From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No-Brainers
by Ruth Schapira
The more things change, the more… well, you can fill in the blank here. This is on my mind as we approach the summer and thousands of Jewish teens anxiously await the beginning of Jewish camp.
I thought that by now there would be some changes in the synagogue world. I’m not even talking about broad, sweeping, systemic change. Or the changes suggested by some 15 teens a few months ago. Incredibly, I have been hoping for one small specific change ever since I was about 10 years old and attended a Jewish summer camp (which I did for six years after that and for nine more in assorted roles from teacher to assistant director).
That change is maximizing campers’ experiences when they arrive home to their synagogue communities. Specifically, at services (I so dislike that name for what we’re looking to experience during that time of prayer). The disconnect I experienced then still holds true in most synagogues now. Jewish teens have described it to me.
Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ like Hebrew school, is a powerful new experience for them. Their weeks have the rhythm of Shabbat in camp that usually doesn’t occur at home. They’re also socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks.
That’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish Camping are trying to get our kids to go there through incentive scholarships.
OK, let’s get back to focusing on the one thing: services. At camp? Not boring at all. Sure, they’re tired in the morning, can barely keep their eyes open, but their peers are usually in front of the room leading the group, and this already makes things rather interesting. Plus, there’s a lot of interactivity and singing. Do you have this mental picture? Good.
Let’s switch now, to what they experience at their home synagogue. If it’s hard for you to keep a connection to services comprised of ‘readings’ interspersed with cantorial singing, how might they feel after just experiencing what they did for weeks in the summer?
It might not be too harsh to say that experiencing ‘services’ at their home synagogue amounts to listening to someone else chant — like in a production where you buy tickets and wait for the entertainment.
If guests go up to the bimah, it’s usually to offer a reading. Yawn. But what about synagogues that hold a camp Shabbat honoring those teens who attend Jewish summer camps? Oh, that? Yes, that’s when most often, campers are invited to lead prayers but not asked to bring their style of prayer to the “Jews in the Pews.” Usually the reason given is that people like to sing/read/chant what they already know; it’s comfortable.
It’s frightfully a sad state when there are no links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other. There may be programs working on this, but I haven’t encountered any.
So, here we have Jewish teens who spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, coming back home to experience a sterile, cold, inflexible environment. And again, I’m just talking about services. What should we do about it? Here are some suggestions for using the talents of our teens:
- Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ minyan at your synagogue, even once a month for starters. Or ask them to duplicate a service one Shabbat evening or morning.
- Put one or more Jewish teens on your ritual committee to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp.
- Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth.
- Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which the synagogue community can learn and be enriched by their experience.
- Get these teens in front of your younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.
I bet you’ll notice a change. Even if it’s a really small, specific one.
Ruth Schapira is the Director of Academic Affairs and oversees the educational program for JCHS (Jewish Community High School) of Gratz College. She is a former camper and staffer at Camp Ramah and has more than 35 years of experience working in supplementary schools.
Originally posted at Jewish Teens