Last year, as summer approached, Julie Pelc was moving towards a master's degree in education, with plans to go on to rabbinical school. Andrew Weitz was serving as the northeast field representative of the United Jewish Communities, working with Jewish student leaders on outreach and social action projects. Jonathan Dorff was finishing up his first year of medical school. All three of these young Jewish adults found themselves faced with the luxury of a free summer, what Dorff calls, "my last summer off ever." All chose to take part in Lishma, the six-week egalitarian yeshiva-study program newly inaugurated by Camp Ramah in California.
Lishma, whose name suggests "Torah studied for its own sake," is a joint project of Camp Ramah and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism. It was developed by Ramah's Brian Greene, the Ziegler School's then-dean Rabbi Daniel Gordis, and rabbinical student Daniel Greyber, with major support from the Jewish Community Foundation (which gave $25,000 in start-up funds) and the Covenant Foundation (whose $72,000 grant has provided full scholarships and stipends to all participants). Greyber explains that young people from liberal Jewish backgrounds frequently "thirst for meaning. They want to encounter the Jewish tradition not exclusively as an historical or intellectual venture, but as a religious one" that can help guide them through their lives. Lishma's goal is to introduce potential Jewish leaders to sacred texts and ritual in an atmosphere that values individual perspective while also respecting traditional practices. The first summer's 18 participants (ranging in age from 18 to 25) combined serious text study with spiritual introspection, social action, and outdoor fun at Ramah's serene Ojai campsite.
Lishma is not for everyone. Rabbinical student Rachel Lawson Shere, who directs Lishma along with Dan Greyber, compares its appeal to that of another program geared toward young adults, the Brandeis-Bardin Collegiate Institute. Lishma, she says, "is about falling in love with Jewish texts and Jewish observance, instead of falling in love with Judaism." Those who gravitate to Lishma are already in love with Judaism - or with Israel - but want to take their spiritual involvement to a higher level.Dorff, son of a prominent Los Angeles rabbi and a Jewish educator, notes that "most of us have experienced Judaism as an obligation. This was our first opportunity to experience Judaism as a privilege." He saw Lishma as a chance to make adult Jewish choices before the rigors of medical school caused him to neglect the spiritual side of his life. Dorff's fondest Lishma memory is of the Shabbat the group spent camping on one of the Channel Islands, davening out in the woods under the stars.For Julie Pelc, the social service projects were a highlight. The group cleared trails in a state park and served meals in a homeless shelter, thus reinforcing the concept that Torah Judaism requires action as well as study. Andrew Weitz, approaching Talmudic learning for the first time, thrived on his interaction with his study partner, with the scholars in residence, and with directors Greyber and Shere. As he puts it, "They're extremely inspiring. They have such a palpable passion for [Judaism]. ... They glow from it." Their example has proved contagious. In 2001, Weitz will enter the Ziegler School to study for the rabbinate.
Not that all Lishma participants are expected to become rabbis. Those involved agree that one strength of Lishma lies in the diversity of its participants. Says Pelc, "I learned that the Torah is open enough for everyone to come in."
For more information on Lishma, call (888) CAMP-RAMAH or (310) 476-8571, or visit lishma.org
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