Karen and I did not arrive at the decision to attend the Healing Hearts program at Camp Simcha easily. It is a year and four months since Ariel ZT”L was niftar, and we have arrived at a place where daily life has become, more or less manageable. I know how to get through the day without curling up into a ball and hiding in a dark closet. The triggers that are sure to set me emotionally reeling are well known and I know how to avoid them. Would going to Camp Simcha help, or make things worse? But in the end, the argument was settled as Karen and I asked one simple question: If we don’t go, won’t we always wonder if we should have gone? Won’t we wonder if perhaps we missed a once in a life time opportunity? If there is one lesson I learned over the years of Ariel’s illness it is that ignorance is no virtue – knowledge is power. In Ariel’s case the knowledge we constantly sought was medical. We never made a decision until we had sought “coast to coast” second and third opinions. Thus, we were able to add years to our son’s life.
And so, we accepted Camp Simcha’s kind invitation.
Landing in Newark, Karen and I were picked up by a trim, middle aged Hassid, Mr. W, who wore a stylish bowler tipped rakishly on his head. He also wore a smile and had a delightful twinkle in his eye that immediately set us both at ease. Going up with us to Camp Simcha was another out-of-towner, a man of fierce intelligence and commanding presence. He lost his 17 year-old daughter about a year ago. She was a saintly young woman who was loved by friends and teachers with the kind of genuine affection that is immediately recognized as existing on a high madrega. Karen and I learned that this man’s daughter had a very special connection with our Ariel. When she learned that Ariel loved Disney movies, she raised funds and brought a portable DVD player to the hospital, so that he could watch “Shrek”, or “Toy Story”, or “Fantasia” even in bed. Whenever I am around this young woman’s father I find myself tongue-tied. I have said thank you. I have expressed my admiration for his daughter, my grief at her death. But no words seem adequate and so I usually lapse into a uncomfortable silence.
But my silence is not a problem on the drive up to Camp Simcha. You see our good natured river Mr. W and the young woman’s father, let’s call him Mr. Blue discover that they have a “kesher,” a connection. In fact, they have several connections. It is vital to understand the central role that Jewish Geography plays in Jewish life. As soon as two Jews, strangers, get together and after hello and how are you? have been dispensed with, Jewish Geography kicks in. At it’s most basic, it starts with a name. Oh, your name is Ploni ben Ploni, are you related to the Plonis in my hometown? If so, then the first kesher is made. It’s a way of feeling out social situations; on a deeper level it’s about status, acquiring it, and most often, simply retaining it. In any given JG conversation the more “keshers” there are, the better. This kesher conversation up front between Mr.W and Mr. Blue is perhaps the most intricate Karen and I have ever witnessed. In fact, if the great French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss had been present, he would have rewritten his classic work: Structural Anthropology. There are no degrees of separation.
Once Mr. W and Mr. Blue have dispensed with the relatives, friends and simple acquaintances they have in common–a silent agreement is reached that they are both heavily endowed with yichus. Now it was time to bring out the big guns: Rebbeim. Mr. Blue draws an intricate relationship to a great Rebbe from Boro Park. Mr. W counters with his kesher to the very same Rebbe. Not to be outdone Mr. Blue parries with a kesher on “both sides of his family” to a great Rav in Monsey. Mr. W seems flustered for a moment but then jabs with his own double connection to the very same Rebbe! Mr. Blue is down for a second, but he gets right up, the sign of a masterful JG player, and proceeds to claim a kesher to a Tzaddik in Jerusalem not only through his family, his wife’s family, but also through a cousin’s marriage to a girl who is his best friend’s sister. Game. Set. Match. Karen and I look at one another wide-eyed awe. We have just witnessed one of the great JG plays of all time. It is a humbling experience. Mr. W sighs, admitted defeat by pointing out the beautiful colors of the landscape, declaring, Ma gadlu ma’asecha Hashem. How beautiful are the works of Hashem.
We arrive in Camp Simcha a few hours before Shabbos. Stunned by the beauty of the grounds, I wander around for half an hour taking pictures. The lake is framed by the leaves of autumn. I step into the Camp Simcha garden. Trees are planted for the children. There are poems etched in stone. A tiny chair makes my throat tighten. Karen is back in the room napping. One of the Camp Simcha counselors offers to walk with me. I learn that he is a student at Ner Yisroel. I stop in my tracks and say:
“Did you know my son?”
“Ariel? Yes, of course.”
I look at his name tag. It is not familiar. But then there are over seven hundred students at Ner Yisroel and Ariel must have known a few dozen, at least casually. I want to ask him about Ariel. I want him to tell me everything; I want details of all encounters, all conversations. I want a fifty page memo.
“Ariel was… well, everyone knew that Ariel was special, Mr. Avrech. He was just such a special bochur.”
I have to get a hold of myself. I must use all my self-control to keep from crushing this earnest young man in my embrace. He searches my eyes. I can tell that he’s nervous. He must have been briefed by the fine people who run this program on how to deal with bereaved parents. We are not ordinary people and care must be taken. He’s frowning now, worried that perhaps, somehow, he’s said the wrong thing.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.”
Right before Shabbos, before we all go to shul, I sit in the kitchen area outside our room and work on my computer. A young kollel couple, Mr. Green and his wife enter and introduce themselves. They are so very young, what brings them to the retreat? Here there is no need for long overtures I have discovered. When you meet another parent it’s not unusual to exchange histories almost immediately. There is a comfort level that is simply not in existence in the real world. As Karen and I listen to Mr. & Mrs. Green tell the story of the death of their eight month old son, I feel myself going light-headed. Is this really happening? Are my ears hearing what I think they are hearing. The words come out of these two young people’s mouths in simple measured tones. But the meaning, the awful accident is simply, well, beyond my imagination. Mr. Green reminds me of Ariel. He’s not much older, yet his innocent manner, his sweet smile, his eidelket is like a template of Ariel. I want to comfort this young couple. I want to say something useful, the words that came out were something like, “It must be so hard for you, your marriage must be so strong.” When they leave the room, Karen and look at one another. We are both wondering if this Shabbos will be painful beyond measure.