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!”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
“Why do we pray?” I asked before we entered our makeshift sanctuary. We had gathered at the cabins. Dressed in white, we walked along the road accompanying the Torah, the quiet solemn march was visually powerful. But even with this wonderful set up, part of me worried. I attend a great many Shabbat services in a variety of settings, formal and informal, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated. Far too often the young people have trouble engaging. They don’t sing along. They fidget. They talk. They don’t seem to pray.
So while the question was genuine, I was also hedging my bets. Trying to have the campers set up a framework that made sense to them and would allow them to find their own way into prayer. But I need not have worried. Kids pray at camp.
Throughout the summer, my social media networks –which admittedly have a strong clergy faction -have been filled with reports of inspiring prayer services at camps across the country. Early in the summer I had dinner with a woman in her 70s, who recalled the yearly ritual of a day spent in prayer each summer, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Over 50 years later, it remains one of the most powerful prayer experiences of her life. I can still recall sitting under the trees by the lake when I was not even ten years old and writing my own prayers. My pride at having my words included in our prayer book still resonates. I often hear adults mourn the really spiritual praying they were able to do at camp but eludes them as grown ups.
At Camp Be’chol Lashon where I work now, the campers lead the service. Some are very familiar with Jewish prayer while others are encountering it for the first time. In pairs or small groups they take their place in front of the community, explain, lead and engage. There is lots of music, some discussion, and tons of participation. It is a tight community. There is a sense of intimacy. The atmosphere is serious but relaxed. Campers easily offer up thing for which they are grateful, the names of those in their lives who are sick, the memories of those who have passed.
Away from camp, young people pray –but mostly it is a private affair- when the personal needs strikes. Judaism encourages communal prayer but outside of camp the tone is different, the sense of empowerment and fun can be lacking.
Spaces where children take the center stage for prayer are less common. Schools come with the baggage of expectations and evaluation. Youth group gathering are few. Most sanctuaries are dominated by adults and even on the occasion of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service when a child is welcomed into their growing role in the community, the adults, their rules, their seriousness and tunes dominate.
The campers at Camp Be’chol Lashon easily provided answers to my “why pray” query. “To talk with God.” “To let our wishes be known.” “To give voice to our hopes.” As I facilitated the short conversation, which also touched on the fact that one need not believe to participate, their answers reminded me that young people understand prayer in the abstract. The inspiring service that followed, was proof positive that given the tools, freedom and encouragement, young people can and do pray.
I just got back from a weekend “family camp” retreat. One of the most remarkable aspects of the experience was that not one of my three children, over the course of 72 plus hours, asked to watch tv or play on my iphone. It wasn’t because the camp’s programming was so stellar; in fact, rain and frigid weather reduced the planned programming substantially. What occupied my children’s attention was far simpler: the sheer joy of being around a bunch of other children their age. It didn’t seem to matter whether the context was meals, playing sports, or just hanging out. They simply reveled in being together all the time.
Jewish children, like many American children today, lead lives that are highly programmed. From sports to academics to religious school, our children often have extra-curricular commitments every day of the week. The medical academy has made it clear by now that we are harming our children’s development by reducing free play in favor of all this extra-curricular programming. But I wonder, as I look out at dwindling religious school attendance and vastly reduced affiliation rates, if we are missing the boat in our outreach efforts as Jewish institutions by not providing enough contexts for some type of Jewish social free play. The Conservative synagogues (including my own) that I know about tend to prioritize teaching our students Hebrew and some basic Jewish literacy in the limited time we have with our students. But maybe, instead of having religious school become one of several week-long extra-curricular activities, what we need to do is figure out how to bring the Jewish camp ethos into our religious schools and other institutions of outreach. Or, to put it somewhat more controversially, what if USY, Bnai Brith, NIFTY, and other Jewish youth organizations are more important than our religious schools altogether? Maybe, instead of focusing on getting our children into synagogue, we should concentrate on getting them together with other local Jewish youths and just letting them hang out within the context of some general Jewish program or context?
I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am curious to hear your thoughts about how we might be able to develop a camp-like culture within our Jewish institutions the other 10 months of the year. Family camp and summer camp are great, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of what we might be able to accomplish when it comes to developing positive Jewish identity. The glee on my children’s faces this past weekend is something I hope and pray we can replicate on a community-wide level, transforming Jewish education from a (bi)weekly chore into a true opportunity for engagement and excitement.
It’s become almost a cliche program at American Jewish summer camps. The mock Jewish wedding teaches kids, through an interactive and improvisational experience, the many beautiful traditions that create the beginnings of a joyful Jewish marriage. Last summer, at our synagogue’s week long Vacation Torah Camp, we lived out the cliche, marrying my seven year old daughter to our senior rabbi’s eight year old son. As is the case at Jewish camps throughout the nation, our kids took part in all aspects of the ceremony, from the bedeken (veiling of the bride) and the signing of the ketubah to the shtick and simchah dancing at the party. It was truly a celebration to remember.
The idea actually came from the kids themselves. “Are we going to do another mock wedding?” they asked. “No, that was last year” we responded. “Well then what are we going to do? A mock what? A mock divorce?”
Currently in America, 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Although divorce is not seen as a desirable end in Judaism, neither is it viewed as a shameful. Judaism understands that all marriages do not remain happy and healthy — being in relationship is tough, and as people evolve in their self identities and as well as their understandings of each other, they are sometimes no longer able to remain in a healthy marriage. It is for this reason that we have the get, or the Jewish document of divorce
Although the possibility of divorce is cautiously embraced by Judaism, the reality of the ceremony is deeply problematic. A divorce must be initiated by the man, and cannot be declared by a woman. The reality of this can be very problematic and has left us with the situation of the agunah – a woman who is metaphorically “chained” to her husband and, because she has not received a get, cannot be remarried. It is for this reason that rabbis have devised prenuptial clauses to protect wives in the event that their husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. As a rabbi, I will not perform a wedding without a prenuptial clause that protects a woman from such a fate. And yet, despite the fact that I speak very honestly with couples I plan to marry about the need for this protective document, I had never thought to create a “mock divorce” as a learning experience for our campers.
At Vacation Torah Camp, we came to realize that our kids’ request was actually an extraordinary invitation. Our campers were initiating a real conversation about relationships, about struggle, and about creating closure when necessary.
On Thursday afternoon our campers gathered around a table, and through the lens of Jewish ritual, we engaged them in a deeply important conversation. Noa and Emet, who had been married the summer before, would now be divorced. Our campers shared their feelings of sadness — “We thought you were such a good couple!” They exclaimed. “But we want to support you if this is what you need.”
We spoke with our campers about the real questions with which couples struggle — why might it sometimes be OK for a two people to want to start their lives anew? What does it mean to support people in difficult times? How are the obligations of marriage different than the obligations of friendship? How does separation sometimes help people become more “whole?” How can something that is very sad also be important? Why do we have a Jewish ceremony to commemorate the finality of a marriage?
Jewish summer camp is a wonderful place to celebrate the joys of Jewish living. It can also be a safe space to explore the struggles, the painful moments, and the times of loss. It is important that we teach our kids that Judaism is fully present with us for both. Jewish religious rituals can help us to create openings and closings – and sometimes both, at the same time. We hope that by creating a vehicle for our kids to explore this very real part of the human experience, they will know that Judaism is there to help them through even the darkest of times, and they will feel comfortable continuing to ask their deepest questions.
I’m going to be busy this coming week. I’m heading to Israel, England, Iran, Canada, China and Jamaica. There will be music, exotic foods, late night parties and lots and lots of learning. My passport is ready, because on Sunday, I head off to Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jewish camps are a cornerstone of Jewish life. And in many ways they all build on a similar set of ingredients. In our day to day lives we exist in multiple communities in multiple settings. At camp, we exist in one community and come together with a focus on Jewish identity. So while we swim, hike and sing, we are able to look around and know what we share.
Much of that holds true at Camp Be’chol Lashon, but instead of setting aside our multiple identities, we embrace and celebrate them, making them the focus of our Jewish conversation and connection. Camp Be’chol Lashon takes the diversity of the Jewish people as our starting point. Each day the camp “travels” to a different country using our camp passports to record our impressions as we experience Jewish life around the globe through art, music, dance and crafts. These explorations not only teach us about the traditions of Indian or Ugandan Jews, for example, but also provide the platform from which we launch conversations about complex contemporary issues such as living as a minority in a majority culture or the place of tradition in keeping a community strong.
The campers at Be’chol Lashon come from around the world and from right in our neighborhood. Their racial backgrounds and personal histories are as varied as those of the Jewish communities that we “visit” each day. In many settings Jews of Color have to choose which part of their identities they will put forward and which they will leave at the proverbial door. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, they have the opportunity to be their full selves in a community that celebrates racial and ethnic heritage and the reality of modern Jewish life.
Jewish camps are treasured places but all too often they are seen as places that inoculate Jews against the complexities of the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon we embrace the complexity, for not only does it represent the reality that most of our young people encounter, it represents the world that they will grow into. By grounding their vision of their Jewish selves in the complexity, we hope to prepare them to lead us into the Jewish future.