by Michelle Shapiro Abraham
In this new age of limited resources, more and more Jewish organizations are exploring how to partner to achieve common goals. In this spirit, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camping System and the Conservative Movement’s National Ramah Commission have come together to create joint programming. Funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, the grant created the Kivun (Hebrew for direction) program which provides for the creation of six “Specialist Training Retreats” including Theater Arts, Visual Arts, Nature and Adventure, Waterfront, Sports and Music. With over one hundred participants, the Kivun retreats strive to infuse camp specialties with Judaic content, introduce new techniques for teaching the specialties, and build a “community of practice” across denominational lines with an opportunity to share materials, techniques, and questions.
Though it is common practice to bring together individuals from different movements for retreats and conferences, this is quite different from the movements themselves partnering. While outside organizations have substantial flexibility in how they structure their retreats, the Kivun partnership required that we find a way to leave intact the customs, rules and branding that both the Reform and Conservative movements value while still creating one, cohesive program. In addition, Kivun retreats are being held at movement camps (two at URJ Camps and four at Ramah Camps) and it was important to us that participants feel like full citizens and not “guests” at the other movement’s program. Seeking to have a larger impact, we chose a cohort model of learning that focuses not only on education, but also on creating a community of practice that will continue to support one another following the retreat.
To complicate matters more, we embraced the power of shared ritual and symbolic experiences to build cohort and community, rejecting the common answer for joint retreats to have “parallel” programs where retreat participants choose activities and worship experiences based on their interest and affiliation. And so, the question emerged, “how do you create a retreat that simultaneously feels, looks and acts Reform and Conservative?”
Any camper, immersed in their own camp culture and defining Judaism by what their counselor does – could tell you how difficult this task is. The national staff, Kivun Coordinators, and Lead Educators struggled to find answers that work. We have wrestled with everything from how to worship together and which paragraphs to sing of the Birkat HaMazon (and the inclusion of clapping and table pounding), to how to handle Kashrut and the role of Hebrew. In the end, different retreats are making different choices based on their specialty, their program leaders, and their resources. In our evaluation process we hope to examine these different approaches and replicate them (or avoid their pitfalls) in future programs. There is a keen awareness that the Kivun retreats represent a new level of collaboration and can create new models for how the Reform and Conservative movements can work together toward common goals.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, is the URJ’s Kivun Project Coordinator.