There’s been many aspects of my Jewish life where I’ve often felt an ‘outsider’. I consider it a badge of honour to be a rabbi who understands what it’s like to not be able to read Hebrew or not know what page we’re on during services. Yet perhaps the most profound lack of having not grown up inside the Jewish community has been my complete exclusion (and often, confusion) from Jewish youth movements and camps.
So many of my classmates, now colleagues, based their Jewish life on experiences they had at camp. They would, almost to a wo/man, identify camp as the thing that sparked their love of Judaism. Having not had that experience, I was always a bit sceptical of it. In school, when we had to do a rotation working for a youth movement, I worked as a youth director in a synagogue rather than spend a Summer at camp or on Israel Tour.
However, I’m happy to say I have had the opportunity to see the other side of that equation. The lateness of this message is due to the fact that I’m currently aboard a train home from Northumbria where I’ve spent this past week teaching and learning and sharing in Noam camp.
It’s hard to praise Noam without utilising clichés, so instead, I’ll give a few examples from the past days:
- Today I spent an hour teaching a group about how Jewish mystics have used bizarre numerology and Torah verses to (fairly) correctly asses the age of the universe. I had a discussion with the Madrichim which aptly demonstrated the seriousness with which these young people approach Jewish learning and the depth of their thinking. After we wrapped up, I overheard one of the students excitedly telling a friend about the new thing she had learned. There’s no greater compliment than hearing that which you’ve taught re-taught!
- Yesterday, after a morning Shacharit service where the Madrichim were encouraged to try leading prayer even if they’ve never before, two of the young women leading left, looking clearly disappointed that they hadn’t sounded as good as they hoped. Without being asked, and against the packed schedule of the day, another student saw this, pulled them aside, and they spent most of the time devoted to breakfast sitting instead on a field, siddurim open in front of them, practicing their singing of the Kaddish.
- Lastly, more than once, one of the young people pulled me aside over a meal time or a free time (the quantity of which was precious) in order to ask the “big questions” – how can we believe in God? How can Masorti Judaism justify the changes it makes to Halachah? How do we reckon philosophy and Judaism, religion and science? As a rabbi, I was floored even *one* person sought out such a conversation- much less several!
I leave camp deeply impressed with the quality (and quantity) of our young Jewish leaders. Noam manages to ensure serious and intense Jewish learning while creating innumerous options for personal development, as leaders, as Jews, and as humans. I’m hugely proud of our SAMS young people who are serving as Mazkirim, Roshim, and Madrichim. Special shout out to Tammy Sapir, Will Samuels, and Zac Baker. I’m so glad that, come Monday, a bunch of lovely SAMS kids will join them as Chanichim- and I know that they will have an experience that deepens their Jewish life and provides a incomparably liberating space for them to grow and develop into the future leaders of tomorrow.