To arrive at Camp Miriam on Gabriola Island is to arrive at a lively, spirited serenity among trees and rocks, overlooking the sea. This was my first encounter with Camp Miriam, and although camp was over for the summer and we were there for a Sukkot Retreat of families, through Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, the voices of the summer camp’s children were there everywhere, echoing happy times and a celebration of Jewish identity.
First, we shared in the building of a sukkah, perched high over the sea. Then, as more families arrived, we gathered for a hike along the seaside, where seals bobbed in the waves. Back to camp for Shabbat candles, blessings, a hot meal in the sukkah, and a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat service filled with singing, dancing and the music of harp and guitar.
Off to sleep in cabins or tents, and to wake up to a shared breakfast and Shabbat services, featuring Rabbi Harry’s wondrous simultaneous Hebrew Torah reading and chanted explanation in English, a magnificent way for participants of all ages to encounter and relate to the Torah reading. Three tiny boys stood at the child-height table where the Torah was opened out, chins resting on little hands as they followed along, like little old men in the shtetl. With Rabbi Harry’s masterfully chanted storytelling, we could see the children of Israel despairing as Moses left them, gathering to build and to worship the Golden Calf. The cadence of the original Hebrew words and the clarity of the inter-lineal translation brought the narrative to life for all of us. The folly of this slip up in our people’s history came all the more clear with Rabbi Harry’s personal mantra, Ayn Od Milvado, “There is None Other Than God”.
This, along with yogic breathing exercises and singing, fulfilled Rabbi’s Harry’s promise to stretch our comfort zones regarding ritual and prayer. There was just enough of the comforting, expected service, to bring continuity. Congregation Emanu-El, with roots, and with wings.
Uri Levi gave a fascinating lesson in Talmud, bringing to mind the morning’s blessings, which we had said in groups of two, one saying each blessing, and the other responding Amen. My partner Beatrice and I were moved at the synergy between praising God who makes us free and praising God who guides us. The idea of being at the same time guided and free came clear when we saw, with Uri, that despite all the guidance that Torah gives, the Talmudists pondered and argued for years on each small detail of the interpretation of the law. Our people is guided by Torah, and at the same time laden with an enormous responsibility of freedom to interpret, re-understand, and adapt the Law from situation to situation, generation to generation.
Aside from the organized events at this Sukkot Retreat, rich conversations sprung up around the dinner tables, and on the Shabbat walks along wooded roads to beautiful seaside beaches.
Our Shabbat ended with a dreamy Havdalah around a crackling campfire, the fire’s song joining in with our singing. Leah Levi, a mother to all of us throughout the retreat, had us cross hands and sway in one circle, singing the Camp Miriam sleeptime song.
For the little children who are not yet old enough for summer camp, and for the older folk who are decades past the camping years, this was a wondrous adventure in communal singing, learning, praying, and sharing together in the the joy of Sukkot. To all who orchestrated this year’s Sukkot Retreat, may you grow in strength and joy!!