Learning about spirituality from Oliver Sacks

Decades ago I was a Judaic programming director at a camp for children (and also a vacation lodge for adults later on in the summer) who were  developmentally disabled or had a dual diagnosis .

While the actual programming was an exciting challenge (I wrote an appropriate sidur, planned experiential learning, challah baking and  homemade havdallah candles), when it came to the staff training I was stumped.

By necessity, the staff were a combination of Jews and non-Jews (who cared about developmentally disabled people and wanted to work in a camp with a good reputation). And the majority of the Jewish staff were there primarily for the same reason.

My training was to convince the staff that all this Jewish programming and prayer was worthwhile despite the fact that some of the people we were served were non-verbal or non-Hebrew speakers or not able to articulate the concepts of religion. And since this was the first few days of camp, this was my chance to win or lose the respect  of the staff.

To my rescue came Oliver Sacks. In his books there are few very moving essays about how church and shul routines and songs helped comfort and support people people like our campers.

For my training of the staff I got up and read theses essays. I  spent no time on explaining  shabbat or brachot.

And it worked. There was less grumbling during prayers ( not none, but less). People gave me and Judaism at camp a chance. One of the French Canadian kitchen staff, who was under no obligation to do so learned the first paragraph of birkat hamazon so he could sing along with us. And he asked me what it meant.

That time more than 20 years ago was the first time I saw how Dr.Sacks was a powerfully spiritual man and writer ( though that is not how we usually see him).

Yesterday was the second time I was struck deeply by his spirituality, when I read his essay on finding out he is dying. A beautiful prayer and lesson.

 

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