This week I had the great pleasure of participating in Hillel’s Engagement Institute in the hills of Simi Valley, CA. All 14 of our new Campus Entrepreneurs were there, along with our phenomenal Doppelt Director of Engagement Andrea Jacobs, who flew straight to the west coast from a full Birthright Israel trip of 40 Northwestern students. CEI interns and Hillel staff from six other campuses were there with us.

There’s no place like camp to form a group, and the Brandeis Bardin Institute is a fabulous camp. Our CEIers went on the low ropes course. They sang with a guitar-strumming song leader at a campfire. They had deep late night conversations in a dark room illuminated by the flame of a candle. As I write this they are preparing for Shabbat by decorating the camp dining hall, making challah covers, and learning songs.

What emerges so quickly–within 24 hours–in this kind of environment is a strong sense of group cohesion. In a short time these students have already established a strong connection with one another’s stories and the story of the Jewish people. And that’s precisely what they will now be able to nurture in their friends and fellow students when they return to campus.

Parshat Ki Teitzei, which we read this week, develops this theme of peoplehood very strongly. The Jewish people shares a collective memory: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Deut. 24:18, 22). This is a beautiful part of group identity, our common participation in the same story. But, as the parasha reminds us, group identity almost always involves identifying a “them,” which enables us to identify an “us.” So, according to the parasha, the Jewish people is also defined by the law that certain people–Ammonites, Edomites, and men without the ability to procreate–are prohibited from entering the “Congregation of God.”

Here in twenty-first century America, the exlusiveness of these verses can be difficult for us to read. The tension that these verses create is one we still struggle with–and indeed should always struggle with. How can we be simultaneously about developing strong Jewish identities while also welcoming the many fellow-travelers who make up our communities and families?

In what appears to be a direct response to this parasha, the prophet Isaiah (ch. 56) proclaims “Observe what is right and do what is just… Keep the Sabbath.. and do not do evil.” And in the lines that follow, Isaiah articulates a vision in which “the foreigner who has attached himself to the Lord” will be brought to God’s holy mountain, the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, to join in the celebrations of the Jewish people. Rather than the group cohesion based on exclusion articulated in Deuteronomy, Isaiah envisions a world in which, to borrow a phrase, every person is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. Jewish identity is not fostered through exclusion, but rather comes about through engagement.

In preparing for the new school year about to begin next week, our staff and student leadership has made “warm and welcome” it watch word. Our vision is a vision of deep and rich Jewish engagement, built on shared memories and experiences. It is a difficult task, but as Isaiah understood, it is crucial to the life of the Jewish people and the world.

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