HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Praying Without the Lake
For too long, the two polar extremes of Jewish education—“formal” and “informal”—were destined to never meet. “Formal” modes of day school and supplemental education were reserved for instruction and stereotyped as “boring” and only content-driven, while “informal” experiences such as camp, youth group and Israel experiences were reserved for Jewish socialization and pigeonholed as emotional “fluff.” Thankfully, these simplistic distinctions have been questioned and the field has evolved so that “schools no longer limit their educational work to formal instruction and contexts such as camps and Israel experiences employ many different methods to accomplish their educational goals.”
While much work has been done, we clearly aren’t “there” yet. Too often we do not connect the dots between those who attend camp and day school. Day school students may at times feel that camp does not deliver enough content, and too often, Jewish campers come home and express their exasperation: “I can’t pray here…there’s no lake!” This can be frustrating to hear, and while we agree that we do not want young people to be motivated solely by the emotional experience of the “lake,” there is certainly something magical that occurs around the camp “lake” that can be brought back to the school setting to help connect one’s Jewish learning with one’s Jewish doing.
According to Jerome Bruner, “The most characteristic thing about mental life, over and beyond the fact that one apprehends the events of the world around one, is that one constantly goes beyond the information given.” Surely, all those invested in raising up the next generation of engaged Jews agree that an educated Jew is not simply a Jew who knows a great deal of information, but rather goes beyond and in his or her heart knows Jewish, values Jewish and acts Jewish.
While Abraham Joshua Heschel contends that the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time to be separated from the technological civilization of space, it is clear that in order to create a fully educated Jew today, young people must take part in all gateways and contexts available to us to achieve Jews possessing both serious Jewish knowledge as well as a deep commitment to engagement in Jewish communal life. By intricately interweaving time, space, and relationships, talmud Torah keneged kulam—the study of Torah can indeed lead to them all.
For many, Jewish summer camp offers the setting to interweave time, space and relationships to bring Judaism fully to life. While initially deriving its “magical power” from its dedication to fun, camp possesses the luxury of functioning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Camps have the opportunity to intentionally interweave Jewish education into every aspect of camp: the sports field, the dining room and the camper cabin. Camp is where one not only learns about Shabbat and Shabbat preparation, but experiences the change in Jewish pace in real time and in real space. The ways of derech eretz are not simply a concept at camp, but experimented with and ideally practiced everyday. Music and one’s prayer life can particularly come alive in the physical setting and ambiance of Jewish summer camp, deepening one’s spiritual life and connection with G-d. Especially successful at camp is also the intentional use of role modeling, with college-age counselors as the main guides in this immersive Jewish setting.
This past April, sociologist Jack Wertheimer recently released preliminary findings of a report commissioned by the AVI CHAI Foundation on young Jewish leaders (ages 22-40). While an impressive 40% of young Jewish leaders attended day school, two-thirds attended Jewish summer camps. Because of this power of Jewish summer camp, I am often asked how to merge formal and experiential Jewish education together more. While I believe nothing can be a substitute for the opportunities provided by the long term summer camp setting (i.e. 2+ Shabbatot spent together, living together on an ongoing basis, the use of young role models), there have been many efforts in both settings to help bridge a young person’s Jewish learning with their Jewish heart in order to produce the fully rounded and educated Jew. Just as many camps now seek to infuse “Jewish Teachable Moments” into all aspects of a camp day, so too can more formal settings—such as day schools—seek to infuse more “Jewish Experiential Moments” into their scaffolding and architecture.
Infusing “Jewish Experiential Moments” into your school can take place in many spaces, times and ways. While there are many low-hanging fruit opportunities available throughout the Jewish calendar to bring Jewish learning to life by doing Jewish, such as delivering shalach manot packages to elderly shut-ins, shabbatonim and retreat programs, and traveling to Israel instead of only studying about Israel, think also about our goals and approaches for building Jewish identity, community and commitment. Ask yourself what are some of the ways to foster real Jewish communal experiences and real relationships within your school? Is it a student-run bikkur cholim group that not only sends homework home with notes and tips from class, but calls those who are sick in the middle of the day to check in? Is it a commitment to ongoing mentorship and fun between older students and younger students through a Jewish theater program? Is it a recurring “friendly” Maccabiah competition that continues throughout the school year centered around Israel education? These are just a few ideas, but the core principles are the same; real Jewish experiences based upon real Jewish relationships in real Jewish time and space.
Dr. Barry Chazan challenges us to keep in mind these key points when seeking to incorporate more experiential methods into Jewish education:
Experiential Jewish education should be considered an approach to Jewish education rather than being identified by any particular settings or methods.
The basic dichotomy of feeling and thinking, fun and learning should be dissolved; there are ample opportunities in “informal” settings for cognition and for fun to take place in “formal” settings.
Experiential education should not be mistaken as spontaneous or taking advantage of “Jewish Teachable Moments” only; much of the work of experiential educators involves serious preparation to structure the environment so that the spontaneous can occur.
Consider then, your overall approach to an area such as tefillah. Remember the camper that returns home and says that she cannot pray without the lake? The root of her frustration is that prayer at the lake was powerful, moving and memorable and that prayer at home seems dull and lifeless in comparison. How can we bring the best of the camp lake into a school’s approach to tefillah to bring Judaism more to life?
The first benefit of the camp lake is the young people themselves. For those day schools with camp alumni, challenge yourselves to truly utilize those camp alumni for tefillah leading. Camp alumni can be your best asset in terms of captivating younger and less engaged students in an exciting Jewish worship community—all you need to do is ask. Ask them to lead prayer and song. Task them with producing divrei Torah. And then take more steps to utilize them outside of the tefillah setting as leaders in social justice projects, Shabbatonim and other school community building programs. Their energy will be contagious.
Mincha/Maariv at the camp lake obviously takes advantage of ambiance and setting. Use your student leadership to really think about where tefillah takes place at school. Do you want to show that Jewish prayer can only occur in one place, in one way, with one leader? Or can it take place in different settings, in different groupings, a different manner, and with different prayer leaders?
The intentional use of music is the cornerstone of the success of the camp lake. Challenge your school to bring in more music in order to engage students more deeply. Remember, that adding music is not only a matter of repertoire, but also necessitates an enthusiastic and skilled music leader’s ability to teach music in a welcoming way that results in an entire community singing together. It helps if that music leader is someone that the students look up to.
Anyone who has ever celebrated Shabbat at Jewish camp has experienced the contagious ruach that permeates. It’s important to remember when bringing in more experiential methods into your school, that such magic and ruach aren’t accidental; many factors such as the use of space, time, role-modeling and relationships have been intentionally utilized in order to achieve such magic so that campers know and do Jewish. Many of these factors can be used in your overall approach as well in creating Jews who love learning, being and doing Jewish. Behatzlachah! ♦
Rabbi Eve Rudin is Director of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp and used to serve as Director of the URJ Kutz Camp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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