people, who live, speak, and share their stories of the places we visit. Forget the (Roman) arch, he pleas, see and hold my outstretched arm carrying food home for my family. When Amech becomes Ami, the people will not only follow, they lead the essence of the experience.

In our work preparing staff members for their upcoming summer experiences, collaboration between Israelis and North Americans is the ultimate and crucial manifestation of not only relational education but also education that must lead to relationships. Wishing you every success in the holy work you will carry out this summer. We are counting on you.

Shalom is a Senior Educator with The iCenter, and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Prior, he served as the AVI CHAI Project Director for the training of staff returning to summer camps in North America, and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows unit for the Jewish Agency. He is a member of the International Education Committee of Taglit-Birthright, has served as a consultant for the Jim Joseph Foundation, JUF Ta’am Yisrael and the Jewish Peoplehood Committee and teaches a course in experiential education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shalom was the Central Shaliach for USY from 1992-1995. He was also a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion. 

Shalom is still in awe of the fact that we can speak about the ‘State’ of the Jews! He is the son of a Holocaust survivor who grew up in the company of aunts and uncles of the closest type albeit not family. Their experiences, Yiddish banter, humor and optimism very much shaped who he is.