I don’t normally see myself as a curmudgeon. Ever since I can remember, I have erred on the side of being iconoclastic and even a little bit irreverent. Rules, norms, and social mores, to borrow from a Jewish context, generated a vote but not a veto on my conduct.
So I was surprised to find myself, this past week, bemoaning the lack of decorum during the recitation of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) at a summer camp I was visiting. For those who have never experienced Jewish summer camp, singing is usually a boisterous affair. Songs and prayers are sung loudly, with catchy tunes to make them easier for campers to learn and remember. Hand gestures and more ornate choreography are created to accompany the singing. The Birkat Hamazon, whose length creates challenging opportunities for young campers to learn, is particularly susceptible to these embellishments. I generally applaud these efforts, and remember fondly the frenzied cacophony that was the singing of the Birkat at the Camp Ramah I attended in California.
But there was something that agitated me here: in the midst of the prayer, on several occasions, the students would toss their kippot or hats into the air in celebration, as if they were graduating from college. I thought this was going too far. I spoke with a few other guest rabbis in attendance and they all murmured their agreement. It’s one thing to sing loudly, we thought, and another to take an object of ritual significance and throw it in the air in the middle of a prayer (during which they should have their heads covered at all times). I was tempted to speak to the camp director and tell him about our concerns for this display of irreverence and disrespect.
And then it (or, more accurately, the 10 year-old version of myself) hit me: how can I, or any rabbi, complain about young Jews demonstrating too much ruach, too much spirit, while praying? So what if they threw their kippot in the air a few times—they were praying, feeling connected to one another and to our tradition, and enjoying it! With Jewish institutions all over America struggling to engage the next generation of Jews, here, at this camp, were hundreds of children and teenagers singing and dancing together, in Hebrew, without any signs of complaint. College-age counselors were teaching elementary school students fun and creative ways to get into the prayer and actually understand what the Birkat is saying!
I reminded myself of the story of Eldad and Medad. They were two individuals who were overcome with prophecy in the Israelite camp. Joshua, appalled at their lack of decorum, urged Moses to restrain them. Moses responded, “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29) To which I’d like to add: If only all our Jewish youth had the exuberance of these campers!
May the Jewish community—from funders to communal institutions—continue to find ways to enable more of our children and teenagers to taste the passion and delight of engaged Jewish experience that summer camp provides. And may old fogies like me pause from our propensity to judge critically what the kids today are doing so that we can appreciate the beauty and rarity of this passion and delight. To quote from Elsa, the latest sage from Disney, “let it go!”
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