It is Thursday evening and we are in a building called French. We are seven 10th graders (7 boys, 3 girls), 1 counselor, 2 members of the leadership and 1 rabbi. The title of the program is Hineni: Now What? I had nothing to do with the name of this program. It wasn’t my idea at all. Here at Sci Teach, the faculty are rarely the driving force behind the integration of Jewish learning and camp. It’s quite incredible actually; the staff and leadership, following Director Greg Kellner’s lead, see Jewish learning as inseparable from the rest of camp life. They take the initiative to speak about and model the Jewish values of camp, along with a healthy and unusually high dose of menschlechite while the faculty look on with pride and stand ready to jump in with resources and teachings as needed.
So there we were, in French, heading into a program that one of our fabulous leadership staff had thought of; a program that would give our eldest campers a chance to explore their questions about growing up, their fears about the future, all within the context of where Judaism fits into those conversations post-B’nai Mitzvah. Hineini means not just “I am here” but “I am fully present”. And the campers definitely were. Using a website that allowed the campers to answer questions honestly and annonimously, we were able to engage them in a deep, powerful and meaningful discussion about their questions. Slowly they began to open up to one another and to us. It was incredible to see them taking the conversation seriously and supporting one another’s questions about and hopes for the future.
I sat quietly through most of the program. Devon and Brett, the leadership in charge of the program, are Jewish educators and full-blown mensches in their own right. It was beautiful to hear them reassuring their campers about the future, sharing their wisdom about how to find happiness and love-of-self, and steering the conversation smoothly from anxiety about the future to excitement about the future.
My favorite moments were hear the campers talk about how URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, this sacred Jewish camp, is special to them because it’s a place where they feel comfortable asking questions they might not be able to ask anywhere else. They know they will not be laughed at. They know someone will be able to relate. And they know they will get answers. It was incredible to hear them share this with us and it was a beautiful lead-in for Brett, Devon and I to remind them that in addition to nurturing their physical and emotional selves, camp is one of many Jewish communities that can give them a place to nurture their spiritual selves (this being Sci-Tech, we called it their “spiritual IQs”. Of course). The campers nodded thoughtfully. This was something they already knew; something camp had already opened them up to; something they will hopefully remember when they are back out in the “real world”, looking for a place to bring their spiritual questions and nurture their “spiritual IQs”.
Flash forward to Saturday and I am teaching my Shabbat “Shelective”. There are 13 campers ranging in age who have chosen “Stump the Rabbi” over a variety of other Shabbat elective options including nature walks, international charossetmaking, and “Aliens, A.I., and The Big Questions”. Along with 2 counselors, we sit in a circle in one of the science labs (at this camp, there is no better setting for the deep theological questions about to be asked and considered). Although the class was called “Stump the Rabbi”, most of the campers were not there to trip me up. From the youngest child in the room to the oldest, each came with a serious and well-thought-out question, and each participated with seriousness and thoughtfulness as they assisted me in trying to answer one another’s question. We discussed the intersection of God and science, creationism vs. evolution, Jewish views of the afterlife, why God chose the specific geographic location of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people to have, where Adam and Eve (Chava) got their names, and questions about some of our prayer rituals and choreography. Until the very last question, we were able to answer one another’s questions. No one was stumped. It was a fantastic way to spend a Shabbat morning. Serious questioning and discussion. We might even have had a little fun!
And then, the inevitable: “Rabbi, what is the meaning of life.”
. . .
Anyone else want to weigh in on that one?