Sunday, October 12, 2014

Songs of the Third Grade

Piping down the valleys wild,
  Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
  And he laughing said to me…”

Although William Blake (Songs of Innocence, 1789) put it much better than I, sometimes I feel like the children I see every day gain their energy from the fluff of clouds. I so greatly enjoy hearing whatever comes out of their mouths -- because eight-year-old mouths are losing their baby teeth and through the gaps flow unfiltered thoughts. Below are a few of the conversations that have recently brightened my days. Of course, not everything the students say is wonderful and cute. There is bullying; there is disrespect; there are fart jokes. But in a world full of deadly viruses, warring Middle Easterners and the pain of aging, the beautiful moments are the ones that need to be recorded. Here are some priceless quotations and the reflections of mine that often follow:

*  *  *
7:44 am. I walk down the hall towards my classroom. Three third grade boys run at me.
“Morah Naomi!”
“Thank God!”
“Where were you?”
“Why are you late?!”
“The classroom’s locked!”
I am, in fact, not late. Teachers are supposed to arrive by 7:45, at which point kids are allowed in the classroom. I had been making a point to get there early, thereby raising the early-comers’ expectations of me. In any case, one of them gives me a huge hug and says,
“I’m so happy today!”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I’m trying to be happy about everything!”

Evidently, we do not need positive psychologists and self-help books to instruct us about achieving happiness. We just need third-graders.

*  *  *
7:52 am. The classroom is bustling with students preparing for the day. A dark-skinned, curious half-Israeli student who had gone to a Celtics game and brought his foam finger to school pipes up with,
“Would you believe me if I said I went to the Bahamas and kissed a dolphin on the lips?”
“Yesterday?” I reply. “No.”
“No, last year.”
“Okay, sure.”
A few minutes later, the same student has found a red feather in the craft supplies cupboard. He is now standing next to the electric pencil sharpener.
“I wonder what would happen if I tried to sharpen this feather.”
Me: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
The student sticks the feather in the pencil sharpener. Whirrr. Two seconds later, he pulls out a mutilated feather. His face falls.

Obviously, some things must be experienced first hand. Let’s pray he limits his experiences to the realm of indoor, non-fire-related activities.

*   *  *
7:58 am. A blond, spiky-haired boy who could intermittently power a Prius with his energy walks into the classroom two minutes before tefillah and bursts out with:
“Some idiot from Africa brought Ebola into the US!”

Later, on NPR, I hear about Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who unknowingly contracted the disease, traveled to Texas, and died there.

It seems I am now getting my news from third-graders (granted, it is biased third-grader news. The word “idiot” has not appeared on any official news reports about Ebola.)

*  *  *
8:40am. We say the first two words of the last of the morning prayers and the fire alarm goes off: our first fire drill of the year. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. The kids know what to do. They put down their books and crowd toward the door. One of them, the absent-minded professor who is always doodling complex maps and sitting calmly as his papers and markers fly everywhere, starts dancing as if in a disco club. After we are back inside, I ask him,
“Do you like fire drills?”
Pause. (He always pauses to think and fidget before responding): “First I freak out, but then it’s pretty cool.”

Another of my favorite comments of his:
“Do you know why I always get to school so early?” he asks me.
“No, why?”
“Because I live six houses away!”
“Oh, that’s great!”
“And sometimes I run! And leave my sister behind.”

And another:
“Want to know something freaky?”
“Of course.”
“This morning, I went downstairs before my mom and dad were awake and smelled the lulav and etrog! And they never found out!”
“Oh wow!” I reply. “Is that at 5 am when you usually wake up?”
“No, it was at 4:55.”

Apparently, smelling Jewish ritual objects is “freaky” and waking up before the sun makes for a very easy six-house commute.

Not this kid!

*  *  *
In class, we discussed the question: Why did Sarah laugh when she found out she was going to have a baby? The kids arrived at two answers:

  1. Because she was like, “What?!? I’m so old!”
  2. Because she was so happy that Hashem would do this for her and she laughed out of joy that a miracle was being performed for her (actually, this answer was more teacher-supplied)
The teacher told everyone that “Sometimes we just have to ask questions. We’ll never know which answer is correct!” At which point one of the kids muttered under his breath:
“Unless we had a time machine!”

When he gets the Nobel Prize for Science, Religion, and/or History, I’ll be able to say I knew him when he was eight, and witnessed the beginnings of the newest form of Bible scholarship: Torah Time Travel.

* * *
In addition to their sparkling words, I have come to the conclusion that most children are exceptionally beautiful. The wave of hair that falls across a face. The bright hazel eyes with flecks of gold. The long lashes that flutter softly over the pages of a book. The soft cheek that looks as smooth as milk. The sturdy, healthy little limbs that run around on the grass and carry strong bodies from place to place. Essentially, all of the physical attributes that adults work for, the children already have. Yes, we are chasing youth.

Don't we all want to look like this??

*   *   *
Above, I quoted a small piece of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. My appreciation of Blake was rekindled recently when I read Tracy Chevalier’s novel “Burning Bright.”  The book tells the story of two English children whose friendship Mr. Blake observes and weaves into his creation of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As the book progresses, the children predictably mature from an age of innocence to one of experience--but they do so in an unpredictable manner: they notice and are thrust into the struggles of those older than them, thus learning about selflessness, loyalty, and the beginnings of love. A truly enchanting tale, this book fell into my lap at just the right time: I am surrounded by children who are growing and observing, yet who are also enjoying the peak of their innocence.

I recommend it! 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Rules of the New

Okay, so I moved to Boston. It all happened really fast, so if you are just discovering this now, don't worry about it. I accepted a job as a third grade teaching assistant at the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA (not Brooklyn). The past two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind, and I'm just now getting a few minutes to stop and reflect.

I'll first share a few thoughts about the job. For one thing, I never pictured myself in a third grade classroom. I always thought I would be teaching high school English or Tanach - two subjects I am very passionate about. But there is a different type of passion when teaching third grade: passion for
the kids and the childhood mindset. As the head of school told me during my interview, "If you're passionate about your subject, teach high school or college. If you love kids, teach elementary school. If you want a mix of both, teach middle school." For this year, at least, I'm banking on my love of kids to hep me teach. I'm not at all sure that this is the classroom I want to end up in, but I'm definitely willing to give it a try.

And it's pretty easy to love these kids when they do and say things like this:

See? I'm taller. 
J: What grade are you in?
Me: I'm with you guys! Third grade!
J: No, I mean (gesturing to the high school building) what grade are you actually in?
Me: I'm not in a grade.
J: What?
Me (whispering): I'm 23.
J: What?? I thought you were 15!!

Important note: I am taller than all of the third graders. Check in in June to see if that's still true.

T: Hamorah Naomi, what do you and Hamorah B. DO while we're in gym??
(I consider telling her about Teacher Gym Class, where third grade teachers chuck dodge balls at the second grade teachers who messed up their kids the previous year. Then I remember that third-graders believe almost everything you tell them.)

Important note #2: Because I am the assistant for the Judaics classroom, the kids call me "Hamorah Naomi," which roughly translates into "Naomi the Teacher" or "Teacher Naomi." I chose my first name rather than my last name because, well, I'm 23.

On Friday, we had an inter-grade activity where students made Rosh Hashanah cards for soldiers in the IDF. As I walked around surveying the students' work, I peeked over one of my kids' shoulders and saw that he had written: 
     "Dear Israeli Soldiers, I hope you win the fights versus the other states and I hope you don't die."
No one can make a point as clearly as a third-grader. 

In all honesty, I didn't really know anything about teaching third grade when I accepted this position.
I barely even remember third grade myself. Robo-math, biography projects, the Chumash presentation. Oh, and that was the first year my parents made me pack my own lunch, so I remember the blue thermos in which I packed leftover pasta and pretended it was still hot at lunch time to impress the other kids with thermoses. What I don't remember, though, are all the rules.

This was NOT what my lunch looked like when I was in 3rd grade.
GoGo Squeeze hadn't even been invented yet.

From day one, it is the teachers' job to create a routine and enforce rules. Once the kids know the expectations, they will learn more efficiently and accept the teachers' authority as the year unfolds. Which makes a lot of sense. But this also means that right now I have to be the rule-enforcer, which has never been my forte. Sometimes, it seems like I am constantly barking out orders:

"No sharpening pencils during class."
"Wait until you go outside to eat your snack."
"Everyone stand against the wall if you want recess."
"No climbing up the slide."
"Don't bring sticks inside."
"No doodling during class."
And, the most frequent: "When the hand goes up, we stop talking."

Often, I change up my tone or my phrasing. Sometimes I even smile when I say "You know we don't throw pencils, right?" My favorite is when I can turn the rule into cheerleading: "I know you can sit quietly during davening. I know you can do it! Show me how awesome you are!" And in truth, most of the rules make sense. But sometimes I let my mind wander...

What if I just let that student open her Fruit Roll Up and start eating it in the hallway before she gets to recess? The wrapper might fall on the floor. She might not pick it up. That's littering. And someone might slip on it. And she might choke because she's eating while she's walking and then her parents would sue the school. Or she might end up as a devil child who doesn't follow rules at all because I let her eat in the hallway! 

All of this comes to mind when a child whines, "But why???" Usually, I settle with a simple, "Because I asked you to."

I don't know why I don't remember all the rules in my own third grade classroom. Perhaps I was just a chronic rule-follower, and doing what the teacher said never bothered me. Perhaps we didn't have as many rules back then. Or perhaps the content eventually overcame the rules, which simply drifted into my subconscious under the category of "how to behave in school" and kept me from becoming a devil child.

So. I guess I have a job now. I am at school from at least 7:30 am to 4 pm with very little break time (hence, the classroom teachers love it when the kids have specials).  When I get home, I am often too exhausted to do much of anything. I go to sleep by 10 pm and wake up at 5:45. I have been staying with incredibly generous cousins and I am moving into a three-bedroom apartment in Brighton next week with two other girls. I am in a new city, with new people, new synagogues, new tasks, new schedules, and new roads to learn.

Sometimes I feel lonely, but not as much as I feared. After being with people all day, I am grateful for a few hours of quiet in the evening (#introvertpatterns). The only time loneliness really affects me is later at night or on Friday afternoon, when I wish I had somewhere, something, or someone to go home to. The thought of an entire weekend alone in a new city is daunting for me. So far, I've spent Shabbats in Cambridge and in Brookline, two very vibrant and very different Jewish communities. I am struck by how welcomed I feel by synagogue members and long-time residents, and for this I am so grateful. However, after a Shabbat full of introductions and life stories, sometimes I am ready to go for a long walk with just my iPod or curl up in my bed with a book, internet television, peanut butter, or a Skype date with a long-time friend. Or all of the above. When everything is new, the comforts that work best are the old ones. And that's a rule.

Sometimes, I just act like this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Everything You Wanted to Know (and Probably Weren't Afraid to Ask)

Recently, I've been getting a lot of questions. From you. And your mother. And my mother. And my first
grade teacher. And just about everyone I see at my synagogue. And just about everyone I see everywhere (except for the people in the public library and at Whole Foods, because they don't know me, and even if they did, they are too blissfully focused on the Dewey Decimal System or ground flax seed to be aware of my presence, thank goodness).

Bravely, I have decided to answer your questions. Here. On my blog. Please show your mother.

1. So, what are you DOING these days?
These days, I am living in my parents' house (wince) in West Hartford, CT. I am researching options for graduate school and applying for jobs in the meantime. I am also attempting to eat non-gas-producing foods and work exercising back into my daily life. I consistently Skype and write emails and letters to my far-flung network of friends and family. This week, my brothers (both of whom fall under the "far-flung" category) happen to be visiting, so I banter with them and guffaw over old family photo albums. And I try to learn some Torah.

2. What kind of graduate programs are you applying to?
Jewish Education and Social Work (hopefully a dual degree). Many of you know that I was on the MFA boat a few years ago, but after some rejections and a lot of reflection, I feel pulled toward something a bit more practical for a young-twenty-something. I know that I love teaching Torah, and I will be much more employable in America with a Master's Degree. I also know that I love listening, psychology, sociology, and one-on-one human interaction, so social work attracts me, as well. And I know that Jewish educators are a dime-a-dozen in Israel, so I need professional training in something else, too, if I want to be able to make a living there.

3. Wait, what? Are you making aliyah?
Maybe. I don't know. I hope so. It's complicated. Not right now. Maybe when I'm married (ha!). Or at least after I get my degrees.  I mean, after living there for over a year, it's hard to be satisfied with American Jewry.

3. What kind of jobs are you looking for while you're here?
Jobs involving Jewish education or communal work, tutoring, writing, children and/or literature.

4. Do you want to stay in West Hartford?
Not particularly, so I'm also looking for jobs in other places. But I have resigned myself to the fact that if I have to stay here for a while, I will make the best of it.

5. Where would you like to live?
DC, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia...somewhere with a good Jewish community of thoughtful young people.

6. New York?
Sure, why not. I would miss grass, though. And air.

So there you have it. If you have suggestions, comments, or more questions, feel free to get in touch! I promise I'll only be 50 percent sarcastic.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Children Learning, Adults Praying?

Campers and counselors are sitting on a grassy knoll partaking in Wednesday night barbecue. (R is an 8-year-old female camper.)
R: Why do you always wear skirts?
If only I could wear it as
Counselor: Uhhhhh……Because I’m religious.  Because I’m Jewish.   Because I’m a woman. Because of modesty.
R: What’s that?
Counselor: Tzniut. Umm…it means that I don’t show certain parts of my body.
R (noticing that Counselor is also wearing pants and long-sleeves today): But you’re covering your whole body. Except your face.
Counselor (prays for situation to pass): Well, it’s cold today (it actually is).

Because how do you explain modesty to an 8-year-old? Help.

This is just one of the many moments at camp when my insides pull me back and forth—and the pull is usually because of something religious.

This post’s “something religious” is prayer. I have recently been praying with my eidah: young kids who know some of the prayers but are still under bar/bat mitzvah age. Sometimes we do musical tefillah, in which the leader brings his guitar and plays through the highlights (click here: Mah Rabu to hear one of the melodies we sing every day). Sometimes we get into groups and talk about a few of the prayers or really drill the melodies. One time we played "Tefillah Apples to Apples." With the youngest campers, we always ended with a rhyming song that goes “Thank you God for the [blank], thank you God for the [something that rhymes with blank].” It’s a perfect service for kids learning to pray. But what about the counselors and their obligation in prayer? 

Sorry, no hitbodedut here.

From an egalitarian perspective, both adult men and women are obligated to pray in a group of ten with a leader who has the same level of obligation in prayer (read: adult). I understand that in the Conservative movement women now have the same obligation as men. But do minors have the same obligation as adults? There has not been a responsum saying so. Therefore, when children under the age of 13 lead adults in prayer, the adults are not necessarily fulfilling their prayer obligation. Each adult has to be careful to say each word of the prayers—but how can we do this when we are actively helping the kids? And if we are all mumbling along silently, how will the kids learn how to pray? Hence we have a quandary that might take the form of a Talmudic argument:

Should one educate children or fulfill his or her halachic obligation to pray?
See? It's right there!
            Do the children belong to you?
            Why does it matter?
            Parents have a halachic obligation to teach their children Torah. If they are involved in one mitzvah (educating their children), they are exempt from another (prayer).
            But does teaching prayer count as “teaching Torah”?
            There are two answers:
            Yes! There are verses from the Bible in our prayers.
            No! Teaching Torah (“Talmud Torah”) involves learning Bible, Mishnah and Gemara. Prayer (“Tefilah”) is totally different! It is about petitioning and praising God. One who teaches his or her child to pray is praiseworthy, but still must fulfill his or her own obligation!
           Really? Is teaching prayer really so different from teaching Torah? Also, why does it matter if you are teaching Torah? Isn't all education of children a mitzvah? So it doesn't matter what you are teaching - as long as you are teaching, you are exempt from praying!
            But remember, we are talking about your OWN kids. What if you are teaching other people's kids?...(and so on)

In summary: Some would say that our own halachic obligations can be put aside for the sake of education, (לשם חינוך). Others would say that an adult should make sure to fulfill his or her prayer obligation no matter what, even if it means rising early or staying late. Feel free to respond with your thoughts!


From a more traditional perspective (although it’s hard to get more traditional than the Talmud), only adult men are required to pray in a minyan. Women are obligated to do something—depending on whom you follow, the amidah, the shema, or some other combination of prayers. If I am present at the kids’ tefillah, I don’t have to worry about my obligation to pray in a minyan, but I do have to make sure that I am actually saying the required prayers, not just helping kids turn to the right page. Sometimes I stand alone awkwardly to finish my amidah; sometimes I wake up earlier to fit in all the prayers. In a burst of experience, I now more fully understand why women’s obligation in prayer was once (and often still is) so hotly debated: if a woman’s role was to nurture and educate children, when would she have any time to pray for herself? There. The rabbis were not being sexist. They were merely responding to a reality that they saw. In this day and age, however, the nurturing and educating roles have become more shared, so the lines are not as clear. But in any case, the question still exists: for camp counselors who see themselves as obligated in daily prayer, when, where, and how can they fulfill this obligation if their campers are under bar and bat mitzvah age?

Usually, kids don't behave this way during tefillah. If only.
Now, I must confess that I do not usually pray three times a day; it is something I am still working on. However, I look up to those who do manage this feat, and I want to be in an environment where others around me are further on their journeys than I am—that way, I can push myself toward an ideal that I see in front of me: the ideal of achieving prayer that is both halachic and spiritual.

Unfortunately, I do not see this ideal here at camp. I saw it at Pardes; I saw it in Jerusalem synagogues; I even saw it at the University of Maryland. Here, I see people committed to egalitarianism, to Camp Ramah itself, to women wearing tefillin (sort of), and to Conservative Judaism. I would like to see people committed to praying services in their entirety; I would like to see a commitment to fluency with the Hebrew prayers; I would like to see a model of halachic and spiritual prayer that inspires me to be a better davener. I understand the need to shorten and enliven the service for kids. But even in the older age groups, the services are disappointingly (for me) abbreviated, and the occasional “oh baby” is sung in the middle of a paragraph of Hebrew. It's hard for me to willingly educate kids into a philosophy of prayer that I find so lacking.

The conclusion? A quite obvious one, in fact: camp is not made for me. It is made for the campers, their parents, and the Judaism they want their families to have. I am here as an educator, a participant, and an observer. I have to stick to the belief that praying through adversity will make me stronger in the Judaism I want to hold onto - all of its different parts and pieces.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Conover, WI—After three lonely weeks, Naomi Bilmes, a 23-year-old text (Yahadut) teacher at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, was tired of feeling left out. Every day, she would teach four classes of campers, plan out the next day’s lessons, and socialize with a very small group of other text teachers. On her 28-hour Shabbats, she faced hours and hours of empty time, missing her close friends and traditional Jewish prayer services. So she decided to take the plunge. She joined an eidah.
            “Eidah,” the Hebrew word for a community, denotes an age-group here at Camp Ramah. A little
over a week ago, Bilmes joined the Kochavim (Stars) eidah, a group of eight-year-olds who attend camp in 12-day sessions.
            “I chose them because they were just starting out,” Bilmes explains. “They were new and so was I, so although I would be breaking into a tight-knit group of counselors, the campers would know me right from the beginning. Plus,” she adds, “the Rosh (Head) of Kochavim seemed really nice and un-intimidating.”
            Bilmes now splits her time between Yahadut and Kochavim. She participates in musical morning prayers with the eight-year-olds, eats meals with them, spends her evenings with them, and helps put them to bed. During the day, she still teaches the older campers and plans out her lessons.
            “It’s exhausting, but even better than I expected,” Bilmes reports. “The girls are cute, and they like me! It turns out I’m good with kids. Huh. I mean, I would never EVER want to be a full-time counselor, but this amount of interaction is just perfect.”
            So what are the challenges of Bilmes’ new role? Well, having 18-year-olds as her superiors will take some getting used to.  “I admit that they know more about counselor-ing than I do, and that they’ve been at this camp ten times as long as I have, but still, it’s weird. I mean, they haven’t even been to college yet!” A wave of incredulity washes over Bilmes as she ponders the large age gap between her and the other counselors. On a different note, she adds, “It’s also hard to split my time between two groups. I always feel like I’m letting someone down.” Alas, such is the predicament of a perfectionist. (We are still waiting on our sources to confirm whether or not Bilmes is, in fact, letting someone down).

            Bilmes also had to learn the cheer for Kochavim—long after the other counselors had learned it. In addition, she has to endure endless cheering and chanting during meals; often, this chanting includes saying the names of the Roshei Eidah over and over again.
            “It borders on idol worship,” Bilmes whispers, “which is not really a Jewish value I feel comfortable promoting.”
            Despite the challenges, Bilmes’ nurturing side is getting a chance to shine. “Kids throw up a lot, which (thankfully) I haven’t had to deal with, but I have soothed a few homesick, sobbing girls who can’t get to sleep. You know, I can’t remember the last time I was truly homesick—maybe because I don’t really have a permanent home anymore—but I do what my mom always did when I couldn't fall asleep: ask the girl to talk about the good parts of her day, help her take some deep breaths, give her a hug or a back rub. I also tell her that it’s totally okay to feel homesick and that I know her parents are proud of her for being away for so long. And that I’m proud of her, too! I do what I can to help her out.”
            So what’s this about Bilmes not really having a home? Thankfully, that’s not quite true. Her parents will always open their home to her as long as she needs it. But over the past five years, she’s been hopping around between Maryland, Connecticut, Jerusalem, New York City, and now Wisconsin.
            “Part of my heart will always be sitting, watching, on the white stone walls of Jerusalem,” Bilmes admits. “And the other pieces of my heart? With the friends and family member that I love, wherever they may be.”
            On a slightly less sappy  note, the Kochavim leave early Sunday morning. Another slightly older group of campers arrives a few days later. The question arises: Will she do it again? Will she join another eidah?
            “We’ll see,” she says. “I’ll see how much I want to keep stretching myself. If I can still be an effective Yahadut teacher during the day, then I’m all for it.” In the meantime, Bilmes will savor her third day off this summer: a day full of relaxing, writing—and a little lesson-planning, of course.

Well, I'm not sure it's vacation, but sometimes I do lose track of the days.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Notes on Camp

            I’ve been at Camp Ramah (and out of civilization) for about two weeks, and the North Woods of Wisconsin is slowly becoming my temporary home. I have not yet perished from overaggressive mosquitoes, nor has my skirt size drastically grown or shrunk based on the quality of the food. I am gradually beginning to understand what this “camp” thing is all about, and though I still do not regret being a non-participant all these years, I do see what draws kids (and staff) back year after year: it’s a community. Although at times cult-ish due to the camp language and the close-knit nature of the participants, the community slowly opens to newcomers (but it helps to be a newcomer with patience). We learn the routines and grow to expect the expected. We receive ID badges and soft staff T-shirts. We even learn how to complain about certain higher-ups. But, most importantly, we hearken back to the days of our childhood and learn how to sleep in bunk beds again.

            I do not love it yet, but I do not hate it, either. And while I’m figuring things out, I’ll answer some of your questions.

1. So, what do you actually DO at camp?
I am what they call a “Text Teacher.” Every morning, the kids have 45 minutes of Hebrew class and 45 minutes of Text class. I teach the latter. I have four classes every morning: two classes of 12-year olds and two classes of 14-year olds. With the younger ones, we are doing Shabbat; with the older ones, we are exploring God, the Bible, and Jewish identity. Aside from the usual problems (talking out of turn, not participating, breaking the pencils) the kids are mostly into it. And a lot of them are really thoughtful. Just yesterday, my 12-year-olds surprised me with questions about science, the Torah, and truth, so I scrapped my previously planned lesson and just went with it. Today, I assigned my 14-year-olds to write midrashim about Lilith, and it turns out one of them is a whiz at constructing narrative plot lines, especially when it comes to Bible stories with holes in them.  Basically, the teaching has been really rewarding so far.
            When I’m not teaching, I’m lesson-planning. Or joking around with the other Text Teachers. Or hanging out with the Israelis and improving my Hebrew (but more likely improving their English). Or reading. Or sleeping (yes, it does happen).

*     *     *

Annoying camper story: 
(Scene: A noisy classroom. Teacher is trying to lead a discussion on the symbolism of light and candles in Judaism.) 
Teacher (to three particularly noisy campers): M, S and A! First I will separate you, then I will ask you to leave.
S: Okay! I like talking.
Teacher: I know you do.
(5 minutes later)
Teacher: M, S and A, please go outside.
A: (pouts) Okay.
M: Yay! Let's do Madlibs!
(next day)
S: Can we get sent out again today?
M: Yay! More Madlibs!
(Teacher inwardly slaps her forehead)
*     *     *

2. Are you a Conservative Jew yet?
Although it is true that Camp Ramah is associated with the Conservative movement, not all participants are strict adherents to said movement. Especially me. I still wear skirts every day and I value modesty more than the average camper or counselor here. I take my Shabbat observance very seriously—even in private. I struggle with the strict egalitarianism of prayer at this camp; during staff week, I stood off to the side and prayed by myself. Now that the campers are here, however, I want to be a role model for them so I sit with them and sing and point out page numbers. However, Sim Shalom is still not my siddur of choice (I use an all-Hebrew, Israeli siddur) and I value many of the prayers that the Conservative movement (or at least Camp Ramah) deems less important and therefore omits. In the morning I pray with the 14-year-olds, but in the afternoons and evenings, I pray (or don’t) as I choose. A few times I’ve gone into the often-empty synagogue and prayed there, enjoying my closeness to a Torah scroll and the easy fluidity of individual prayer.
Many questions still abound for me about Conservative Judaism and the practices of this camp. For example, if the Conservative movement recently came out with a statement implementing equal levels of obligation for men and women, why are the females here not required to wear tallit and tefillin? And also: If egalitarianism has only become a concern of the movement in the last 40 years, what was Conservative Judaism originally founded on? Hopefully, I will get answers to these questions as the summer goes on...

*      *     *

Awkward camper story:
(Scene: The common grassy area on Shabbat. Teacher is going for a stroll. Three of her students spot her.)
S: Hey Naomi!
E: Hey, you're my text teacher!
Teacher: Hey guys! How is your Shabbat going?
S: Shomer-y.
A: It's good.
S: Actually, there's a lot of drama.
Teacher: Uh-oh. What do you mean when you say "drama"?
S: Shabbas walks. Duh! I set up four people!
(Teacher inwardly slaps her forward and thinks "Seriously?! They're like 12! Shoot, I'm not supposed to be encouraging this...")
Teacher: Bye guys, see you tomorrow!

*     *     *

 3. How's the food?
Surprisingly okay. Breakfast is always good, thanks to the constant presence of Rice Chex, fruit, soy
Anyone vegan, gluten-free, AND carb-intolerant??
milk and peanut butter. Lunches and dinners have a lower success rate. If the main course is not gluten free, there is usually an alternative option, but sometimes dried out rice pasta leaves something to be desired. On a good day, I win with quinoa salad or cornstarch-breaded tofu. And there’s always a small salad bar.
Almost the whole camp eats simultaneously at 9am, 2pm, and 7pm—in three separate dining rooms. Two are filled with campers and their counselors. The third is filled with an odd assortment of parties: the oldest campers (they are sixteen and want nothing to do with anyone younger than them), the special-needs adult program, staff members with families, some of the arts and sports specialists, the administrators, the directors, and the Text Teachers. Although it’s an eclectic mix, I really enjoy it. Sitting with a seven-year-old at breakfast yields much insight into the field of Cocoa-Puff-consumption; joining the special needs crew at dinner is surprisingly mood-lifting—they have the potential to find the good in almost anything (even the plastic-looking nacho cheese sauce). It took me a while to get used to the late eating schedule (reminds me of college, ugh) but hey, at least the constipation has mostly abated by now.

*     *     *

Cute camper story:
(Scene: Teacher sitting under a tree for a few minutes in between classes.)
D: Can I go to the fruit bowl to get a plum before class?
Teacher (thinking that D just wants to skip class): Okay. Can you get me one too, please?
D: Sure! Do you like them mushy or... not mushy?
Teacher: Not mushy.
D: Okay!
(5 minutes later D brings Teacher a not mushy plum. Awww!)

*     *     *

4. What is your favorite thing about camp?
That I get to teach kids and learn from my experiences.

                  5. What do you miss the most?

Personal time and space. Life is busy here: aside from Shabbat, I get one day off per week and, having no car, it’s definitely not a day of total freedom. When I want alone-time I can go to my room, but I might find one of my two roommates there. In addition, the camp itself is pretty small. You can walk around it in about 15 minutes, and just about every space has a view of other people. Sometimes I sign out at the front desk and go walking down the road—out of camp. It’s a breath of solitude, and one that is much needed. There is also no private place to Skype, and as my close friends know, this is a huge hit to my life outside of camp. Just now, as I am trying to blog in the staff center (with my computer hooked to an ethernet cord) seven people come over to hang out. Oy.
Maybe I should have gotten a job here...

*     *     *

Amazing camper story:
(Scene: Discussing symbolism of light in Judaism with class #2.)
G: So it means gladness!
B: And pride! Because of victory against Haman!
S: Isn't it about the extra soul we get on Shabbat?
E: It's about the light of Torah!
Teacher: All those answers are awesome! Great job guys! So when you light candles this Shabbat, what will you be thinking about?
A: Uhh...there are no straight answers in Judaism, are there?
(Teacher: glows inside. This is exactly the point of....well, everything.)

*     *     *

Happy Camping!

Also, check out this article written by another one of the staff members here:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On the Other Side of the...Wait, There's no Mechitza!

A Modern Orthodox Woman’s Foray into Egalitarian Prayer

One of my close friends recently told me that I will forever be in her heart as her “mechitza-going-skirt-wearing-early-morning partner in crime Judaism.” This epigraph described our year at Pardes perfectly: we were two of the three women who regularly attended mechitza minyan; we wore skirts on a daily basis (and even went skirt-shopping together); we would sometimes get up before six am to go to shul, go running, get coffee, or simply message each other on Facebook about our passion for early mornings.  

            Now, a week after Pardes, my friend’s statement is still true—except for one teensy little detail: I prayed in an egalitarian setting this past Shabbat.

            So how did this come about? Well, over the weekend, I attended the wedding and accompanying Shabbaton of one of my best friends. She married (past tense!! she’s married!!) a JTS rabbinical student; in four years he will be ordained as a Conservative rabbi. The dean of JTS officiated at the wedding, and all of the services over Shabbat were conducted in an egalitarian manner (men and women leading services, reading Torah, getting aliyot, and sitting together). Now, I knew what I was getting myself into, so I had drawn boundaries with my friend before the weekend. I gave divrei Torah, but declined any other role in the service. I had also planned to sit by the wall. I hadn’t prayed in an egalitarian setting in a long time, and I was anticipating discomfort. Over Shabbat, however, I was surprised by how smoothly I eased into this new situation. As a result, I did a lot of thinking about why I have avoided egalitarian prayer for so long, why this particular instance was better than I expected, and what issues I still have with egalitarian prayer.

I knew I was missing something on the plane ride home...

So, first of all, why has mechitza minyan been my preference for the past six years of my life? During the end of high school, in college, and at Pardes, I happily closed myself off behind the mechitza, wanting prayer to be a time when I didn’t have to look at or think about boys. In those environments, life revolved around being a young single female and being around young single males. Flirting was a reality; so were crushes and desires and everything else having to do with boy-girl social-dom. If my prayer experience was going to be meaningful, it was going to have to happen far away from men. Just me and God.

This was when I realized that when praying with a community I would choose mechitza, but that my ideal prayer happens alone—and preferably outside. That being said, praying with a community gives me something special that I cannot get alone: motivation and the spiritual power of the many. So I compromise: when I can, I pray with a mechitza minyan in my own little corner of the women’s section. And I close my eyes.

But there are other reasons why mechitza minyan has been my preference for so long. For one, I have a traditional instinct inside of me to pray the way my ancestors have been praying for years, embracing the differences between men and women and letting a strong male voice lead me through the flow of the service. Secondly, a large part of me believes that I should follow the Halacha relating to prayer. It has been decreed by our rabbis as a valuable practice, so who am I to choose something else?

But now onto the second question: why was this weekend different? Did all of my reasons for praying in a mechitza minyan just fall away? Well, not exactly. But one element had majorly changed. Instead of a community of my peers, I was with a community of parents, kids and grandparents. And the ones who were praying were really focused on praying. There was no one to “look over the mechitza at” and no one who was interested in looking. In addition, most of the people in this prayer setting saw egalitarian prayer as totally acceptable—they did not have the “don’t look at girls/boys” mentality that often comes with a mechitza upbringing. (When we have a barrier, we are told not to look over it, and that implies there is something to look at, and therefore we must have a barrier. If we are never told not to look, we might not need a barrier. Paradox?) In essence, it was a wholesome prayer environment and I, as a part of it, was spiritually uplifted by the prayer.

Another reason this weekend was different: I was there for my best friend. I love her. Friendship such as ours is worth compromising over.

So, what reservations do I still have about egalitarian prayer? Why won’t I be taking it on voluntarily anytime soon?

1. Halachic guilt. If absolute truth is complete adherence to Halacha, this weekend I adhered to absolute un-truth. And because I did it knowingly, that makes me guilty.

2. I am a strong supporter of Sexual Difference Theory—the theory that the basic differences between men and women require systems of law to treat them differently. Because men and women are different, it makes sense to me that they have dissimilar obligations in prayer. As a woman, I feel that my responsibility in prayer is not the same as a man’s obligation. Therefore, if I lead services or read Torah, I am not helping a man fulfill his obligation.

3. On a completely personal (and selfish?) level, I have worked hard to achieve my “MOYO” (Modern-Orthodox-Yet-Open) identity. I do not want to take on a practice that will completely align me with other movements.

4. I am most comfortable behind a mechitza. And comfort zones are powerful things.

5. In my near future, I hope to place myself in communities of other young, observant Jews. “Looking over the mechitza” will be a reality. I will need a mechitza

In summary, egalitarian prayer consists of two elements that cause problems for me. 1. Women being counted as part of the minyan and therefore leading the service for men, and 2. Men and women sitting together. The first issue is purely halachic; the second comes from a place of wanting to achieve my best prayer experience (the separation of sexes during prayer does not explicitly appear in the Talmud).  Following Halacha and finding personal meaning—the two main reasons (often opposing) for why we Jews do what we do. It always seems to come back to that dialectic.

I’ll end with an anecdote from the weekend: Shabbat was over, and guests were running off to their rooms to prepare for the post-Shabbat bonfire on the beach. Few people were left in the seudah shlishit room to daven ma’ariv. All of a sudden I heard, “Naomi, we need you for a minyan!” and I was in. I wasn’t counting myself, but they were counting me. And, for what felt like the first time in forever, I was being validated for my commitment to prayer and to Hashem. Which, as a woman, is not something I find often enough.