Jewish tradition offers shelter, sanctuary

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Jonah Zinn

Each summer, I have the privilege of serving on the faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, Ind. 

One day this summer, I was working with a cabin as campers  prepared to share reflections during an evening worship service. 

“I don’t know what to write,” one girl declared. 

Their service theme was living in the moment, so I asked her about a time that she was able to live in the moment. 

“I don’t live in the moment during the school year,” she explained. “The only place I’m able to live in the moment is at camp.” 


She went on to describe the pressure, stress and anxiety she feels during the year and how camp offers her a break from an environment that is too often filled with angst. 

For many young people, camp offers an escape from the tumult of their lives, a place to get away from their daily troubles and to be with friends whom they relate to in an entirely different way. 

The opportunity to spend time in such an environment is part of the reason I feel so blessed to be able to spend part of my summer traveling to Israel with teens on St Louis Israel Bound, serving on faculty at GUCI and spending time with Shaare Emeth’s wonderful day camps, Camp Emeth and Camp Micah. Each of these summer experiences provides young people with a vitally important sanctuary that helps them recharge for the year ahead.

In our Torah portion this week, we learn about a different kind of safe haven, Cities of Refuge, which were established to provide asylum for perpetrators of manslaughter. Individuals who accidentally killed someone could flee to these cities in order to avoid being harmed by family members of the victim. If they were found to be guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder, they were then punished accordingly; but, if it was some kind of accident or an act of passion, the City of Refuge offered protection to the perpetrators while they remained inside the city. The Torah calls for the establishment of six such cities, three on each side of the Jordan River.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatov wrote that these six cities correspond to the six words, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.” While some may consider this merely a coincidence, to Heschel this teaches us that just as our ancestors had the ability to find asylum in these Cities of Refuge, we can find spiritual sanctuary in our Jewish tradition. 

At times we all need shelter from the storms of life. Some will discover physical places, like camp, that provide the protection they need. Others long for a spiritual haven where they can breathe easier and release their burdens, if only for a moment. 

Judaism offers such a refuge, helping those who yearn to find sanctuary in the support of community or in the experience of the divine.