Camp Obama vs. Shavuot: The Third Story



ENCINO, Calif. (JTA) — Hundreds of young people gathered to become a part of Camp Obama for intensive three-day weekend retreats throughout the months of July and August of 2007. Several of the retreats were led by Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor of sociology, and son of a rabbi and World War II Army chaplain).

Although these weekends were associated with a political campaign, for Ganz the objective of the experience was not simply to develop political organizing skills for volunteers but to “put into words why you’re called, and why we’ve been called, to change the way the world works.”

These are fairly lofty ideals upon which to spend such considerable campaign dollars and time, especially considering that in the summer of 2007, Obama was still a long shot for candidacy, let alone the presidency.

What is most fascinating, however, is how Ganz and Camp Obama accomplished their goal of inspiring these mostly young and new voters to fulfill the camp’s goal, which was to mobilize a political campaign with an injection of emotion and renewed faith.

The central experience of the retreats was to inspire hope and activism through stories. Not stories of the past — not biblical stories, history or even mythology — but each participant’s own story.

Each person at Camp Obama was invited to share three stories: the story of self (their personal story); the story of us (their story of being part of the collective); and the story of now (what they see in the world that needs healing).

No matter where each of us stands on the political spectrum, we can all appreciate the wisdom of Camp Obama’s approach to developing invested, motivated and committed campaign organizers. After all, seeing the world through our stories and how our personal experiences interweave with the world’s story is very inspirational. More than that, however, it is very spiritual. And, by the way, it is very Jewish.

Take the Jewish calendar, for example. There are three pillars upon which the Jewish calendar stands, each originating from the Torah. One is the fall holidays of Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The second is the spring holiday of Passover. And the third is Shavuot, falling seven weeks after Passover, at the start of summer. Each of these seasonal pillars tells a story that colors and animates the Jewish spirit.

The Jewish Story of Self. The first story is that of the Tishrei holidays, including the High Holidays. These holidays represent Judaism’s story of the self — the spiritual self. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s intensive concentration on personal, spiritual development through self-reflection and prayer is the Jewish practice that addresses the narrative of our personal hurts and hopes. Even Sukkot, which emphasizes the transitory nature of our existence by forcing us to leave the luxury of our homes and enter huts, expands upon the self-reflective process of the High Holidays. In fact, the rabbinic tradition identifies Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh and last day of Sukkot, as the final day of the “judgment” begun on Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish Story of Us. The second story is one with which most Jews are familiar, the story of Passover. The Exodus from Egypt is the story of Jewish nationhood; it is the point at which Jews acquire their political and religious identity beyond being mere objects of slavery. And it is the collective story of both the individual Jew and the many others one knows as family and friends around the world. Thus, the “Jewish story of us” ensures that the “story of self” does not end in narcissism but is linked to the larger narrative and makeup of the community.

The Jewish Story of Now. The third story is the story of the revelation of God at Sinai and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, which is celebrated on the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot tells the “Jewish story of now” because it is precisely about revealing God’s will to humanity. Indeed, the Jewish conception of revelation, especially in modern times, is described by the continual synthesis of our conscience — today’s conscience — with Torah values. This is Judaism’s primary approach to identifying which hurts demand healing and which hopes should be pursued. In this way, the Torah manifests itself as a way of addressing the pains and maladies in the world and in ourselves, every day of every generation — in other words: now.

The wisdom of Camp Obama’s approach parallels the millennia-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition’s approach to engaging in a meaningful quest for hope and activism. Both approaches invite us to “put into words why you’re called, and why we’ve been called, to change the way the world works.”

When we understand Judaism through the prism of all three of these stories, told and retold throughout the Jewish year, we discover that being a Jew means being continually invited to tell our stories and to participate in healing the world’s hurts and pursuing its hopes. We also discover that being a Jew means being a valued part of a people and tradition that have always exemplified activism, faith and relentless hope.

(Paul Steinberg is a rabbi and educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and the author of the "Celebrating the Jewish Year" series; visit for more information.)

Recommended from JTA