Don’t Dumb it Down, Raise Me Up!

Ramah Reflections

By Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

June 20, 2016  | 16 Sivan 5776

I am excited to share with you my reflections, learning and spiritual wonderment from Camp Ramah Darom. What an amazing opportunity for me as your Rabbi to engage, learn and be a part of some of the best that Jewish experiential learning has to offer.  Over the last fifty years, youth involvement in Jewish summer Camp has been one of the most consistent markers of Jewish engagement into adulthood.  This new opportunity to learn, God-willing, will bring some of this magic back to our very special corner of Atlanta Jewry.  I am so pleased that our leadership has taken this leap of faith, working through their own doubts and skepticism, to allow for me to spend this extended period of time with my family, Ramah staff and educators and, most importantly, the Campers of our movement’s flagship Camping institution.

This journal entry is the first of ongoing weekly reflections that I plan to bring to your inbox throughout my month up at Camp. Of course, this first musing comes a few weeks before my session at Camp starts.  Why send reflections before I even start?? My preparations have already begun and, to be honest, they got off to a rough start.  You see, I am not a product of the Jewish Camping world, a fact I find to be one of my strengths.  My ability to relate to people in our community is in part because I do not assume that folks have Judaic scholastic or cultural knowledge. I find that this approach makes people feel more comfortable about their own lack of knowledge, something I can relate to because until my early 20’s, that was me!

After a very rocky religious school career and an unremarkable Bar Mitzvah celebration experience, I took a much-needed sabbatical from the Jewish world for the rest of my teens and into my early twenties.  It wasn’t until college that I was reintroduced into the Jewish community.   As an adult, I quickly fell in love with my Jewish heritage and the rest, you might say, is history. However, those first few years of re-acquaintance were hard. I might have been in love with my tradition, but my tradition played ‘hard to get.’  Instead of finding my way back easy and welcoming, I found the journey to be fraught with challenges.  I remember sitting one Shabbat service and trying to say the names for the three daily services over and over again so I could memorize them – Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv… Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv… Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv.  Instead of using morning, noon and night, our tradition has retained these terms from their original Hebrew.  I knew that if I wanted to decode the riddle, I would have to learn the terms.  It was hard and often confusing.

I clearly remember my first time back in synagogue.  I knew that the service was held on Saturday so I called up the shul I was Bar Mitzvah’d in, Valley Beth Shalom, and made my way through the recorded voice prompts to discover the starting time for the service.  I guessed that this word ‘minyan’ was the prayer service, so I listened carefully for the times of the service – 7:00 a.m.  A few days later, I woke up on Saturday morning in the pre-dawn hours and made my way across town to reengage with my roots. There was nobody there.  The door was open but the building was empty. I made my way to the sanctuary and the room was dark.  I went in, had a seat and waited.  Forty-five minutes later, I figured that they must not be having a service that Shabbat, and I left.  Thank goodness I’m a glutton for punishment – I decided to try again next week, this time calling the office during regular business hours to catch a live person who was able to give me a better schedule.  My re-entry into the Jewish community proved to be a lot more complicated than it needed to be.

Fast forward almost two decades and the story is much different.  I have received an incredible Judaic education. My wanderlust and brazenness has taken me into the most far-flung Jewish settings imaginable, so there are very few Jewish experiences that I cannot navigate through, quickly finding my rhythm and tempo.  However, this incredible opportunity was presented and now I find myself getting ready to go to Camp…Jewish Camp….Camp Ramah Darom.  This Camping novice has been catapulted beyond Camper or counselor, as I find myself in the role of Camp Rabbi:  an educator and leader in charge of the spiritual and religious enrichment for several different groups of kids.  As I have been able to do in my eight years as your Rabbi, I figured that I would find my way and make it work.

But then….

I began getting the emails.  As part of the staff, I am on two sets of correspondence – an email list-serve and a Facebook group for staff and educators.  And the lingo starts flying.  “Which adut are you staffing? “Would you like to start with Netzanim or Sololim?  You’ll want to connect with yourRosh Adah and” blah…blah… blah…blah…

What are they talking about? All the vernacular, this lingo, these expressions.  I know what the words basically mean in Hebrew but what do they mean in Camp Hebrew?  After looking over email after email, spreadsheet after spreadsheet, I finally gave up and reached out to the curriculum writer for Camp (again, another title which has its own special meaning up at Camp) and scheduled some time for her to walk me through it.  I am so glad that I did this.  In just twenty minutes, she was able to orientate and help me understand some of the culture and expectations, which lowered my anxiety enough that I could feel like a participant in the experience and, hopefully, a contributor.

Hence, the learning that I want to bring back to our special, holy community at Ahavath Achim from this first pre-Camp experience is the following:  What can we do, as a congregation, to empower and strengthen those who come into our spiritual home so that they can participate – perhaps even contribute to our collective experience? Do we fault (and therefore exclude) them for not being a part of what we are doing simply because they lack the necessary prior knowledge and experience?  If you believe that I, Laurence Rosenthal, contribute to the AA worship experience, then I urge us to look at each and every person who walks in our door as a potential and meaningful contributor to the experience.  I say this because once upon a time, I walked into a synagogue and was excluded and my participation wasn’t received or enabled.

We can do all this without ‘dumbing down’ the experience.  All we need to do is take a little time and use some simple tools to help orient and empower others to be a part of the experience. What if our Gabbis, instead of only assigning honors and roles in the service orally, were to pass out a card which not only listed (and therefore reminded) somebody of their honor, but also has a short instruction on how to do it and what to expect?  What if our greeters and ushers identified people who looked new to our congregation, welcomed them, asking if it was their first time in our congregation and seating them next to somebody who was prepared to help them during the service?  We have a wonderful transliteration booklet (which so often isn’t readily available or offered). How about a simple cheat-sheet bookmark that explains a few basic points about the service to help orient?  There are a multitude of ideas that can communicate to a novice that their presence and participation is valued and respected.  It’s not about dumbing it down, but instead about raising them up – raising all of us up.

What are your ideas?  How can YOU help to empower others to be actively involved in our tradition and be a part of the experience?  Let me know your thoughts.  Maybe together we can implement some of these ideas, creating a forward-thinking environment for all to participate, enjoy and worship in together.  lrosenthal@aasynagogue.org