by Ramie Arian

“That felt a lot like camp!” said the woman next to me at the conclusion of the Friday evening service during the recent Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Judging from her tone, she approved.

Indeed, it had felt “a lot like camp,” I thought, though on first reflection, it was not quite clear why. Tefillah (worship) at camp is generally a relatively casual affair: with worshippers dressed in shorts or jeans, prayers offered by leaders – probably campers and counselors – who are lacking in formal skills, leading a congregation of up to a few hundred participants, mostly children. The music of the service is guided by songleaders who make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in training and polish. Often, the tefillah takes place in an outdoor setting of singular natural beauty, like a hillside overlooking a lake, with participants sitting in a circle or other informal arrangement.

At the URJ Biennial, by contrast, the congregation consisted of nearly 6,000 adults in relatively dressy attire sitting in formal rows in a cavernous hotel ballroom, lacking any hint of natural beauty. The tefillah was led by Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel in Memphis TN and Cantor Jennifer Frost of B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim Congregation in Deerfield IL, two supremely gifted shlichei tzibur (prayer leaders). Musical accompaniment was provided by a six-piece “tefillah band” (electric guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion and strings), led by Josh Nelson, among the finest musicians of the generation. At first glance, there was hardly any similarity to camp. Yet, indeed, it had “felt a lot like camp.”

More than 30 years ago, Jeffrey K. Salkin wrote: “A new style of music is changing the way Reform Jews pray. The melodies of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and the UAHC [now called URJ] camp movement have been incorporated into the worship services of a number of synagogues, with songleaders directing the liturgical responses and the guitar supplementing the organ.” (“The New Trend in Synagogue Music,” Reform Judaism, November 1980.) Salkin continued: “In recent years, NFTY music has found its way into the synagogue. Adults visiting [URJ] camps often find the enthusiasm in services contagious and want to duplicate that spirit in their synagogues.”

30 years ago and more, tefillah in Reform congregations was indeed a staid affair. Formality was the rule, and “decorum” was enforced. The ideal was to create an atmosphere of transcendence, of elevation. Everything from the rabbi’s tone of voice to the cantor’s choice of lofty melodies to the use of organ as the accompaniment of choice, to the architecture of the physical space reinforced the majesty of the ceremony. Worshippers felt distant from the proceedings, and other than joining an occasional responsive reading, were passive participants.

At camp, worship was very different. The goal was intimacy, a sense of community, rather than majesty (or, in theological terms, a sense of immanence, rather than transcendence). Tefillah at camp was not majestic, but rather spirited and spiritual. Where the synagogue was formal, camp was casual. Where synagogue music was lofty, accessible only to those (such as the cantor) with deep, intensive training, camp music was inviting, simple to learn and to join, accessible to all. Musical selections were accompanied by guitar. Participation by worshippers was welcome, and ultimately, it was expected.

As Salkin noted more than three decades ago, the forms and norms of camp started to find their way into synagogue life. Little by little, congregants were exposed to worship that was engaging, participatory, intimate (as opposed to majestic), and they liked what they saw. Today, when more than 70% of younger Jewish leaders are products of Jewish camp (Wertheimer, Generation of Change), the norms of Jewish summer camps have penetrated deeply into the mainstream of synagogue life.

And so, for my neighbor at the URJ Biennial’s Shabbat evening tefillah, it did, indeed, feel “a lot like camp.” The goal  – as in camp – was a sense of participatory intimacy. It was a stirring tefillah, an uplifting tefillah, a tefillah that left most of us participants with a sense of awe and connectedness. It was a tefillah that felt like camp, or perhaps, like camp on steroids. It felt great to participate.

There is little doubt that the kind of influence that camp has had on synagogue worship in the Reform movement is paralleled by similar influence elsewhere in the Jewish community. While it’s outside the scope of this article to examine closely, I’ve often heard it said that much of the so-called Independent Minyanim movement, which is quickly transforming tefillah in the Conservative and Modern Orthodox worlds, is inspired by the norms of the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps, and powered largely by their alumni.

Jewish camp has been shown to have many important, powerful impacts on Jewish life. Its alumni are in general more Jewishly involved, more Jewishly committed, more Jewishly active, more Jewishly generous, more Jewishly affiliated than Jews who did not attend (see jewishcamp.org/how-we-help/research). To these many benefits of Jewish camp, we can now add this: Jewish camp has had a transformative impact on the nature of tefillah throughout much of the Jewish community.

Ramie Arian is a consultant who specializes in summer camps and other forms of experiential education in the Jewish community. He was the founding Executive Director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.