I have very fond memories of my first time at Jewish summer camp. It seems like it was only yesterday.
Actually, it kind of was: my first Jewish summer camp experience was this summer, at 23 years old.
That’s right, somehow I made it this far without a Jewish camping experience. I understand that it may shock you that I am a Jewish professional who never went to Jewish summer camp. Please don’t be too upset: I had plenty of Jewish education and lots of fun with my family doing other summertime activities.
Still, I was curious about the Jewish camp experience that so many of my friends and colleagues had growing up, so I jumped at the opportunity to spend a week on faculty at URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas.
Lucky for me I was visiting with two camp veterans, my ISJL coworkers Rachel Stern and Missy Goldstein. Before I even left my apartment they had already imparted great wisdom about how to pack, especially about “camp-propriate” fashion. When I arrived the staff at camp led us on a whirlwind a tour of the grounds, which included a visit to the new eco-village, a view of Lake Jake, and an introduction to the camp llama, Caramel.
On subsequent days I spent most of my mornings at camp leading alternative t’filah (prayers) and short shiurim (classes) in various bunks. One of my favorite t’filah activities was an adaptation of the game Things, in which campers wrote down what they thought of when they thought about God, prayer, or being Jewish. Everyone then had to guess who in their bunk had submitted each answer. It was amazing to see the different responses throughout the groups, and a lot of fun to see how close friends could guess each other’s answers after so much time together at camp!
I also learned a lot of important skills, including how to dodge flying grasshoppers, how to bus tables in the dining hall, and the appropriate Hebrew words for all camp locations.
Reflecting on my visit to camp, I have learned so much about the value of Jewish camp and why it is such a formative experience. At camp, kids get to be themselves. For a lot of Jewish students it is one of only a few opportunities they have to spend time with other Jews their age. They get to just hang out, be friends, and learn through experiences rather than formal education. Interacting with campers also showed me a lot about how to teach students with actions, not just with words.
Whether we are clergy, teachers, volunteers, or just Jews around town, we are all role models for young Jews. We have to take that responsibility seriously, including in informal settings, and realize how life-changing those informal moments can be. I am excited to go forward into my second year as an ISJL Fellow with my new camp experience in mind.
At this year’s ISJL Education Conference, I helped lead a session about “Conflict Transformation.” The term is used to describe a response to conflict whereby our goal isn’t to view conflict as something negative that has to be quashed, but as a positive opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships.
With that in mind, I was delighted to see “The Questions We Share,” an article in last week’s New York Times highlighting the work of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions, an initiative that aims to foster constructive conversations among students. The goal is to make room for everyone’s knowledge, beliefs and opinions while ensuring that people are genuinely listening to each other. At the core of this initiative distinguishes between hard and big questions.
In the article, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, co-founder of Ask Big Questions, clarifies the difference between hard and big questions: “A hard question…requires special knowledge to answer. A ‘big question,’ by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.”
He demonstrates his point by using the following example: If one were to start a discussion about the Middle East that attempts to uncover how we can bring peace to the Middle East, it is very likely that the conversation will be limited to the people who have the most knowledge and passion regarding the issue. Rather than fostering a dialogue, it is likely to turn into a debate and create a rather hostile environment. Instead, the Ask Big Questions model focuses on building empathy around shared issues by asking questions that establish trust and invite everyone’s input. A potential question could be “How do you feel when you are a part of a conversation that turns to the Middle East?”
In the South, Jewish individuals are often seen as representing “the Jewish view,” though of course no individual Jew can speak for all Jews. When asked hard questions, it can be helpful to re-frame the question, so that you are able to talk about personal experiences rather than responding for all Jews. In this way, and in many others, big questions can generate informative and authentic discussions.
Hillel put together this conversation guide for facilitators who are leading a discussion centered on “Big Questions”. The guide is based on teachings from the Center for Civic Reflection. I encourage you to download it—and use it!
What are some hard questions your community has grappled with? Can you think of a big question that would encourage people to share related feelings and experiences?
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I recently spent two weeks in Philadelphia participating in a two week seminar as part of my Museum Studies masters program at Johns Hopkins University. While there, we met with museum professionals at sites across the city, but one museum in particular reminded me of a truth we know well in the South: sometimes, you find Jewish life in unexpected places.
My most memorable Jewish moment on this trip didn’t happen while at a Jewish museum or site, but while touring the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829 as the most famous and expensive prison in the world, it was known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. Our guide, the assistant director, led us through the enormous campus. We stared into cells, imagining the types of conditions that men and women lived in until it closed in 1971.
As we got to the end of Cell Block 2, our guide led us outside, down a tight alleyway and into a room they had just restored. It was a synagogue, with a full fledged ark, ner tamid, menorahs, benches, just the way it had looked after its renovation in the 1950s. They believe it is the only solely dedicated “Jewish” worship space in a prison. I knew I would enjoy learning about the complicated interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, but I couldn’t have planned for my feelings about walking into a restored prison synagogue. My little Jewish museum professional heart was racing!
The curators took on the challenge of deciding how to interpret the history of the space to visitors. While they didn’t shy away from telling the stories of the prisoners, the exhibit focused more on the outside Jewish community volunteers who helped to build the synagogue and facilitate Jewish life in the penitentiary.
This example of finding Jewish life isn’t like the surprising anecdotes about Jewish cotton farmers or mayors of small Southern towns. This is finding Jewish life in a more complicated space. For me, whenever a Jewish person or topic comes up in museums or conversations, I usually have the same reaction- a small feeling of familiarity, understanding and most often pride. This feeling happened in the sanctuary space, but it wasn’t until we moved to a different room that they had renovated for a full exhibit on Jewish life in the prison that I realized how out of place that feeling was- to feel familiar and connected to a population of people who had committed heinous crimes. That uncomfortable, “Bad News Jews” feeling.
Often in our work and through this blog, we here at the ISJL try to illuminate the unique characteristics of Southern Jewish Life, while also sharing commonalities among the larger Jewish population. This exhibit at Eastern State worked to do the same thing, explain the unique needs of their Jewish population while successfully creating a space for visitors to make connections to their own lives and practice. It’s an interesting place to consider the importance of communities of faith in different settings, and the diversity of Jewish life and practice. If you are ever in Philadelphia I highly recommend making the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to see this hidden scared space– and wrestle with it yourself.