By Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, Jewish Educational Consulting
URJ Program Coordinator for the Kivun Grant
The URJ and Ramah camping movements have given a lot of thought to what Jewish life looks like in their camps. Through programs and studies through the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and other organizations, they have become quite reflective about their Jewish experiences and anticipated outcomes. While Jewish learning, role-modeling and celebration can be found throughout the camp environment, in most camps it has not touched the specialties. While you may sing the bedtime Shema, or have a b’rit (covenant) instead of simply having rules listed on your cabin wall, your hour playing soccer is the same as it would be at any other camp across the United States.
The Kivun Grant wishes to challenge this and stretch the boundaries of Jewish life at camp. Funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, the Kivun grant provides for the creation of six “Specialist Training Retreats” this summer including theater arts, visual arts, nature & adventure, waterfront, sports, and music. With more than 100 participants, the Kivun retreats will strive to infuse camp specialties with Judaic content, introduce new techniques for teaching the specialties, and build a “community of practice” across denominational lines who can share materials, techniques, and questions. Indeed, not an easy task.
For the last five years I have had the honor of working as a consultant with URJ Camps and FJC Specialty Camp Incubator Participants who have been exploring new ways of integrating Judaism in to their camp day. There have been great successes, and many lessons learned along the way. One story always comes to mind. We were brainstorming ideas for bringing Judaism on to the football field and the coach I was working with came up with what seemed like a wonderful idea. He decided to change the football game a bit that day to teach a lesson about different models of leadership. Eventually, he planned to tie this to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, but first the rules of the game would be changed and we would control how people picked their team members. It sounded great on paper – it was the active learning these campers craved, it started with where they were and what they cared about, and it took advantage of the camp setting. We were excited and eager to see it play out.
In the middle of the game, when the campers figured out that the coach was playing with the rules, they just stopped: What we had on our hands was nothing short of a rebellion that would make Korach proud. The campers refused to play. They were furious that we had “destroyed” their game and insisted before returning to the field that we promise to never do this again. We quickly learned on that day that adding Jewish learning in to a beloved specialty required a delicate balance of Judaism, specialty, participant and leader. We learned if that balance was off, the whole enterprise backfired.
Building on this experience, we developed the following framework for Kivun Lead Educators to use in their specialist training retreats:
You are a _____ (art, drama, sports…) specialist, using Judaism as a tool to understand what it means to be an ______ (artist, actor, athlete…)
You are a Jewish educator, using _____ (art, drama, sports…) as a tool to explore what it means to be Jewish.
When applied, these two statements provide a way of conceptualizing what Jewish integration in camp specialties can look like and defines the two poles that must be balanced if we are to be successful. For example, an art specialist, exploring how to use Judaism as a tool to understand what it means to be an artist, may teach the Kabbalistic concept of simsum (God’s pulling back in order to create the world) and explore with campers how this is similar to their own creative process. If this same art specialist wanted to focus on being a Jewish educator and use art as a tool to explore what it means to be Jewish, she could have campers create their own artistic interpretation of a prayer in mosaic stones by reading the prayer, exploring what they think it means, and using art as a way to express those beliefs.
Part of the challenge, however, taught by the “football rebellion,” is the need for finding the balance with in these two elements. For example, if you are using art to explore a prayer, but not using a new, interesting and challenging art project to do it, campers quickly become disillusioned and resentful. One can’t blame them – they signed up for art and want a meaningful art experience. On the other side, Jewish text taught in a way that is not engaging, intergated or relevant to what they are doing in the specialty is quickly dismissed. It becomes an “add-on” that is taking up time they had thought was for their specialty and is often seen by the campers as “bait and switch.” Specialty staff not only need the knowledge and skills to be able to include Jewish content, but also the tools to reflect in action and choose how to meaningfully and appropriately bring that content in to their teaching.
By the end of this summer, based on the evaluation process of the Kivun program, we hope to have exciting new approaches for how to integrate Judaism into daily specials that can be shared across the camping world. A delicate balance, we already know, requiring intentionally crafting program, engaging campers by inviting them to take part in the creative process, and sometimes just playing football.
For more on the unique partnership Kivun has inspired between the URJ Camps and the National Ramah Commission, check out How Grant Making Creates Partnering Opportunities in eJewish Philanthropy.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham works as a Jewish Education Consultant for camps and congregations exploring alternative learning models. She is the URJ Program Coordinator for the Kivun Grant and the Jewish Education Consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubators. Michelle has published more than 20 books and works part-time as the Director of Education for Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J.