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by Ken Hahn
Last summer, I spent five days at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), one of the URJ’s 15 summer camps across North America that runs programs for Jewish youth from elementary school through high school. But I’m not a camper, nor am I a camp parent – so why was I there? I joined 15 other people at camp for Had’rachah, a URJ-led seminar designed to teach lay leaders to conduct worship services and lifecycle events. We all wanted to help our small congregations (mine has 80 households), some of which have one full-time clergy member and some of which have none. The program was pivotal for me.
As it happens, OSRUI is the place where Jewish musician Debbie Friedman, z’l, did much of her work with music, and it’s where the rabbi of my Northampton, MA, synagogue attended camp for many years throughout her childhood. I love Debbie Friedman's music and have high regard for my rabbi, so my own OSRUI experience seemed predisposed for a good outcome.
On the first night, the program leader, Rabbi David Fine, asked each of us what we hoped to gain from our time at Had’rachah. Some participants wanted to learn to officiate at a funeral or a shiva minyan, others wanted to get ideas about how to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and still others wanted coaching on how to write a d’rash. When my turn came, I said I was "looking for inspiration." Of course my answer didn’t mean I didn't want help with any of those other things; it just meant that more than anything, I was looking for some new directions.
Because summer camp season was in full swing, there were a great many rabbis and cantors on staff on whom Rabbi Fine could call for workshop leadership, and the general ambience of the camp – including exuberant prayer of all kinds and with all ages – was a great backdrop for our own religious practice. One day we attended Maariv with 12-year old campers who were learning to conduct a service, and another time, we were with 17-year-old campers who had become service-leading pros. What linked every service and every age group was the amazing music, led by professional song leaders coupled with enthusiastic participation by every child. What could be more inspirational?!
In fact, I did gather lots of information about leading a shiva minyan and writing a d’rash. I also learned about how to write a eulogy and heard various perspectives about the challenges in small URJ congregations – and the resources available to help us meet those challenges. I had a most marvelous time hanging out at OSRUI, sharing, and connecting with similarly impassioned, great people from other small congregations, who continue to be resources for each other. Mostly, though, I got the inspiration I was seeking. Indeed, I gained a lot from the program – and with the newfound knowledge and skills I brought home, so, too, did my congregation.
Ken Hahn is a longtime lay leader and former president of Beit Ahavah in Northampton, MA. He currently teaches in the Hebrew School, tutors students for b'nai mitzvah, and leads services and minyanim when called upon. In his life beyond the synagogue, he consults on governance and strategic planning issues with non-profit Jewish camps.