The Mandatory Optionals of Judaism (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5774)

Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of working at our regional URJ camp, Camp Coleman. For one week I networked with colleagues, taught classes, tutored bar and bat mizvah students and led services. I also cheered at lunch, played water volleyball with counselors and rhymed various camp announcements. The dozen or so rabbis that come to Coleman during the course of a summer do lots of things, ranging from lunch & learn conversations to coordinating theatrical skits meant to get campers excited about services.

Most importantly, Coleman's clergy help to show the camp community that Judaism does not just happen at services. It can happen by showing sportsmanlike behavior while playing frisbee. It happens when a camper is feeling homesick or sad. Camp Coleman continues to remind me that Judaism can permeate our daily lives.

Nothing solidifies a healthy, joyous Jewish identity like our URJ summer camps. Time and again surveys and statistics show that Jewish summer camp is a major foundation to ensure a strong Jewish identity. Campers and counselors become active in Hillel, they teach Religious School, some ... become rabbis. But all love being Jewish.


You may know that Lauren Zeichner continues to be a stalwart addition to the Coleman community. In 1993, Lauren joined the staff of Coleman. She was hired to start a program called Campscape, working with campers to beautify camp with her green thumb. As the summers progressed, Lauren became a leader in the camp community. In addition to her many landscape projects, she now supervises all of the specialists around camp - the ropes course instructor, the photographer ... She works with art, ceramics, dance, Jewish cooking, mountain biking ... There are dozens of these electives. During the course of the summer, each camper participates in one or two of these. But on Shabbat, each camper can experience the full breadth of available activities.

During the staff oneg on Friday night, while counselors and specialists enters the dining hall to enjoy gourmet fruits and desserts, Lauren is found working frenetically on a giant white-board. She slots different specialists into the calendar for Shabbat afternoon. It's an incredibly meticulous process, as she ensures that there are enough options for the entire camp community.

This program is called mandatory optionals. It's a funny name, these mandatory optionals. When I was first introduced to mandatory optionals in 1992, I imagined a comedy routine making fun of this strange name. I picture Jackie Mason doing a bit on it: These mandatory optionals I don't get it. If they are optionals, I can choose. But if they're mandatory I have to do it. I don't know.

The thinking behind mandatory optionals is that there are a wide variety of activities to choose from: These are the optionals. It is mandatory, however, that a camper choose one. Each has to pick at least one of the selected options. And much to the chagrin of some staff and faculty, you are not allowed to go back to your bunk to take a nap.


In our Reform movement, we profess the tagline, "choice through knowledge." This highlights the fact that there are many mitzvot. There are 613 laws, and we choose which ones to follow. There are some that we can't do. There are some that we won't do. And then there are those that are incredibly important to us.

Here at CCI, we are not at summer camp. We don't need to engage in the organizational gymnastics necessary to schedule programs for 600 people at once. We don't win Dairy Queen blizzards for cleaning up our religious school classrooms. We don't typically have cheer competitions during lunch.

But ... like Camp Coleman, we are a family that lives Jewishly. And we also create an atmosphere where Judaism does not just happen in our synagogue.

We are blessed at our congregation - we also have lots of options available to us. Our program calendar is bristling with creativity and diversity. We have a breadth of prayer services that (hopefully) speak to all members of our congregation. We have a variety of leadership opportunities. There are lots of options. And I think that perhaps we should think of them as mandatory optionals.


And so, on this Rosh Hashanah morning, I ask each of you this question: What are your Temple dues? I want to be very clear: I'm not talking about your membership contribution dues. I'm talking about your Temple activity, your participation - your d-o-apostrophe-s. Because you may say you are a member of CCI, but you are more than that. You are a member at a gym or at a country club. At CCI, you are a partner.

What are your Temple do's?


Last night I challenged us to realize that the most valuable treasure of our congregation is its membership. All of us are partners in creating and strengthening Congregation Children of Israel. This is the 'mandatory' part. You are a valued, important member of this community. What do you add? What gifts do you bring? What gifts will you bring in this new year?

Now, I grant you that we don't have quite the same optionals as Camp Coleman. For example, you can't choose to jump onto a giant blob in the middle of an Israel-shaped lake. The options in front of us are different, but no less important to strengthening our collective Jewish identity.

I mentioned that during mandatory optionals, a camper isn't allowed to go take a nap. It's not one of the options. Similarly, there are things that just aren't viable Jewish options. We could think of a few, I'm sure, but the important piece to remember is that choices are not synonymous with freedom. Jewish choices are about responsibility.


On September 22, 2006, Stephen Bush served as the president of our congregation. In his welcoming words for Rosh Hashanah, he spoke of the Three T's - time, talent and treasure. All three are equally important, especially as we continue to implement new programs and initiatives. Some of you contribute in all three categories. But no one can do everything. Our Talmud reminds us that although we are not obliged to finish the work, we are not allowed to refrain from doing it. Time ... talent ... treasure. Again, what will be your Temple do's? Which optionals will you go to?


I was lucky to serve as rabbinic faculty at Coleman during a very special Shabbat. Camp hosted its first ever Camp Summit, in which rabbis and temple presidents from the region were invited to camp to experience the power of Camp Coleman. I was thrilled that Mel and Caryl Berzack drove to camp to be a part of this Summit.

After lunch, Rabbi Rick Jacobs led a brief text study. Rabbi Jacobs is the president of the URJ, the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs' presence at Coleman highlights the huge importance of our Jewish summer camps. During the discussion, Rabbi Jacobs asked what might be the essence of Reform Judaism. Mel Berzack asked a great question about whether or not Reform Judaism has standards that are required. It's a perfect question; often we define ourselves with one "R" word - Reform - while at the same time having difficulty with another "R" word - required. If nothing is required, what bonds us together? How can we achieve a level of spiritual and intellectual integrity and authenticity?

While we were engaged in this conversation, the camp community was engaged in mandatory optionals. Rabbi Jacobs looked around camp from our elevated vantage point. He responded that Reform Judaism should be like this great camp activity. In reform Judaism, there are a vast multitude of options, and you have to pick at least one. Oh, and you can't go to sleep.


Next week, we will gather for Yom Kippur. In the morning, we will read from Nitzavim, in which God says the following: I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.

God gives us instructions for the mandatory optionals not only of synagogue participation, not only of Judaism, but of life. The path is laid out in front of us. We see the options and choices. We can choose to continue to learn and participate, as we make choices through knowledge. We can increase our d-o-apostrophe-s as we partner with each other. We can understand that requirements and responsibilities are a necessary part of our freedom. We can ... Choose Life.

Reflection on 9/11, 12 Years Later

Michelangelo, a German photographer and an Israeli Poet walk into Rosh Hashanah services ... (Rosh Hashanah Evening 5774)