Today was about Torah and today was about midrash.
I have been teaching our 3rd graders about the Torah readings we’ve done in the last several weeks. Today, we had Fashion Five Minutes (Fashion Week? I wish! Each second with these kids is precious, and we have precious minutes on Monday mornings!). We watched the g-dcast video about Tetzaveh, talked about holy clothing, and the squad of 3rd graders sketched holy garb. Some recreated the g-dcast animation, some drew pictures of a favorite dress, and some drew a particularly swirly kippot. Boom. Midrash.
I popped into a 5th grade Torah service. My colleague taught them how to chant and the whole class reads for their invited guests and family. They’re like grasshoppers to me – they seem so small, but they’re actually looming large, chanting like the middle schoolers they will be so very soon. Also, they read the story of the spies in parshat Shlach Lecha. Beautifully. And soon, we’ll be sending them over to the middle school. Boom. Torah.
After that, it was off to iPod Tefillah, a program from URJ Camp Coleman that I’ve modified to great reception at both camp and school. After a student group chose “Brave” by Sara (Beth) Bareilles (can’t help but love her – what a great name!) as a good example of the themes in Mi Chamocha, I confirmed that they knew that the midrashic character from the crossing of the sea was headed up by Nachshon, the bravest Israelite to escape from Egypt. The answer came, loudly, from a Coleman camper who’s a student at Davis. Boom. Midrash.
Next, I set up lunch packing for our 8th graders. Each grade has taken time out of their own lunch to prepare and pack lunches for the Zaban Couples Center at The Temple in Atlanta. Students instruct each other on the best way to make their sandwich, help me pack up boxes of lunches, and bring them to the car so they can be dropped off, and given to people who truly need them. Each student is instructed to make a lunch that they would like to receive – do you want apple or berry juice? Do you want a green or a red apple? And, most importantly, what kind of a note would you like to receive in your lunch to add a spark of happiness to your lunch break? A 6th grader wrote “You are beautiful in every single way” and an 8th grader scrawled “This is the best sandwich I’ve ever created!” Both show love in the student’s own unique way – and we were all loving our neighbors as we would love ourselves. Boom. Torah.
I shot over from lunch packing to the lower school building to listen to some 5th graders reading Torah, followed by a practice of the seder play that our 2nd graders are doing. Boom. Torah. Boom. Midrash.
It is truly rewarding to work with these kids. Teaching children at all times, when I’m walking and when I’m sitting.
Back in October, we tried something new at the day school half of my job: Tefillahpalooza. You can read the post I wrote about it on the Canteen.
In conversations about how best to
#nadiviate (it’s a thing!), bridging my work between camp and school, my Coleman colleagues became enamored with the idea of having our own Coleman Tefillahpalooza. Another conversation about revitalizing tefillah at camp led us to creating a program called Hot ShoTz (a Sho”Tz is short for Shaliach Tzibur, the title of a service leader who represents the community by shepherding people through the prayer process.).
Our Assistant Program Director Scott Gellman, an HUC Rabbinical student and a Coleman person for decades, helped to develop all of the answers, and he had his work cut out for him. First, what was Hot ShoTz going to be about? Who would do it? How would we develop skills, not just as a ShoTz, but as an emerging leader in camp? What kind of materials would we present to our Hot ShoTz? And, what would be their final project?
Hot ShoTz consisted of our programming staff, songleading staff, and assorted volunteers. All were interested in developing prayer and leadership skills. Some had just arrived at camp for the first time in May, many were seasoned NFTY/youth group/camp graduates, and some have been counselors and programmers for years. Formulated and led by different clergy, under the watchful eye of Scott, Hot ShoTz sessions on Shabbat helped teach skills and examine the meaning and intention behind our services at camp.
As summer was drawing to a close, we knew the Hot ShoTz were ready to shine. Each participant was asked to choose a buddy and to prepare a Tefillah experience to be offered to a small group of campers, in their final project: Tefillahpalooza. In addition to 6 faculty offerings, there were 9 Hot ShoTz services to choose from at camp that morning!
The logistical challenges of sending the 650 members of our community to 15 different services were many: Campers are always supervised by staff at camp, even on a simple walk to another location. Locations were strewn all around camp. Campers needing to get to the lake or the pool after being out in the ropes course. What if it rains? But with careful work by Scott, and with the help of sign-ups with “Concert Stickets” (ticket stickers with name of service, location, unit and bunk number), everybody distributed with ease.
For 50 minutes after breakfast on Thursday morning, our Hot ShoTz (and our faculty) showed their stuff, and offered equally engaging experiential Tefillah programs in areas as diverse as playdough prayer, writing their own stories prayer, Cold-Pray (a Coldplay service), Improv, and “The Theatre is Our Temple,” where campers had a chance to examine and discuss movie and TV clips that portrayed Judaism.
After a summer of hard work and learning, everybody in the Coleman community got to see just how hot our Hot ShoTz are. And we can’t wait to have another Tefillahpalooza next summer!
How could I try to hide in plain sight? Well if I was well camouflaged I might use any combination of materials, coloration or illumination for concealment. In the wild I might do this by making myself hard to see in my environment or by disguising myself as something else. In terms of education I might do a great job by simply not announcing what I am doing as educational. I was thinking about this during a recent conference for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Thanks to generous support of the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations with contributions from The Marcus Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter brought together representatives from 27 camps to have their staff explore how they might animate Israel in their camps for their campers.
It was in this context that one of the fellows remarked, “I used to think that there are Jewish camps that taught about Judaism and other camps that were fun. Our camp is a fun camp. And now I get it. You are asking us to make learning about Israel fun.” All of these mostly college aged fellows came together with many Israeli counterparts to enhance the Israel educational programming at their camps. The goal is to get them serious content through activities and materials in a way that they can customize to fit naturally in their camp environment. I am confident that fellows get it. Israel education can happen with rich content and subtle complexity, but at camp it needs to be camouflaged as fun.
Camouflaged education might be the essence of Shavuot, which begins tonight. The premise of our getting the Torah was our promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. We received the Torah at Sinai because we said, “na’aseh v’nishma- We will do and we will hear/understand.” (Exodus 24:7) If we needed to study it in a formal setting first we might never have committed ourselves to the venture. There is a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric out there today, especially on our college campuses, and it gives me peace of mind to know that we can create a utopia of Jewish camp in which Israel education can hide in plain sight.
We come together for Passover to celebrate our ongoing liberation from slavery. During the seder we will speak at length about the exodus from Egypt, but how did we, the descendants of Jacob, get there? Before we ask how did we end up as slaves we need to ask how did we end up in Egypt?
This story starts with Joseph and his brothers. Annoyed by his being different, they sell him into slavery. Through a turn of events Joseph ends up in a position of power in Egypt. Forced by the famine in the land of Canaan, his brothers unwittingly come before Joseph seeking sustenance. Sitting before them, he is faced with a choice as to whether or not he will keep his identity closeted. The text reads:
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone in Egypt finds out about his identity. Through Joseph’s coming-out they were all witness to the unfolding of God’s plan. What started off as a family tragedy was transformed into a divine national comedy.
In modern times we can hear resonance of the Passover cry for justice in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). I believe that we can hear a corollary to this in the sound of Joseph’s tears. There is an inextricable connection between personal and national revelation. While Moses led us out of Egypt we were not truly free until we experienced God’s revelation at Sinai. Joseph’s personal revelation to his brothers was a precursor to God’s coming out to the nation at Sinai. While we need to seek justice for everyone, we should rise to the challenge of realizing that we will not understand the collective revelation until we are all free to express all of who we are as individuals.
A few months ago I went to a benefit hosted by Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the camp at which I grew up. There were some people there who I had not seen for 20 years. Stepping into that room it was as if we were all back at camp. One hug later it was as if no time had passed. We were family. For a moment there I had a sense of what Joseph and his brothers must have felt so many years ago. Camp avails us of the opportunity to expand our idea of family. There in the presence of our camp family we can give voice to hidden parts of ourselves. There we can start to articulate what we aspire to become in our lives. How can we provide our children with that safe place to reveal all of who they are and who they might become?
At your seder, as the Jewish world sits as equals sharing food, I hope that more of us find safe space to share ourselves with the collective. May you have a very revealing and meaningful Passover.
Let’s be clear. I can make any conversation into a conversation about art. Especially when it comes to the Torah and art at camp. Parah Adumah? Let’s talk about the color red! Miriam leading the people in celebration? Kikar dancing! Moses with two tablets? Sculpture! But really, those are stretches. That’s what makes Vayakhel-Pekudei so exciting for me. It’s not just easy to make a connection between the story and “art,” it’s explicit.
We read about the nomination of Betzalel and Oholiav to design the Mishkan and lead it’s construction. And the Torah goes into great detail about the materials used (acacia wood, dolphin skin, crimson wool, etc.). So here I could talk about the different materials our campers get to create with in the art room and the wood shop: clay, mojpoj, paint, pine wood, woodstains, etc. And the Torah talks about the skill of the lead designers, how their talents are divinely inspired. Here I could talk about kavanah, and how every piece of art made at camp, from a 11 year old camper’s painting to a 16 year old camper’s original song, is done with Jewish content in mind, with a sense of Jewish intention behind the art. And of course, the Torah talks about portability – this is not going to be a permanent fixed structure. That is an easy bridge to the art work at camp being ephemeral, meaningful in the moment as a memory, and then lost to a blank canvas, which resets for the next session, the next summer, the next camper with an idea for expression.
But those things are not what makes this parsha so clearly about art at camp. In Chapter 36, Verses 1-7, we see that Bezalel and Oholiav were overwhelmed by the amount of things Israelites brought to contribute to the project. People brought their gold, their wood, their fabrics. They all wanted to be a part of what was happening, they all wanted ownership. And THAT is what Jewish summer camp’s philosophy of artistic creation is really all about. You go see group of campers perform Beauty and the Beast, and you’ll notice: the younger campers standing up with grey cardboard ovals on their heads, performing as ‘spoons’ in “Be Our Guest”; a 14 year old camper on violin, a special needs camper on drums, and a member of Sports staff playing the saxophone in the orchestra; the oldest campers running the tech booth. The list goes on and on. At Jewish summer camp, like our Israelite ancestors before us, we take communal ownership of our art. To me, this way of creating art is what I’ve always known from camp, it feels natural. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Torah tells us it’s genetic.
Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education? In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?
So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.
It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.
The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.
I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.
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.
He was bubbling over with excitement. He had heard so much about this place. This was his first time away from home. And somehow he knew that his life was going to be different after coming here. While he knew that he was going to miss his family, he was excited to make new friends, and yes he was excited to possibly meet a special someone. As they arrived he could not stay in his seat.
I am sure that this story rings true for you if you remember going to camp for the first time. All of the excitement, all of those expectations of what that summer has in store. As the bus lurched forward you felt yourself opening up to the people on the bus. You were hardly able to sit in your seat as the bus pulled off the main road and you saw that first sign for your camp. You had never been there before, but as you pulled in you knew that you were home.
While this is my story of going to camp for the first time, this definitely echoes what I heard from my eldest son after his first summer at camp, or at least what I got out of him. Similarly, the story of Rebecca that we read in last week’s Torah portion says:
Then Rebecca and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. Now Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell off the camel. (Genesis 24:61- 64)
Rebecca was that first happy camper coming “home.” She fell in love at first sight. Just as I fell in love as a camper. It was not with a person – those crushes and relationships came and went. It was not with that place, even though it will endure in my memory as a place filled with kiddusha, holiness. I fell in love with who I was at camp.
Many years ago my camp supervisor mailed me the following story:
Once there was a Rebbe who had a Yeshiva. His son studied in the Yeshiva. One day the son took off the afternoon to go walking in the forest. The father said nothing. But over time the son took to taking off every afternoon to walk in the forest. At this point the father realized that he needed to confront his son. The Rebbe said to his son, “I hear that you are walking in the forest every afternoon. Why are you doing this?” The son replied that he was looking for God. The Rebbe was puzzled and asked, “Did I not teach you that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Abba, I know that God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”
When and where in my life was I more open to being all of whom I aspired to become? It was when I got off that bus for the first time, and it was at camp.
While I love the place and I love that time in my life, I realize that I owe a lot to my counselors. More than what I saw in them as role models, it was what my role models saw in me when I tumbled off that bus. They shared with me a glimpse of the person that I am still working on becoming. And that is why I fell in love with camp.
In addition to beginning to plan for the upcoming 2014 camping season, Gilad and I find ourselves also busy preparing to become new parents in approximately three months. We recently started Jewish Baby University (JBU) classes through the JCC, which are not only helping us gain important knowledge about items related to delivery and infant care but perhaps more importantly, giving us an opportunity to discuss how we want to create and maintain a Jewish home.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, a community leader, Ranch Camp parent, and JBU instructor, led a session for the group that Gilad and I found to be very interesting and I want to share it with you here. In the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)*, there is a list of things that parents are obligated to do for their child after birth. Interestingly enough, basic necessities such as providing food, shelter, care, and love for a child are absent from the list. Perhaps the Talmudists felt that these were items likely not to be neglected by parents and therefore unnecessary to mention. Instead, “spiritual care” items are listed related to the obligation to provide a child with knowledge about values, morals, and a sense of shared history or collective memory (Torah). This is interesting in and of itself but then, there is something completely unexpected and even more interesting – included at the end of the list is the obligation to teach your child how to swim! Fascinating.
At first glance, teaching your child how to swim might seem very out of place. However, upon further reflection, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. Certainly, there is great value in literally teaching a child how to swim after all, humans have lived next to bodies of water for tens of thousands of years and certainly this is a matter of basic survival. However, I think the rabbis had a larger intent in mind when writing this. After all, learning how to stay afloat in inhabitable, dangerous, and/or difficult conditions is what life is all about really. And the teaching does not say, “hold your child afloat when swimming” or “make sure your child wears a flotation device at all times when in water,” no, it indicates that we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. And I think this principle is perhaps the essential function of effective parenting.
Gilad and I were really taken by this concept. I think it resonates so strongly with us because of what we feel camp provides to children each summer. There are so many “hard skills” that campers learn every day at camp such as swimming, archery, horseback riding, and mountain biking that will help them to survive, thrive, and be healthy, active adults. But within each activity and social interaction at camp, we are able to impart “soft skills” such as confidence, resilience, and cooperation that gives them a secondary set of competencies that are invaluable in leading a successful and independent life. As parents, I think this is what we all ultimately desire for our children and together, through skills we teach at home and in places like camp, we can successfully fulfill our obligation to teach our children how to swim.
*Kiddushin 29a: A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.
The other night we had our traditional second night game of Capture the Degel (flag), which pits adom (red) against kachol (blue). All the campers run back to their cabins after dinner to dress in their team colors and mentally prepare for the game at hand. Then everyone gathers at the designated “Center Line” to rally their team and begin to play. Capture the Degel is definitely a camper favorite and is an activity that is greatly anticipated and looked forward to by all. Perhaps it’s the sense of competition, or the ability to roam around camp with a sense of freedom but also with purpose, or maybe its that the game arouses a deep-seeded sense of tribalism within our human psyche. Whatever it is about this game that makes it so beloved, a camp session would not be complete without it.
Although it might not appear so at first glance, Capture the Degel is a great teaching-learning opportunity within our camp environment. To begin with, the game is all about teamwork. Even though it seems like it is each man for himself out there in the field, you are not striving for personal glory but rather for team honor. There is a common goal (to find and capture the other team’s degel) but each person must do their part, and sometimes make personal sacrifices, in order to achieve the ultimate goal at hand. This game also reinforces our summer theme of kehillah (community). As opposed to most of the activities that we do at camp during a session, Capture the Degel divides the camp into two teams and this means that campers of all ages, banim (boys) and banot (girls), get mixed together and have a chance to interact. It is really neat to see our youngest campers side-by-side with our oldest campers and witness how they support and encourage one another during the game. Smaller campers are often faster and more stealthy than their older camper peers, while older and more experienced campers can offer strength, stamina, and strategy. In this way, everyone has a sense of value and worth and each individual is a commodity to their team.
Last Shabbat we read the portion Va-etchanan, where we read the Shema and Ten Commandments. It’s an incredibly important parasha that has informed the fundamental principles of modern human society. It speaks to the oneness of G-d, of each individual who was made in G-d’s image, and outlines how we should treat one another. Activities that we do at camp, like Capture the Degel, give children a hands-on opportunity to live and experience these principles first hand, making them stronger as individuals and making us a tighter kehillah.
Miriam and Gilad