by Mosh (the Rosh) Dollinger, Camp Alum and Advisory Board Member
This is the transcript of the beautiful dedication of “Ruben’s Living Room” – you can watch the recording below!
Mezuzot. They just come and go. And sometimes, they come back.
In our tradition, we are commanded to place them on the doorposts of our house, and upon our gates. With each of them, we sanctify space. We make our dwelling places Jewish. And goodness knows, WE LOVE BEING JEWISH.
Ruben began his career as director of Camp Swig. There he started what has been almost 30 years of leadership in our movement, for the Jewish people, and beyond. Only when it was time to close Camp Swig did we realize that almost every mezuzah in camp had been stolen.
Who steals mezuzot? No one does. And I don’t think anyone actually did. Instead, it seemed, former campers and staff, learning of Swig’s closure, made their way up Big Basin Way to preserve them, to use them to make sacred new Jewish spaces. This was not a criminal act. It was a Jewish radical mezuzah revolution. (Democracy is in the streets….or maybe Kaminker Village and Har Solel too!)
Ruben had an idea. Amnesty for all mezuzah thieves! In fact, he said, put the word out that we will take all the Swig mezuzot we recover and use them to dedicate cabins at Newman. And so we put out the word. Collected those mezuzot. Brought them here. Sadly, to burn in the Tubb’s fire.
On that farewell to Swig day, Ruben asked me, along with Danny Greene and Joanne Greene, to de-commission the Holocaust Memorial by removing its mezuzah in a ceremony packed with camp alum. But we couldn’t do it. At the very second we were supposed to take a screwdriver to loosen the mezuzah, I went to Ruben and said, “I hope you don’t get fired for this but we’re not taking down the mezuzah.” And with that, camp leaders such as Rabbi Peretz Wolf Prusan and Barry Cohn and others helped preserve what we could from Helen Burke’s artistry, and brought them to Newman too, where the Little Ambassador survived the fire.
An embarrassing story to tell. Marci and I volunteered as fundraisers to help open Camp Newman. Our main strategy: get donors to commission a mezuzah for $1,800 for one of the many doors at camp. When the campaign ended, we’d sold exactly one mezuzah….our own….
Ruben felt so bad for us that he asked if he could use our mezuzah for his door, the one that led to Ruben’s living room, a place where community gathered, where Dan Nichols inspired us with his songs, where staff and camp visitors talked, and laughed, and slept. Ruben’s living room resonated with all that we love about camp.
On opening day of Newman, Marci, Ruben, Vivien and I stood at his door, hammered the mezuzah into place, and in a Ruben-inspired she’hechianu moment, sanctified his living room as Jewish space.
And then the Tubbs fire burned Ruben’s house to the ground…to a pile of ashes with a thick layer of what was the roof, covering the ground from one end of what the house to the other.
That scene is vivid because just days after the fire, Ruben and I ventured up the 101, off the River Rd. exit, down Porter Creek Rd., and to the police barricade preventing non-residents from access. Ruben got us through the police lines because….he’s Ruben…and because he needed to search the ashes for anything that survived.
Breaking every health and safety rule imaginable, we dug through the rubble, finding very little.
Until, in the dirt near where that door to Ruben’s living room once stood, we found it… your mezuzah….broken….scarred by burns….reminding us of the sacredness that was that space.
Today, Ruben, your living room returns, in fine fashion. OK, in much better fashion than the one left behind. Even as we know that camp is more about the community we create than the buildings we inhabit, buildings still matter. All these new buildings are already creating new Jewish sacred space and community. This one surely will as it houses campers of all ages, all year round.
And the best part Ruben, is that one part of your old living room will be here too. It will sanctify this space as it did the last. Each time you see it, each time it is seen, it will be a reminder: of the Jewish space we are about to enter, of the tragedy and trauma of the fire that destroyed camp and of the hope and redemption that our rebuilding, that this structure, and that Ruben’s new living room will bring.
Ruben, on purpose, we have not repaired the mezuzah, nor have we cleaned it, nor removed the burnt scars evident from the fire. Because the Tubbs fire will always be part of our history, of your leadership, and we want everyone who enters this holy space to give it a kiss on the way in….and another on the way out….so they can make this place holy, show how much they love being Jewish, and remember all the gifts that both your living rooms have given us.
Thank you, Ruben, for leading our way.
Photos by Michael Fox