It’s 7:30 on a typical July morning, and a band of 50 middle schoolers are found out of bed, conga-lining theirs souls out to a festive, upbeat song. No, Taylor Swift hasn’t made a surprise appearance, neither has a corn-dog truck pulled into town. The young lads and ladies are, gasp, in their morning prayer services, or “Shacharit” as we say in Hebrew. Over the past few weeks here at Camp Ramah in Northern California, campers in Edat HaSollelim (seventh-and-eighth-grade boys and girls) have been at the core of a thrilling shift in regard to the way we pray. With the expert and generous guidance of Rosh Edah, Alli Moses, as well as other talented members of our community, I feel so lucky to have been allowed the privilege of collaborating with various tzevet (staff) and chanichim (campers) with the goal of making morning prayers more educational, engaging, and meaningful. The results? Campers are at the center of prayer, proudly embracing their Judaism.
One of the first augmentations to our daily services was the addition of camper kavanot (intentions) on various pieces of our liturgy. Simply put, any camper who expresses interest selects a prayer, works with a staff member to study that prayer and formulate thoughts and interpretations on it, and ultimately share that interpretation at a subsequent prayer service. Witnessing these bright young minds interpret the sacred words of our holy tradition has been tremendously gratifying. This process has brought these prayers, which often seem impenetrable to masses of younger (and older) people, off of the page and into peoples’ hearts. The process of sharing interpretations of prayers isn’t solely enriching for the individual chanichim (campers) who share their thoughts. Rather, when members of the kahal (congregation) observe their friends sharing insights into various prayers, it inspires everybody to further grapple with the meaning of our liturgy. In fact, after a chanich/a shares a prayer interpretation during a service, one of their group mates almost always asks if he or she can also share a prayer reflection during a subsequent service. This growing culture perpetuated by our young people of a greater desire to further immerse in the words of our faith is nothing short of uplifting.
Another cornerstone component to increased chanich/a engagement in our Shacharit services has been our setting of modern, major-key’d melodies to the morning liturgy, accompanied by guitar, piano, and even sometimes maracas. It’s astounding to note how this practice opens the minds of our chanichim to the concept of worship in a way that feels relevant and accessible to the 21st century, pop-aligned young American ear. It’s a particular treat to recognize how our campers are taking these new prayer songs and making them their own–one of their favorite activities is to create hand-motions to the songs, and lead them in front of the entire group. Whenever we call for mitnadvim (volunteers) to lead our group in song, there is an unfailing abundance of eager hands that shoot up…all of whom always have the opportunity to lead. Electrifying evidence of the campers’ ownership of these worship tunes? Last week as we were boarding the bus to return from masaot (journeys), an entire clan of youngsters, entirely unprompted by any staff member, was found belting out these new songs!
We’ve found that when a service contains only traditional melodies, campers struggle to relate to the meaning of the prayers. Conversely, and arguably more dangerous, when a service is exclusively modern in fashion, we deprive our children a deep sense of tradition as well as the opportunity to absorb and enjoy the roots of our service which have provided comfort and inspiration to generations past. Let it be known that the objective of our efforts is not to eradicate the rich heritage of traditional conservative worship at Ramah. Quite the opposite. Adding new rituals into our prayer practices has given renewed meaning to tried-and-true favorites (birchot hashachar, ashrei, etc.), because it allows campers to enjoy a diverse prayer experience which encompasses many exquisite modes of worship, which in turn, empowers chanichim to gravitate towards the mode of prayer which feels most true to them. Of course, as with every aspect of our service, chanichim are at the core of the traditional aspects of our ritual, as well. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this work has been the ability to see a camper dance to a modern tune one moment, and the next, lead her entire age group in the weekday amidah, complete in the appropriate nusach. This is what it means for prayer to come alive. For worship to be made real. For our young people to own their Judaism. This, my friends, is prayer at Camp Ramah.