Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What I learned at Camp Newman #4 - Change your perspective

Number four: change your perspective
While we were at camp we experienced the first rainy day in summer ever in the 17-year history of Camp Newman. This is California; rain gear wasn’t even on the packing list! And this was serious rain—not a drizzle, but a downpour most of the day. Trying to entertain 600 very active kids indoors all day was a challenge, but it wound up being a great day.
It started with reciting the schecheynu at breakfast; from the beginning, the counselors and campers faced the day with positive energy. It was not a rainout—it was an adventure. There were lots of board games, and tables were flipped over for indoor gaga. The camp was like a multiplex, with every available room showing a movie. There was even a sculpture-making class in the director’s kitchen. What could have been a disaster turned out to be a fabulous day.
Sometimes you have to just be flexible—take a step back and look at the bigger picture; one rainy day was not going to ruin camp. Our expectations shape our experiences and we have the power to change our perspective and, please forgive the pun, find the silver lining.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What I learned at Camp #3 - Prayer is about you, not about God

 Hiking with Rishonim and Rabbi Paul Kipnes at Camp Newman
Number three: Prayer is about you, not about God
This summer at camp I was with a group of eighth and ninth graders who were spending a month exploring Jewish experiences in nature. Every other day Rabbi Paul Kipnes and I would get a new group of 14 kids to take hiking. At the beginning of each hike we started with tefilat haderech—the travelers’ prayer. We talked with the kids about why, historically, we needed a travelers’ prayer and what kinds of things we would pray for today as we started our short journey up the hills of Napa. The kids went around the circle listing things they wanted protection from—like poison oak, bees and sunburn—and what blessings they hoped to find, like connecting with friends and having fun. We turned all these hopes and fears into a prayer, our own customized tefilat haderech.
I could stop here and tell you about the beauty of writing our own prayer—and it was beautiful—but that was the point of the exercise. I wanted the kids to see prayer as relevant, and to find beauty in writing their own. What I learned was that, especially for teenagers who are very vocal about their struggle with belief in God, there needed to be some other meaning in prayer aside from asking God for protection. And so we started talking about what we really expect to happen when we pray.
Nobody really expected that our prayer would protect us from poison oak and sunburn, but taking the time to talk about our fears reminded us all to watch out for “leaves of three” and to put on sunblock. Talking about our hopes set us up for blessing because we were already expecting to find it on the trail—we recognized the benefits of hiking together because we were looking for them. Our prayer was not about God, it was about ourselves.

Friday, July 15, 2011

More lessons from Jewish Summer Camp: #2 Pray in English

 Shabbat at Camp Newman

Number two: pray in English
It can sometimes seems that our tradition feels praying in Hebrew is more authentic than praying in English—but there’s a reason there’s so much English in our prayerbook:  sometimes you just need to pray in English. It’s the language that many of us are most familiar with, and in which it is easiest for us to express our thoughts and feelings.
You may not be surprised to hear there is a good mix of English and Hebrew in prayer services at camp, but you might be surprised that English is not the only vernacular to find its way into the prayer service.
One of the prayers we say in every service is the kaddish. We are all familiar with the mourners’ kaddish that comes at the end of our service, but there is also a hatzi kaddish—a “half kaddish”—that is a marker between parts of the service. When the kaddish was added to the service, it was considered so important that its words be understood by the person praying them that it was not written in Hebrew—that’s right, it’s not in Hebrew. The kaddish is, in fact, in Aramaic, which was the more commonly spoken language at the time the prayer was written and found its way into our service.
And if Aramaic, then why not English? Dan Nichols, who is a rock star among songleaders, and who joined us at Camp Newman for the first two weeks of the summer, wrote a melody for a version of the hatzi kaddish in English. On Shabbat morning, instead of the familiar chant, “Yitkadal v’yitkadash shemei rabbah,” we instead prayed and sang “may your wonder be celebrated, may your name be consecrated.” Later in this service we’ll sing the Aleinu. At camp, this was another prayer that we sometimes sang in English. Campers could be heard remarking, “have you heard that new Aleinu? “Let us Adore?” Those of us who remember the old Gates of Prayer siddur know that “Let us Adore” is not new—but it is rare nowadays that we sing the Aleinu in English.
Singing these prayers in English that we usually chant in Hebrew forces us to think about what they really mean. It challenges us to face the meaning of the words and to pray in a different way. The early Reform rabbis were very aware of how different it is to pray in the language you speak. When the meaning of a prayer was considered problematic or challenged the prevailing ideology, the earliest Reform prayerbooks chose not to translate it from the Hebrew—trusting in congregants’ lack of Hebrew knowledge to avoid any awkwardness. But at Camp Newman, Dan Nichols frequently reminded campers to “embrace the awkward” in prayer—to really read and listen and understand when we pray.
We do not come to synagogue to complete a checklist of required prayers; we come to refresh and restore our souls. There are times when we seek the comfort and connection of the Hebrew prayers and other times when we seek the challenges of wrestling with the words.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

5 things I learned at Camp Newman this summer #1

 TAS Alum and Camp Newman Counselor Sam Avishay welcoming campers on opening day.

Number one: be welcoming.
As soon as you arrive at Camp Newman you are greeted by a large group of teenagers, clapping and dancing and singing “Shalom Aleichem.” You know you are in the right place and—more than that—you know that you belong there, and that the people around you want you to be there.
Judaism values the welcoming of guests. Abraham and Sarah welcomed strangers into their tent, rushing to help them wash the dirt off their feet and preparing them something to eat. On Sukkot we symbolically welcome our ancestors into the sukkah, already filled with the friends and family we’ve invited. On Passover we say, “let all who are hungry, come and eat.” And of course, Shabbat is traditionally a time for inviting others to share a meal with us.
We are a welcoming people. “Come in, sit, have a nosh.”
Arrival at camp takes welcoming guests to the extreme. And while our own guests might be taken aback if we greeted them with singing and dancing and clapping, we all know how good it feels to be warmly received and to know that we are wanted and that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.
In our own lives, think about how you let others know they are welcome and that you are happy to see them. It is not just inviting people to our homes. Think about when you are meeting a friend—are you wholly engaged and present, or are you on your cell phone and texting?
At camp we welcome each other with our heads and our hearts, with words and song. And once you arrive, you turn around to welcome others. There is a sense of ownership toward camp—everyone feels the responsibility to welcome newcomers.
So just imagine if we stretched that feeling to our synagogue. When Dr. Ron Wolfson spoke to our congregation last year he taught that we are each responsible for welcoming each other to our synagogue—that it is up to us to create that feeling of warmth and acceptance and to let each other know that we are glad to be here, in this place, together. Being welcoming is about being fully present and making a real connection with another person.