Thursday, March 30, 2017

Anti-Semitism Camp... more fun than it sounds!


This past weekend, we had a spring camp for our teens around the theme of Anti-Semitism. A camp in this case just means a Shabbaton/weekend retreat, and the theme was chosen because a benefactor offered his financial support to provide education on the topic. While Anti-Semitism is NOT a daily concern for the community here, it is important for the teens to understand it conceptually, learning about the history, modern iterations, and how to react in the face of ignorance.

Unlike our fall camp, for which I was tasked with planning all of the peulot and having our team of madrichim run them, this camp had many of its programs outsourced to other educators who could present more professionally on the theme. This was a relief for us in terms of our preparations, but it did mean that for a bulk of the programming, I read Harry Potter on the side as the program was conducted in Hungarian.

While I couldn't participate actively in all of our programming, I finally learned how to count in Hungarian right before the camp, and I was very proud to show off my new skill. I could tell that everyone saw this as a tremendous gesture of my intention to really make myself a part of the group, and I found teens approaching me more than ever to practice their English and to teach me useful words and phrases in Hungarian. It meant so much to me that we have lost so many of our initial inhibitions from the language barrier and are finding great ways to communicate.

One program that I did plan for the weekend was a Saturday morning activity to take the place of the traditional Tefillah service, but to offer Tefillah-pertinent content. I elected to introduce some theology. Struggling with the idea of God (or struggling with the struggle itself) is crucial to Jewish identity, and I was pretty sure these teens had not had the space to really imagine what it means to think about God.

The program began with me reading a series of cute, one line letters to God, such as "Dear God, Did you mean to make giraffes look that way or was it an accident? Love, Henry." As I read, the words were translated by one of the other leaders. I then instructed the teens to close their eyes for about 25 seconds and to think about God. They sat there in silence and interpreted my instructions in, I'm sure, many different ways. I then said that I would read a number of situations, and if this situation inclines them towards a stronger belief in God, they go to one side of the room, if the opposite is true then they go to the other side, and they stay in the middle if this situation does not affect their inclination towards belief. The situations ranged from mundane to serious topics, and from crises to miracles.

  • Your mom made your favorite meal for dinner without your asking
  • You are having a terrible day and it starts raining
  • Your best friend is diagnosed with a fatal disease, but scientists discover a cure.
  • You read about a hurricane in Haiti than destroys many villages
Teens really moved around the room, showing how malleable and circumstantial belief in God can be, which I found fascinating. A number of teens offered their explanations for their stances. One teen shared that while the devastation of a hurricane is tremendous, he consistently sees even more love and support emerge in the wake of that tragedy, and that makes him realize that there must be something bigger at play. Wow! Little does he know that he basically just thought of the thesis to When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Some teens debated whether scientific discoveries are more the work of humans or of an overseeing God, and one teen shared that he says a prayer with the "Baruch Atah..." opening before every exam.

After these amazing thoughts were shared, they were all led into the next room, in which a different conceptualization of God was posted on each side of the room. They were: 1) The God of the Torah 2) Zeus (bearded man in the sky) 3) God the Watchmaker (God set the earth in motion and then watched) 4) Eywa from the movie Avatar (A life force that permeates the world and connects us with God and all creation). People were told to check out the options and then sit by the one that resonated the most. After discussions about what they first thought of when told to close their eyes and think about God, and about why they find this particular notion of God compelling, they shared their ideas.

One teen admitted that while it is harder to pray to a life force like the notion of Eywa, she sees it is a more imminent God and requires less of a leap of faith to imagine its presence on earth. One teen, who liked the God the Watchmaker idea, said that the Torah says that on the 7th day, God rested, and the teen doesn't think that God ever woke up. WOWOWOW! The theological implications are fascinating! If I could embellish his idea a little, he basically says that the rest of the Torah is aspirational, and says what a relationship would look like between God and Israel, but that after God did His part in Creation, humans pretty quickly found themselves unable to continue that work, and while God wakes up occasionally to check on things, He never finds Himself completely ready to return from His slumber and maintain the active role in history that the Torah asserts. COOL, RIGHT?! And pretty similar to the premises of Kabbalistic thought, in which God retracts Himself, and it is up to humanity to perform the good deeds that will restore God's place on earth.

I left the weekend feeling inspired by the teens' brightness, comforted by their companionship, and excited about a really successful weekend!

We are now in the final stretch until Pesach, and I'm keeping busy with work and errands and gearing up for the cooking, cleaning, and other preparations that await!

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