D’var Torah: The Four Children of Camp Ramah

To borrow a concept from the Passover seder, there are four types of “children” at Ramah Palmer: the A-side hanich (camper), the teenage B-sider, the madrich (counselor) and the Rosh Edah (unit head). Each one represents a stage of development and illustrates the potent ways in which Ramah promotes their growth. I have been working at Ramah for around thirty years and have witnessed the critical role that camp plays in helping children learn important life skills, make lifelong friendships and connect to and understand their Jewish faith. While there is a short and long game to play and not every moment is easy, the process works.

As an example, let’s look at how tefillah (prayer) plays out through the different stages. An A-side camper enters camp and tefillah is mostly fun: with hand movements and singing and with almost every camper wanting to lead something. Yes, it is hard to sit still, but by the end of the month everyone knows the prayers we sing out loud, the hand movements to V’Ahavta (second paragraph of the Shema), and Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal). Our Rosh Mishlachat (head of our Israeli delegation), who came to camp just out of the Israeli Army fifteen years ago with a chilonit (secular) background, just got to see her oldest daughter, who is in Ilanot, read Torah for the first time. She told me it was her dream to have her children do this after she spent her first summer here.  When I give a d’var tefillah (teaching about tefillah) to A-side edot, they have the greatest insights into prayer. They give amazingly thoughtful answers as to why there is a morning blessing saying that God gives sight to the blind and yet there are people who don’t see.

As children hit their teens they often question their belief in God, find tefillah somewhat repetitive, and often don’t want to wear tefillin. Yet many still take opportunities to lead, read Torah and expand their knowledge. About thirty B-side campers chanted Eicha Saturday night to mark Tisha B’Av. During a “press conference” I hold with Nivonim twice a summer, I asked them how many had trouble understanding tefillot or believing in God. About 80% raised their hands. I asked how many of them had what they would call a spiritual moment during tefillot at camp and almost all of them raised their hands. One camper asked me if I ever considered offering alternative tefillot every day instead of only on Friday mornings. My answer is that there are many creative things that can be done in our regular weekday tefillot, but that Ramah is one of the last places where young people pray every day. I believe these skills take time to develop and that a different type of spirituality develops via traditional prayer, including learning to pray the silent parts individually. It is true that not every day of prayer is wonderful, but tefillah does connect us to our heritage and our worldwide Jewish community.

When I interview incoming madrichim for positions at camp, we always discuss tefillot. Almost every one admits that they “even miss tefillot at camp.” We talk about how it is okay for a hanich to sit respectfully and silent during tefillot, even if this is not ideal. As madrichim, they are now the transmitters of the experience and they have to pray. They all enthusiastically agree; although it is a challenge for them to pray energetically every morning, by and large they do pray. Additionally, madrichim find themselves organizing tefillot, leading more often, and learning new skills. As they head off (or back) to college, I like to think that Ramah tefillot keep them connected to their Judaism and their skills sharp. In my closing staff training with madrichim, I ask them about the one thing they did this summer that they thought they couldn’t do; many answer, “I organized and led tefillot.”

Rashei Edot are most often charged with choreographing tefillot and making sure that they run smoothly. Some of them have great experience and background and others are very uncomfortable in this role. Tefillah is a program that they run every day. In virtually the same moment, the Rosh Edah has to remind a hanich to put on his tefillin while remembering which nusach (tune) is the right one for Kaddish Shalem. They learn how to bless the new month, how to make sure that their staff have found and coached camper leaders, and how to give a d’var Torah. They can be utterly frustrated one moment because kids are sometimes zombies in the morning – and then totally elated after a rousing rendition of “Hallelujah.” If successful leadership requires being pushed out of one’s comfort zone, then a Ramah Rosh Edah is ready to be the CEO of any Fortune 500 company.

Sometimes parents tell me that their kids love camp but complain that there are too many prayers. Younger campers spend about twenty-five to thirty minutes a day at tefillot, while older campers spend about thirty-five to forty minutes. A camper cannot fully appreciate the experience while they are still campers; even staff members may not. I do know that when they look back, most adults who experienced prayer at camp call it the best tefillot they ever experienced. They also value the literacy and skills they use when they find themselves engaged in prayer, whether participating in a minyan when someone needs to say Kaddish, creating special Shabbat traditions at home, or taking leadership roles in their synagogues.

In thinking about Ramah’s impact, one can trace the development of our campers and staff in many different areas, including friendship, social action, Jewish literacy, teamwork and leadership among others. Add to that the fun of summer camp, living in the outdoors away from many of life’s pressures, and great role models and you have the ingredients for tremendous growth. Let’s keep playing the short and long game together to everyone’s benefit. Shabbat Shalom.