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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Donny and Zevi competed over everything. It had been that way almost since the day they were born. At their earliest Shabbat afternoon playdates, they would play Monopoly like their lives depended on the outcome, and when it came to Risk, they pursued world conquest with a passion that would have made any general or dictator proud.

They were the same way in school. Although they were both excellent students, the two boys always battled to see who would get the better grades. At eighth-grade graduation, Zevi was valedictorian and Donny was salutatorian.

The boys parted ways in high school, but their competition went on. Donny was the star center on the Nachmanides School basketball team, the Fighting Rishonim, and Zevi was the starting power forward for the Maimonides Marauders, the team of the high school across town. Their basketball battles were legendary in the Yeshiva League, and the outcome of many games came down to the final buzzer.

When Donny and Zevi took jobs as counselors at Camp Tehila, a local sleepaway camp, they were both assigned to Eidah Bet, the 10-year-old boys’ division. Zevi was placed with bunk B-8, and Donny was put in charge of B-9. So it came as no surprise that the two bunks competed fiercely at everything they did. Baseball, basketball, field hockey, gaga... whatever the boys played, they played to win. They even competed to see who would get higher scores in morning nikayon, the daily bunk cleanup inspection (Donny’s bunk was much cleaner, though when you’re a 10-year-old boy, clean is a relative term).

Camp Tehila had a tradition pertaining to the Nine Days, the period leading up to the Tisha B’Av fast. Every year the campers built a large model of the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. It helped the children appreciate the grandeur and majesty of the original Temple and helped them understand its importance to Judaism. That year, the honor of building the model fell to the Eidah Bet boys.

Donny and Zevi met with their campers and decided that instead of building just one model, they would build two. B-8 would create one, and B-9 would construct the other. To make it more of a competition, the head of the camp and a few of the senior staff members would judge which model was nicer.

Zevi and the boys of B-8 decided to build their model out of popsicle sticks. On the camp library’s computer they Googled the Beit Hamikdash (the Herodian version of the Second Temple) to get the most accurate depiction they could. Then after encouraging the entire camp to donate their used ice cream sticks, they painted them brown, beige, white, silver and gold, to match the part of the Beit Hamikdash they were building, and constructed an amazing model of Bayit Sheini, the Second Temple.

Donny and the boys of B-9 collected hundreds of twigs and sticks of various shapes and sizes. Instead of basing their Temple on any previous structure, they used their imaginations and built a Beit Hamikdash following the natural shapes of the sticks they collected. When it was completed, their model looked like something Frank Gehry would have been proud of. They decided to call it Bayit Shlishi, the Third Temple.

When the time for the judging came on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the judges were torn. Michael Teitelbaum, the camp doctor, and Yehudit Steiner, the head of the waterfront, voted for the B-8 version of Bayit Sheini, but Rabbi Tepler, the camp spiritual director, and Sid Rosenstern, the head of the kitchen, voted for B-9’s version of Bayit Shlishi. Baruch Kramer, the camp director, couldn’t decide which he liked better; they were both amazing. In the end, they judiciously declared the contest a tie.

As Tisha B’Av started, all the campers were led down to the lake where they all sat down and waited for the megilah of Eichah to be read in the dark. The two models of the Beit Hamikdash were placed on rafts and floated out into the middle of the lake, one on each side of the body of water.

Donny and Zevi were each escorted into a row boat by one of the camp’s lifeguards and were rowed out onto the lake. Zevi was taken out to Donny’s bunk’s floating mikdash, and Donny was rowed out to Zevi’s model.

When the boat reached Bayit Shlishi on the dark lake, the lifeguard handed Zevi a box of matches.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” Zevi asked.

“Light up the Temple.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nobody told you? That’s the camp tradition,” the lifeguard explained. “We build the Beit Hamikdash during the Nine Days, and then during the reading of Eichah, we burn it down. It helps the campers grasp the significance of the destruction of the Temple. It makes it all more real. Go ahead. Burn down B-8’s Beit Hamikdash. You know you want to.”

Zevi held the matches and stared out at Bayit Shlishi. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I know that Donny and I compete over everything, but they all worked so hard on this. Besides, burning down a model of the Third Temple? That has to be at least 50 years of bad luck.”

One hundred feet away, across the lake, a similar scene was unfolding.

“No can do,” Donny said to the second lifeguard. “As much as I like to beat Zevi at everything, I can’t burn down his Bayit Sheini. It’s too beautiful, and I know how much it means to Zevi and his bunk.”

Back on dry land, the camp waited for the fires to start in order to begin Eichah. It was taking too long. Something was up.

Baruch Kramer’s cell phone rang, breaking the silence on the shoreline, and he picked it up.

“Uhuh. Uhuh. Well, that is interesting.” Baruch turned to Rabbi Tepler. “Zevi and Donny won’t burn down each other’s Batei Hamikdash. What should we do?”

Rabbi Tepler smiled. “And so begins the geulah, the redemption.”

Camp Tehila read Eichah in the darkness, by the light of a flashlight, and both the Temples were returned to dry land, the symbols of a new day.

By Larry Stiefel