“I have the conviction that a few weeks in a well-organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work.”
-Charles Eliot, Former President, Harvard University.
Each Sunday morning I get to shul early to prepare for the Machaneh Shai kids and their parents. The teachers start to arrive around 8:30 and the early folks who come to our regular morning shacharit begin to come at quarter to nine. So I have a few minutes to tune up the guitar and warm up in the sanctuary. It’s the perfect time; the building is quiet, the peak sound of the full size room gives my voice and acoustic guitar a resonance that I feel makes me sound better than I actually am.
Machaneh Shai is the Shearith Israel Family Learning Program, and it means Camp Shearith Israel. “Shai” is a Hebrew play on words that means gift and is also the initials for our synagogue’s name – Shin for Shearith and Yod for Yisrael together spells shai. The name reflects the dual ideas that motivate me as a Rabbi and a Jewish educator. First, that learning is a gift. Torah is a gift. Tefillah and Jewish customs for holy days and every days are gifts. These gifts have been protected and transmitted with love and sacrifice from ancient generations, and is to be cherished through use and development. These gifts are to be shared joyfully lest they tarnish and lie unused in the dining room breakfront. That is the second idea – that Jewish learning should be immersive and experiential like summer camp (machaneh means camp), and that it should be fun and engaging through many senses and experiences. That adults and young students should live these Jewish experiences together, learning together, sharing them outside of the synagogue as much as inside, and that all of our educational program should help develop the transportable Jewish spiritual skills and resources that last as we take them with us.
At Machaneh Shai, one of the ways we practice this approach to learning our spiritual heritage, is in our Sunday morning learners service – called z’man ruchani – spiritual time. Machaneh Shai begins every week with a half hour spiritual practice that I lead in the sanctuary. Children and parents together sing an abbreviated prayer service, and I teach a short d’var tefillah – meditation lesson.
The points that I emphasize are important. We sing every prayer. This is not a session to learn how to daven the whispering style of the weekday morning minyanaires. At Machaneh Shai, we are engaging the senses and the prayers are learned with our ears, in much the same way as we originally learned how to speak before we could read. The guitar and the musical nature of tefillah are a big part of the message.
We say the same prayers almost every time. The goal is to establish a prayer discipline and ritual practice over time, and to provide positive experience in an age appropriate setting. After only a few weeks of singing together, students of all ages and of all Hebrew reading levels can participate and pray together and experience that sense of confidence that comes from a service that fits and gently pushes you forward. We pray together. Every age student and parents and sometimes grandparents all share the experience together. This is not meant to be a place to drop off your kid for a private lesson. They learn from every other kid, and from their parents when they stay. Older kids set an example and provide for the younger students a vision of what success in the effort looks like.
When I speak to the families each week, I don’t speak a lot about the history or the structure of the prayer service. I usually try to emphasize how tefillah helps us grow in awareness and spiritual focus. I do not think this topic is beyond the comprehension of even the youngest Machaneh Shai learner. Machaneh Shai teaches that tefillah and singing God’s praise are a natural practice. Together students learn a love of the music and rhythms, and enjoy the great feeling of community that cannot be taught in a classroom or a lecture.
If you add up all of the time we spend each program year in this well-organized tefillah camp, it equals about ten or twelve hours. I do not consider this to be a lot of time, but I do believe that more substantive tefillah is taught in this setting than a hundred hours in the classroom. In each session, I provide a few quiet moments of silent, awareness meditation. After singing a rousing Mi Chamocha, we have our own quiet amidah prayer consciously breathing and practicing the silent reflection that is the heart of nearly every spiritual tradition. Still, mostly, the tefillah is sung, and though I like a little variety in my own tefillot, we sing the same upbeat memorable melodies each time. I watch pretty carefully, and I see the children and their parents singing along. Often they are not even looking at the words. They have surpassed the surface reading level and are voicing the ancient phrases with a memorized comfort and familiarity.
Often, I will use familiar analogies as part of my lesson, comparing tefillah and Jewish spiritual practice with other disciplines that might be more a part of my students every day cultures and norms. I use athletics, art, music, and martial arts as parallel experiences that can focus the techniques that are required to grow more masterful in our tefillah discipline. One thing that all of these disciplines teach in common regarding how we learn and then develop our skill is that the best learning happens when we learn by doing.
It is very Jewish to praise book learning, and I have many “how-to” books about tefillah on my bookshelf. I also have a growing shelf of books on how to play music, books on how to master Tae Kwon Do, books on art and craftsmanship, but none of these can teach me mastery of their respective domains unless I actually strum the strings, throw the punch, and thread the needle. Machaneh Shai, when it works best, is effective at teaching tefillah because it is taught by actually davening together. This must, of course be reinforced, ever anew, with sources and resources and even more formal learning.
I know that after singing together for nine months, as our students and families go their own summer ways, that when we return in the fall, and I strum the first few lines, that the memories will return easily. I know that the tefillot we learned together will not be lost to the typical summer slip backwards that undermines so much school-style learning. The melodies will continue to resonate, even outside the sanctuary where we gather. In their homes, travels, and summer camps, these familiar memories will be whistled and supplemented with new ones that only serve to deepen the connections and associations that reinforce our learning.