Alumni Shabbat

Last night was the alumni shabbat at camp. To explain: I went to Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp when I was young (1969-1979). The last few years, the alumni association has had a problem where alumni can return to camp for a Shabbat during a session. Last night was the Shabbat I selected; it was the first Shabbat of a week-long session with campers aged 7-10.

This Shabbat, in many ways, was a typical Alumni shabbat. You arrive. You do the walk around the cabin area to collect the campers and head off to Shabbat services. You have a camp shabbat service in the chapel at the top of a mountain, overlooking the Pacific ocean. You return to the dining hall for a dinner of chicken, rice pilaf (some years, it is noodles), and broccoli, with lemon puffs for dessert. You have a song session. You have dancing, You return home. This has been the basic structure of Shabbat at camp for years on end. Of course, there have been changes. The service has gone from something based on Union Prayer Book I to creative services to the current camp siddur based on Mishcon Tephilo (the current Reform prayerbook). Dinner has remained chicken. The song session has gone from campers with songbooks at the tables, led by Chuck Feldman on the piano or others on guitar to a raucous jump around session to modern songs, with lyrics projected on a screen, in the pavillion. Dancing has gone from the older Israeli dances (think Mayim and Zamir Atik) to a mix of old and modern Israeli dances to things like Flashdance. But it remains a fun and relaxing evening.

Last night, my daughter came with me. This added to the adventure in two ways. First was the travel… she’s on a learners permit, and I let her drive. This included driving on Kanan-Dume Road (a nice wide canyon road), Pacific Coast Highway, the road to Hilltop (a one-lane very twisty canyon road with no barrier to the cliff), and Decker Canyon/Westlake Blvd (a more typical twisty canyon road). This included both evening and night driving, including use of brights. I’m pleased to say she did very very well.

Bringing my daughter also had another motive. She is a camp alumni, having been at Hilltop in 2005. But she’s also gotten alienated from modern congregational Reform Judaism. Modern large congregations have become unwelcoming. The children, especially, have become overly focused on status and money, and what schools you go to and whether you grew up there and are part of their cliques. If you don’t meet those standards, your life is miserable. Erin’s been subjected to that at both Beth Hillel and Ahavat Shalom, and right now she has no desire to be a part of it. She wants to take a break from Judaism. I had been hoping that this camp visit might remind her about the good times that are possible when the people and place are right.

Did that work? Alas, no. It’s not that she had a bad time, but right now her experiences have left her unable to see the good under things. Perhaps that’s because the wound is still so fresh. So I’ll just have to be happy with the neutral for now, and trust that she’ll find her way when she’s off at college. We did have some interesting discussions about this over dinner with the camp director. What Erin feels is not uncommon, which is reassuring. There are different things that draw people to faith, customs, and shared history. For me, it was camp, not congregational Judaism. For others, it is college and Hillel or Chabad. For still others, it is when they start a family or deal with a family crisis. At some point, you can’t push anymore, and you have to trust that the background you laid will one way work its way up.

I did learn some interesting things, in particular that Wilshire has dropped their URJ membership. This is interesting—a number of congregations are doing this in the leaner financial times due to the dues, and the fact that URJ is doing less for the congregations. Are the umbrella organizations for congregations becoming ananchronistic? Perhaps, for Conservative Judaism is having the same problems. I’m sensing we’re in for a shift in congregational Judaism: synagogues are losing members, you’re seeing less movement-affiliated Judaism. Large size is important to congregational survival, but large size turns congregations into cold marble houses focused on fundraising and the donors, and the warmth and joy often disappear. Large Christian congregations don’t appear to have this problem—it would be curious to explore why. Small congregations have the warmth, but not the facilities or the long-term survival. So how do we get the small congregation feel in a large congregation? I’m thinking of something akin to small learning communities (i.e., multiple small congregations working together): The XXX community of Congregation YYY, that does its own programming, has its own mission, but shares the staff and clergy. This was one of the the ideas we discussed over dinner.

One of the other things we discussed was the changing economics of summer camps. There was a great article on this in the NY Times last week. The camps of my days could not survive these days. Getting kids to go weeks without their cherished electronics and communications with friends is hard.

Back to camp… in terms of changes, there wasn’t that much different this year. Some new songs. Perhaps a new dance. But the essential spirit remains. And I’ll be back up there next year for Alumni Shabbats, and perhaps other events over the year.