When Neil Armstrong passed away in August, 2012, I felt moved to honor his memory with these words as we sounded the shofar a few weeks later. I find this message ever more relevant and even urgent, and I share it with you again as the New Year approaches.
Blowing the Shofar in Memory of Neil Armstrong
This past June, I enjoyed a reunion with two old friends, Bruce Levinson and Steve Fishman. We first met at Camp Spruce Hill in 1966; they really are my oldest friends. Bruce suggested that we go camping at Tolland State Forest in the Berkshires, close to our old camp, and visit camp together. Camp Spruce Hill closed up shop in 1976, but the camp is still open, since it was purchased by Camp Kinderland, which runs its summer program there.
The grounds and buildings are remarkably unchanged. We found our old bunk, and we even identified graffiti still on the walls from almost fifty years ago. The experience was quite surreal!
Camp Spruce Hill was a Jewish camp, not particularly religious, and dedicated to sports, my childhood passion. Camp Kinderland was founded in 1923 in Hopewell Junction, New York by Jewish labor activists, and still teaches Yiddish labor songs. It is proudly leftwing, and holds a Peace Olympics each year instead of the conventional camp color war. As my friends and I wandered about the camp chatting with the young counselors (the campers were to arrive the next day), we felt right at home with these sweet and enthusiastic college students. There was one telling difference, however, between our Camp Spruce Hill and the current camp that could be discerned in the plaques that adorned the entrance of each bunk. Ed Greenbaum, the director of Camp Spruce Hill, had reflected the 1960s aspirations of our newly suburbanized, upwardly mobile, second generation of American Jews by naming the bunks after prep schools: Andover, Choate, Peddie, Exeter, Gunnery. As a camper, I didn’t even know what those names meant, but I was certainly being acculturated to the WASP ideal. At Camp Kinderland, those plaques were long gone, replaced with the names of socialist heroes: Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson, Eugene V. Debs. A very different set of role models!
We walked the grounds awash in memories. As we walked past the director’s cabin, one memory came back to me whole, from the evening of July 20, 1969. There had been only one small television set in the entire camp, and it belonged to the camp director and his family. That night, Eddy brought the TV outside and set it up on a picnic table, wiggling the antennae to get reception. The entire camp gathered around as we watched the fuzzy image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon.
I expect most of you who were old enough at the time remember where you were when those images flickered on our TV screens and Neil Armstrong made a statement for the ages: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His walk on the moon was not merely a technological leap, but a conceptual transformation. We could now all look back towards our home planet and see it in its entirety. Henceforth, our shared biosphere was a given, and could only be ignored by willful denial. That view from space of our beautiful planet was the great shofar blast heralding a new era of global consciousness: We are, it announced, truly, irrevocably, all in this together.
Think globally, act locally: That is what we must now practice. It is an extremely challenging mandate for me. My life is here, with a small number of people, on a small patch of earth that I come to know and love. My life is local, and it is the source of my strength and my happiness. But I must practice global imagination. All of us must now practice visualizing the entire globe so that we can, in a small way, align our inevitably local lives with a planetary consciousness of connectedness and interdependency.
I pledge allegiance to Planet Earth, and to all the life forms that live within and upon her, with interdependence for all.
Can we humans make the leap into global consciousness? Are our brains capable of reaching out that far beyond our own spheres? We don’t know. We do know that we must make the radical and noble attempt to rise to this new occasion.
So I want to honor the memory of Neil Armstrong, whose own hard work and determination combined with fate made him the herald of the Global Era. May the sound of the shofar make our minds and hearts large, so that we can walk into the New Year carrying the well-being of the entire planet in our thoughts, our actions, and our prayers.
—Rosh Hashanah 5773