January 28th was one such day.
I live and work in Atlanta during the school year. For months (MONTHS!) I’d been planning an Interfaith Social Action & Social Justice day, with Marist & Davis colleagues, for my 8th graders at the Davis Academy and our friends in the 8th grade at Marist School, a Catholic school just a few minutes away.
I hit roadblocks in planning. Locations, dates, times, school start times, Atlanta traffic concerns (Haha! Foreshadowing!) But then it came together, groups of 50 students each were scheduled to volunteer at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, MedShare, and Books for Africa. They were to be tasked with sorting and packing tons, literally tons, of: food for Atlanta’s hungry; books sorted into class sets for Africa schoolchildren; perfectly usable medical supplies, saved from landfills, and repackaged to be sent around the developing world. 120 kids were scheduled to participate in VolunteerStock at Davis, making turkey sandwiches for donation in midtown Atlanta, decorating a Prayer Canvas for the Boston Marathon, and making cards for Atlanta’s sick, elderly, and those who visit our local food pantries.
In the afternoon, everyone would meet at the MLK Center in Downtown Atlanta for lunch and a program that included the extraordinary speaker Stephon Ferguson.
The night before the program, we heard that we may have to cancel the second half of the program because of a snow storm. I stayed up late, calling and emailing faculty, staff, volunteer locations, and speakers. The plan for the morning? The show must go on! The afternoon? We will play it by ear.
The morning went off without a hitch. Then we said bye to Marist, hugged, and set up for our afternoon at Davis. Beautiful. I could stop there, the blog post would be done, everyone would smile and know that 220 students and many dedicated faculty and volunteer chaperone adults did good all around Atlanta.
Then, the afternoon arrived. Snow started falling. Carpool started early. Mr. Ferguson couldn’t meet us at Davis because of traffic. Atlanta was coated in dreamy white.
700+ sandwiches sat in my car. Google told me that because of the traffic caused by the storm, it would take two hours to get to the food bank, 24 miles away. My colleagues encouraged me to set out – “you should at least try to get there” even while the transit map was beyond foreboding. I was barely driving. I moved two miles in one hour, and this was better than most. I know many people who took upwards of 10 hours to get home. There were over 700 accidents A baby was born in a car on the highway.
285 minutes, an average of 11 mph, innumerable reroutes, countless others nearly skidding into my car, a giant headache, one stop for gas/bathroom/candy/medicine, and one guy who parked in front of me for a good 20 minutes, trying to turn left, transpired. Close to home, I FINALLY maneuvered my trusty all-wheel drive Subaru Outback into the driveway of the organization that was awaiting our sandwich delivery, hours after their usual closing time. Someone pointed out to me that I could’ve given those sandwiches out to my compatriots stranded on highways, but I’m stubborn and focused. I was a woman on a mission.
How’d I pass the time? I rolled down my window to thank emergency workers, and tried to add levity to the gridlock by making faces at my fellow stranded. I Tweeted and Facebooked while I was in park (which I was, most of the time). One of my colleagues, who took three hours to drive the three blocks between Davis and home, took this picture of two of our 8th graders, serving hot coffee to those stuck in traffic outside of their homes.
The day of service didn’t end at noon, 1:30, 2:30, or even 7:30. It marched into the night. I’m warm now, but every time I look at that picture of our 8th graders serving coffee, my heart melts yet again, as they lived out what it said on our Prayer Canvas “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”
“Always thinking, you. Always thinking.”
A friend in graduate school mockingly accused one overachieving friend by telling her she was “always thinking.” Because she was “always thinking,” she came up with creative ideas and solutions to the most mundane and epic of problems.
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to join my half-time colleagues from the Union for Reform Judaism at URJ Biennial in San Diego, while representing both halves of my job – URJ Camp Coleman and The Davis Academy, a Reform Jewish day school.
Decked out in professional garb (so professional that someone who’d met me last summer didn’t recognize me until I fully identified myself and said, “I know it’s hard to recognize me, as I am usually covered in dirt.”) and armed with an open mind, I stepped into the convention center with wide eyes.
Not raised in the movement, I found it was just like when I first started my job as a Nadiv Educator with the URJ. I was once again being plunged into “Reform Boot Camp.” I found myself “always thinking” thinking like I think at camp. Thinking like I think at school. I was thinking about camp, about school, about partnerships, about old friends and new, about my life before moving to the URJ, and the challenges that continue present themselves in all of our lives. I ran into, met with, and learned from inspirational teachers and role models. I took great pictures and hugged long-lost friends from all over North America. I learned from people who I sought out as role models, and acquired new teachers and friends. Neshama Carlebach wrote about her aliyah to Reform Judaism at Biennial. I’ve been bouncing around in the world Reform Judaism since I started my job. There’s much to learn, and you have to constantly be processing the experience. It’s intellectual. It’s fascinating. And, there’s room for everyone.
So, I was “always thinking” about my big question: What’s going to come back to Georgia with me? There’s the stack of cards from the iCenter for Israel programming. The dance-it-out Shema. The slamming of poetry. The concept of audacious hospitality. The inspiration of every person’s voice in a service attended by 5000 people.
The day after Biennial, I was back at Davis, and meeting with the 3rd graders for Tefillah.
What’s the biggest service you’ve been to?
Was it Yom Kippur? Rosh Hashanah? A bar or bat mitzvah?
I went to services with FIVE thousand people.
Five thousand people.
Five thousand voices.
Every voice matters – your voice matters.
I hope, if nothing else, that I never stop thinking, that WE never stop thinking, and that the Coleman and Davis campers that I teach, directly or indirectly, are always thinking. Always thinking about who and why they are. And always thinking that every voice matters.
Discussions such as the chatter above were floating around the Davis Academy Middle School before experiential Tefillah last Monday morning. Tefillahpolooza featured the prayerful stylings of 13 different teachers. It included teachers both Jewish and non-Jewish, academic and dramatic, texty and crafty. There was something for every multiple intelligence: songwriting, sports, movies, drumming, dramatics, photography, meditation, Torah and gratitude were all covered.
So how did this come to be? As the Nadiv Educator at the Davis Academy, I’m part of a dynamic Judaic Studies team. We work together and spend plenty of time pondering and discussing (as, of course, is tradition) how to make Tefillah engaging for our students. Tefillahpolooza was piloted – and enjoyed – last year, so this year, we turned it up to 13, so to speak. Thirteen teachers were lined up to do something instead of last year’s seven. We tapped teachers from many different departments and three administrators took time to facilitate sessions. It was all in at the Davis Academy, and the options were delicious:
- Banging on Things (Drumming & Spirituality)
- Judaism is Texty (Literature, Movies & Religion)
- Our hiSTORY (Storytelling & Judaism)
- Spirits Soar & Spirits Roar (Slam Poetry & God)
- Make Note, Give Notes (Gratitude & Attitude)
- A Day in the Post-Life (Chaye Sarah Parsha Discussion)
- Get Up, Stand Up (Active Amidah)
- #PhotoTefillah (Photography & Prayer)
- Meditation Service (Spirituality & Prayer)
- Crafty Judaism (Arts & Judaism)
- Ein Kleine Prayermusik (Music and Prayer)
- What are the #miracles in your life that you are most #thankful 4? (Daily Miracles)
- Sporty Spirituality (Athletics & Spirituality)
What was the result?
For me, it meant sharing some activities I’ve done at camp or the Foundation for Jewish Camp‘s Cornerstone Fellowship (that’s Chana Rothman’s “Banging on Things” and Jon Adam Ross’s “Get Up Stand Up” in the lineup) with colleagues as they developed their own lessons. It meant talking about religion and spirituality with a number of teacher from different faith backgrounds. It meant being consistently wowed by and grateful for the thoughtful colleagues I work with at school.
It means trying to figure out how to expand the service choices given at camp in order to mimic the small-group magic of 20+ kids learning to meditate while sitting on the floor.
It means that gratitude for daily miracles were blowing up on Twitter while a Torah timeline was being sketched in a Language Arts classroom. It meant, for one student, it meant that God was HERE, and he taped that very word to the front of his shirt to prove the point.
It meant, as another student wrote, that s/he “thinks that prayer is a way of communication and kehillah (community).”
It meant that we were formed thusly, for 40 minutes, with 13 choices, over 200 students and teachers, many ways to communicate…and that we were one whole community.
Two quick days.
(Two four-week sessions.)
Middle of the school week.
(Middle of another delicious Georgia summer.)
60+ 8th graders.
(450 3rd-12th graders.)
A handful of faculty.
(Multitudes of young (and not-so-young) trained counselors and specialists.)
(Nearly 40 cabins, filled to capacity.)
An abundance of Hershey’s chocolate bars.
(An abundance of Hershey’s chocolate bars.)
There are a number of ways to compare the Davis Academy 8th Grade Gibush/Teambuilding Retreat to a whole summer at URJ Camp Coleman. School had just started, and camp had just ended. Over the course of the time we spent at Coleman, the 8th graders were present. There. Ready to do everything. Willing participants in the teambuilding enterprise.
As their Nadiv Educator, I’d barely transitioned from camp to school when we brought the 8th grade class. I would look out into the crowd at dinner and do a double-take. “Where is Bonim? Why aren’t the Chalutzim meltzing?” Then, I’d shake my head and realize that it wasn’t camp anymore. It was…camp. Davis Gibush camp. At Coleman.
Our 8th graders have taken the first steps on their journey to Israel. In a few short months, they will graduate. But first, to break the barriers. Everybody has their own smaller group of friends in the grade. How does the 8th grade become a cohesive unit? We started with Leaderskits, imagining as if they were Moses, looking out into Israel, not quite there yet. We continued with setting goals for learning for the year, low ropes, Israeli Dance and swimming. After dinner, the kids explored Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” through silent contemplative prayer for nearly an hour, coming back together for s’mores and a poetic review of the Davis menschlichkeit values. The next morning, a walking (and running) Tefillah energized them for a morning of art, campfire cooking and Gaga before lunch and returning to Davis. One student’s mom relayed this story: After hearing a description of the activities, she said that the student had come back from an icebreaker retreat. “No, mom,” he demanded. “It was teambuilding.”
All of the magic of camp.
(All of the magic of day school. At camp.)
Two short days.
(A summer of memories.)
Several weeks ago, as we were gearing up for camp, I was sitting and having a lot of conversations with people. Our primary concerns were health, safety and security, of course, as we want to welcome your children into the safest and most open arms we can provide! Once we provided for basic needs, everyone rallied around the project of setting up the whole camp program, from learning icebreaker games to setting up a trip calendar for every unit to learn out of camp, and getting ready to plan Maccabiah (color war/Olympics/etc).
Just as we have essential curriculum and progression in school, including my beloved day school, The Davis Academy, so too do we set curriculum that goes through a child’s years in camp. In the Programming Castle (because we like to nickname buildings, people, activities, and things at camp), each unit’s dedicated programmer crafts a schedule filled with programs addressing their unit’s enduring understandings and essential questions. “Why does being Jewish matter?” they ask our oldest campers. “We are all a part of K’lal Yisrael/the people of Israel” responds a younger unit. This framework allows for structure fun sessions, as well as a healthy mindset for working, living, learning and enjoying our experiential Jewish summer home.
The following email, edited slightly from its original version, shows the bridging of the two kinds of educational venues, two totally different settings, and two totally identical program goals, addressing the important question of “how do we build a Jewish community together?”
Dear Community Rabbi,
I hope this email finds you well.
We’re gearing up for camp and one of our Programmers is preparing a program about setting a new place, and deciding how to establish the Jewish community. I’ve included the programmer on this email so you two can connect.
The program idea reminds me very much of the program you did with the 5th graders at our day school before they went on their trip to Savannah, GA! I was hoping that you two would be able to touch base about this program while you’re at camp for the first week and a half.
Looking forward to seeing you at day school graduation.
All the best,
Your Friendly, Neighborhood Nadiv Educator
As we gear up for camp every year, there is so much work to be done. Schedules to be finalized, outfits to be tagged and folded lovingly into duffel bags, water bottles to be cleaned. I remember how practical it was, writing my initials on all of my white athletic socks, not just for camp laundry, but also because all 6 of my family members wore the exact same style and brand.
My camp prep begins in August. Once the campers leave, I return to my “winter” life – 4 days a week at The Davis Academy, a Reform Day School in Atlanta, and 1 day a week at the URJ Camp Coleman office. At Davis, I labbed prayer programming with middle schoolers and 3rd graders, helped work on exciting study programs, and began construction on an awesome interfaith program. During my 1 day at Coleman (referred to affectionately as “Yom Coleman”), I learned about year-round operations, met with leadership, traveled to Israel, and structured camp’s programmatic success 2013 (and beyond).
A few weeks before Leadership Week, many of camp’s programmers and unit heads gathered in Tampa, FL, to prepare for the summer. In addition to learning about important Jewish texts and their place in our work, we had the unique opportunity to join one of our congregations for a camp send-off Shabbat. Dressed in our finest Coleman attire, we spoke to the congregation about what we love at camp, with a focus on Shabbat.
Veteran and neophyte staff joined together in talking about values, singing, dancing, smiling, hugging, and, as my teacher taught me to say, “Our very best friend the Torah.” Much of what we spoke about was the intangible stuff that comes home with you from camp.
Our joint speech moved each of us and got us ready for summer. And we’d like to think that the members of that congregation got excited to fill their own duffels with the perfect physical things when they set out on their journey – and to fill their hearts and minds to prepare them for the long road home, after camp. You can’t put that Shabbat feeling in your duffel bag, but your camp is certainly going to put it in your heart!
The Davis Academy put on a play, “The Little Mermaid.” It was utterly impressive. The hard work of the kids – and the performing arts staff – was showcased in their acting and singing, the costume design, the makeup, and the gigantic mass of children (ages 5-14!) that sang in the chorus. A number of shows were put on over the course of several days for the entire Davis school community.
As I sat in the audience, I marveled at the kids. I normally only see them in Davis uniform khakis, logo-embroidered polo shirts, and the ubiquitous Davis hoodie. Watching kids transformed by the play never ceases to amaze me – at school or at camp.
I’ve worked at a number of different Jewish summer camps with different views of how to make the play an educational experience. At previous camps, plays were done in Hebrew – all in Hebrew! – or in English. Regardless of the educational mission, the kids are growing before our very eyes. Their time is spent in rehearsal – many hours after school for the school play, and many hours during their regularly scheduled camp program during the summer. The teamwork, mindset and hard work ethic that is built during these experiences, while still having to maintain grades at school, or maintain a neat living space at camp, helps them grow into multitasking adults.
The set design, directing, and producing of the play is the responsibility of the Drama counselor(s), people with experience that ranges from “I did this when I was a camper” to “I appear on Broadway on a fairly regular basis.” Not every play was ready to be presented for a Tony, but one constant remained: the shining of the kids.
At Davis, at Coleman, and at the other camps where I’ve watched plays, the kids sparkle on stage. Whether that is due to intricate sequinning of costumes, or the impressiveness of a voice (usually hid behind a siddur in Tefillah or masked by 600 other voices during a camp-wide song session), the kids are stars.
Sara Beth Berman is a Nadiv Educator working at URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA in the summer and The Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia during the school year.
“Call me maybe?” I raised my eyebrows as I pondered the implications of asking kids to maybe, if they feel like it, engage in prayer. Every head was bopping around to the song. OK…OK, I can handle this. Actually, this is…fun. This is fun!
Just as this JTA piece on tech in camp was going to press, we were preparing to have an all-middle school iPod service at the Davis Academy.
I was, I am, and I always will be looking for good ways to engage my communities in tefillah, in prayer. The creative and exciting programming that I have seen in my many years at camp ran the range from quietly standing at the edge of a lake to chanting loudly as a room echoed with a thunderstorm of voices. Some of my more far-out tefillah experiences included snacks, scrolls, markers, chalk, mindful movement, and jumping, in unison and in complete silence.
How would the classic URJ Camp Coleman iPod service change if it was led by the kids and not the counselors? We set out to answer this question at The Davis Academy last week. The community is growing used to my outside-of-the-box (AKA camp-style) programming during tefillah. They’re also getting used to the incredibly serious and thoughtful debrief questions I like to ask, which sometimes deeply engage the kids, and other times, get the kids to see their teachers as thoughtful, spiritual beings.
As each advisory group gathered in a circle on the “gymagogue” floor, iPods in hand, they were poised and ready to leap. First, they had to figure out the meaning of the prayer on the page called out to them. Then, they had to find a song that expressed the same ideas. Finally, a select group of faculty chose a few songs per prayer, playing them for about 30 seconds over the loudspeakers.
Kids were poised, ready to jump, scurrying across the gym and begging to know what the next prayer would be. One group cued up “All You Need Is Love” in anticipation of Ahavah Rabbah, which is about God’s great love.
At the end of tefillah, I heard the following things:
“What do you mean it’s over?”
“Can’t we do one more prayer?”
“That was fun,” they said. “We should do this more often.”
And, from a teacher:
“They were SO into it!”
Camp and school came together that day. And they were SO into it.
Sara Beth Berman is a Nadiv Educator working at URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA in the summer and The Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia during the school year.
I have been to the mountaintop. Learning with students in my day school, we recently discussed the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and his last speech. We talked about looking toward the future. A future of rights and equality. A beautiful future.
I also see a beautiful future.
I have been to the mountaintop of Jewish summer camp. I have learned with great teachers while wearing flip flops and reeking of SPF 85. I have rejoiced in the beauty of Israeli dance with hundreds of people in one space. I have consumed the proverbial bug juice and I now continue to try to reproduce it – every meaningful, sweet-as-mountain-air, drop. We remove our shoes and wiggle our toes in the gravel. This is holy ground. It’s serious experiential education. As Heschel put it – we are praying with our feet.
I have been to the mountaintop of Jewish day school. I have watched sixth, seventh, and eighth graders equate 1960s Civil Rights with modern social justice issues. I have seen them grapple with the text of the Binding of Isaac. I have been moved, as their teachers helped them to sketch in chalk, what this prayer or that prayer means to them. They stomp their feet in the coordinated “Mr. O’Dell Shuffle” as we return the Torah to the ark, a dance named for their 8th Grade Judaic Studies teacher. Their shuffles, their teachers, and our Torah, turn the gym into holy ground.
I have been brought to a new mountaintop. This mountaintop is also revelatory, as I begin to feel and see the connections between camp and school in a way that I didn’t before Nadiv. As I chat with URJ Camp Coleman campers in the hallway at The Davis Academy, I’m transported to the dining hall at camp. I can feel the heat of hundreds of kids singing “Im Tirtzu Ain Zo Aggadah” – if you will it, it is not a dream – at the tops of their lungs. Hundreds of feet, skipping forward and then back, as they celebrate the Israeli harvest of strawberries. This, too, is holy ground.
I have been to the mountaintop and I can see the future of Jewish education. Take your shoes off, friend. We’re walking on holy ground and praying with our feet.