When the teens graduate, they are not showered with free trips to Israel, or paid to take courses about Judaism; rather, they are challenged.
By Jordan Soffer
Bemoaning the future of the American Jewry has become a rite-of-passage. One cannot, it seems, be a serious Jewish thinker, without predicting the next would-be calamity that will undermine the Jewish people. Optimism is rogue, and pessimism is vogue. While I do not reject the gravity of particular trends, this paradigm simply does not work for me. The incessant lamenting of our volatility seem to ultimately promulgate apathy, and perpetuate the very instability it seeks to remedy. Imagine, for a moment, an optimistic Judaism; one that quietly deals with real threats, while loudly celebrating the beautiful fruits of our collective labor.
This was the Judaism I was re-introduced to in Santiago, Chile. Last month, I led a group of 10 staff members from various Ramah Summer Camps to visit Beth El, a vibrant, synagogue-based Chilean youth group. We joined them for the culmination of their year-long program: a 10 day summer camp, situated in the hills of Santiago. The youth group normally lives at the Communidad Israelita de Santiago; a unique combination of an 800 seat stunning and modern Masorti shul, and a large JCC-esque facility. A menorah flanks an open green quad, and Israeli and Chilean flags crown the complex. Voices of school children fill the air, reminiscent of the Talmudic prescription for vivacity (BT Shab 119:).
Beth El serves Jewish youth, ages 5-22. For several years they participate as chanichim (campers), and at age 16 nearly all participants begin a two year training process to become madrichim (counselor). Counselors stay throughout their time in university, committed to advancing their movement. The madrichim speak of their pledge to give the next generation an experience similar to the one they were fortunate enough to have.
What distinguishes this camp from its American counterparts may be its sheer size (300 active participants from just one Shul), and consistency (essentially perfect attendance at their weekly shabbos-programming). But, above all else, what elevates this movement is its remarkable blend of ambition and sanguinity. The participants believed in their project, and their confident passion was contagious. I was enveloped by their determination. They invited me to become passionate about a vision of an ecstatic Judaism, with an exhilarating future.
I found myself consistently wondering what I can take back with me from this experience. I came to appreciate that their exact model would not work in America. It is uniquely Chilean, and, to be certain, there is much at this camp that left me feeling uncomfortable. For example, modesty norms and levels of supervision are different than typical American standards, but the details of my discomfort remain irrelevant. What I learned, and what we as a community must continue to learn, is the power of a self-confident, innovative Judaism; one that challenges, rather than infantilizes.
This positivity translates into an ability to confidently challenge the youth, without fear that they will abscond from the faith entirely. When the teens graduate, they are not showered with free trips to Israel, or paid to take courses about Judaism; rather, they are challenged – they are asked to continue the process. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The Cardinal sin of our educational philosophy is that we have asked too little. Its modest standards are unfair to the potentialities of man.” This was not the case in Chile. They challenged their youth, and the youth lived up to it; however, this is only possible with total buy in. We can only fulfill Rabbi Heschel’s prophecy once we promote a Judaism worthy of the challenge.
I was gleaned in a Torah of positivity. I was nurtured by a Judaism that constantly pushed me. For years at Camp Ramah I have lived, learned, and taught such a Judaism; I have learned to breathe this Torah. I have seen it outside the walls of oft-praised Jewish summer camps, in America and abroad. This must become the Judaism we promote; one worthy of promotion. One that challenges us, and one that makes us worthy of being challenged.
Jordan Soffer is currently a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and is pursuing a masters in elementary education at Yeshiva University; Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2010, Jordan has spent the past years studying at various yeshivot in Jerusalem, Maaleh Gilboa, and New York. Jordan has been a staff member at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, most recently as the director of Shoafim: Ramah Social Justice.