How Can Synagogues Be More Like Camp?

May 22, 2019Rabbi Yair Robinson

What does it mean when we ask the question “How can synagogues be more like camp?” As Jewish professionals, we often think about how we can get more kids to go to Jewish camp, and we think programmatically: Can we make the religious school experience more camp-like, or can we make our worship experience more camp-like? We tend to think of making synagogues more like camp in terms of experiences or programs: the music of camp-style services, the informal education, and the like.

What I have learned, however, is that making synagogues more like camp isn’t about programs, or guitar at services, or having a gaga pit at religious school. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that “camp” really means “youth empowerment.”

Camp takes kids’ voices seriously.

That can be expressed in simple ways, like giving them some say over their schedule, to profound expressions, like empowering even the youngest children to lead services on Shabbat. At my synagogue, Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE, it is that sense of empowerment and affirmation of that empowerment that has been most transformative.

Our teens lead one service a month in the style of URJ Camp Harlam because they wanted to try. They lead the music, write the meditations, and take full ownership. This has led to increasing numbers of younger students bringing their guitars to religious school and a sense of ownership on the part of our youth. It lifts up our older adults as well, who are so terribly proud of our students and their efforts. Camp empowers and transforms.

With this in mind, here are the voices of two of our campers – both going on the Harlam in Israel trip this summer – on what the culture of camp has done for them. They are our songleaders and our youth group and confirmation class leaders, and they inspire our kids in so many ways.

From Reece Ratliff:

The culture of Camp Harlam is unlike that of any other place in the world. From the youngest Carmel campers, timidly leaving their parents’ arms for the first time, to the teens in Chavurah, saying goodbye to the place they’ve called home for years, everyone finds their own personal connection to 575 Smith Road.

From a young age, I’ve known I wanted to be a musician. When I first arrived at camp in the summer of 2012, I experienced the magic of camp songleading for the first time. My songleading counselor took me under his wing and taught me some of the tricks of songleading at camp; I’ll never forget the night we “bunkhopped” to the tower to sing songs and look at the stars. Even as a young, bright-eyed, first-time camper, I knew Harlam would become my home.

Camp, although fun, is so much more than that. It is a place to grow, to develop, to be shaped into the leaders and into the people we strive to become. Through our staff, we see these exemplary traits exhibited on a daily basis, and we are moved to emulate them, to learn from them, and to work to apply their traits to our own personal lives. Whether it was discovering a new artist, trying a new skill, or simply talking late into the night, I have learned an incredible amount from my peers and my staff over the years.

And as sad as it is to leave camp at the end of the summer, we take the lessons learned and the connections made home with us.

A song that we woke up to will come on the radio, and for a brief, fleeting second, we’ll reminisce about walks to the Sports Palace. We’ll see a classmate sitting alone at lunch and join them because of that one time, during our first summer, when we were in their position and someone came to sit with us. We’ll play a certain melody at Shabbat services and be transported back to Chapel on the Hill.

And we’ll one day return home as the next generation of hand-holders and tear-driers, and we will be able to pass on to our campers everything that we’ve learned.

From Lauren Aussprung:

Camp culture is something that you can only understand by going to camp and growing there. It’s a special experience that’s built by the people who are there. Every person who comes to camp brings something unique, and when we’re all brought together, we create camp culture. We create camp, our home.

Camp culture is the love you feel when singing siyum l’yom (our closing of the day ritual), looking at all your friends in the dark before you go to sleep. It’s the energy of screaming with your friends in song session. It’s fitting six people on one twin bed because you can’t stand to be apart from each. It’s the tears during that final song session, when you realize you’re going to have to say goodbye the next day.

You have to go to camp to understand camp culture. But when you understand camp culture, you know it’s the best thing in the world.

July 22, 2018, was my last day as a camper at Harlam. The day before, my unit led the final Shabbat service of the session, and our unit head and assistant unit head gave a speech  I’ll never forget. They told us that “camp cannot stay at camp.” In their words, “The purpose of camp is to leave camp, and to take camp with you out into the world when you go.”

I took that to heart. Sometimes, taking camp out into the world is as easy as teaching your friends a new song you learned. But sometimes it’s more difficult, like trying to figure out how to use middot (character traits) to help us in our lives at home. I bring camp into the “real world” every month by leading a Shabbat service at my synagogue. The service is structured like those at camp, where the primary method of prayer is through songs accompanied by guitars. We sing camp melodies and have readings during which people talk about their personal connection to the prayers.

Every month, when I lead this service, it feels like I’m back at camp for an hour or two – and it brings camp out of camp. It allows congregants to experience the magic of camp without being there.

Camp is a place where we learn and grow, but the purpose of camp is not just to experience it with friends; it’s to take the things you learned and try to create that camp culture out in the world.

What does it mean to bring camp to your synagogue? It means having students who are empowered and who use that empowerment to help transform their congregational experience. It means having leaders in your synagogue inspiring the next generation.

It means taking the voices of our youth seriously and making sure they are full participants in our congregational life – on their terms as much as ours.

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