By Kate O’Brien
As the world races by at the speed of technology, it becomes harder to live into moments of joy and beauty, or even of sadness and longing. With nothing to ground us, we miss out on opportunities to form meaningful memories that will sustain us over time. Jewish wisdom has a response to the urgency of human existence – slow daily counting. Since the second night of Passover, Jews have been counting the Omer (sefirat ha-omer). Each evening, we number the days from Passover and the exodus through the sea to Shavuot and the arrival at the foot of the mountain. Jewish mystical tradition aligns each week and each day of the Omer with aspects of the Divine, which speak to our relationships with God and our neighbors. This week’s Divine attribute is Yesod: creating a bond. Today’s count of the Omer, Day 36, challenges us to reflect on the Chesed Yesod – the loving-kindness of bonding. This day teaches us to extricate ourselves from the external bondage of slavery and to reach for the internal bonds of friendship and the promise of covenant. Bonds of friendship let us know that who we are – what we think and feel – is important. As we count the Omer, we reflect that it is our friends who make us feel that we count.
Among the many issues with which we struggle today is the ability to develop authentic friendships. We cannot blame Facebook alone for transforming “friend” into a verb that means “to form a generally superfluous connection mediated though a screen.” Children and young adults exert far more effort interfacing in real time, but seldom in real relationships. The consequence is that we are raising a generation plagued by emotional illiteracy. The crisis of impersonal communications has arrested our ability to create strong connections. Perhaps this day of the Omer is begging us to slow down just a bit to remember how special that sacred bond of friendship can be to children and adults alike.
Based on research – and nearly two decades of experience – the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has found that camp is where Jewish youth establish enduring friendships, connect with role models, and create lasting memories. At camp, we unplug in order to connect. If the experience of Jewish summer camp is about anything, it is about putting screens aside to bond in friendship through shared experiences. That could mean bunkmates cheering you on as you put your head underwater for the first time, or the spirit of the Maccabiah team who keeps fighting from behind, or a Shabbat with hundreds of campers, dressed in white, chanting ancient melodies with a special camp twist. It might also be the bonding between a counselor and her campers or between a unit head and his staff. And how do camps facilitate this environment? By eliminating the screens, bringing campers together face-to-face, and explicitly valuing the bonds of friendship. We know that camp friendships are often lifelong because of the intensity and the intentionality of the in-person interactions.
Feeling big feelings and growing emotionally are essential parts of Jewish summer camp. So is making core memories. While camp may be an ideal educational framework in which to cultivate emotional intelligence, it is all of our jobs to help nurture our youth through experiences that will help them grow physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. These experiences are the building blocks of character. Building on the success of the Making Mensches: A Periodic Table and inspired by the animated film, Inside Out (Disney, 2015), FJC has created the Inside Out package of resources for camps, children, and camp families. Made possible by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the purpose of this project is to help our youth learn to identify, understand, and express their feelings in order to make room for lasting friendships and core memories. FJC’s toolbox includes imaginative, printable posters that explore the links among feelings and between Jewish wisdom and basic emotions. All educators and parents can use experiential lesson plans to help youth to recognize their feelings, to articulate what they are experiencing, and to make good behavior decisions. These tools can be used in the moment, as a regular check-in, or even as a pre-Shabbat activity to help people move into a sacred time with full awareness.
When we speak the language of feelings, we expand our capacity for friendship. If we can build these experiences in intentional ways, we may well have lasting lessons, as well as lasting memories to build lives that matter. Just as there are many ways to manifest the counting of the Omer to deepen our lives, there are many ways we can use our power to help raise a generation that is responsive to and responsible for the world around us.
FJC is excited to share these and other materials with the field. We invite your feedback and stories about the ways in which you use them. Your insights will help us as we continue to develop and refine the array of resources we offer.
Kate O’Brien, MA, is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp where she provides Jewish educational insight, direction, and coaching for the breadth of FJC’s programs.