Shabbat at Camp

Printer-friendly version

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that while most other religions sanctify space, Judaism sanctifies time.  One reason to send your child to a Jewish summer camp is to give them the opportunity to experience living in Jewish time.  Having this experience is incredibly powerful because most of the time, our lives are regulated by the Gregorian calendar.  But, at a Jewish camp, our lives are regulated by the Jewish calendar, which brings us closer to our Judaism.


Sunday through Friday afternoon are regular days at a Jewish camp, but everything changes on Friday afternoon when the whole camp begins to prepare for Shabbat.  Once everyone is showered and dressed in their best for Shabbat, each unit head carries a Torah toward their campers’ cabins.  As the unit head passes by each cabin, more and more campers and counselors join the processional and follow the Torah into the prayer space while singing Shabbat songs. 


Following a special Kabbalat Shabbat service, the entire camp gathers for Shabbat dinner.  While on all the other days all of the units eat their meals separately, on Shabbat the partitions in the dining hall are removed and the entire camp eats dinner together.  The tables are covered with white tablecloths and decorated with flowers and balloons.  There is a different energy in the room as the feeling of Shabbat descends on OSRUI. 


After dinner, everyone joins in Shabbat shira – a song session.  The campers sit around in a circle and sing Jewish songs.  It is incredibly powerful to hear 500 excited voices sing in Hebrew.  From the youngest of campers to the oldest of counselors and staff members, everyone is united in the experience of creating beautiful Jewish music together.  As the lights are dimmed, the singing is followed by a story told by OSRUI’s Director Jerry Kaye.


The next day, on Shabbat morning, the campers are able to sleep in later than usual.  They are also able to have breakfast when they want.  Services are made extra special not only by the Shabbat liturgy, but also by the experience of seeing the campers’ peers and counselors lead the prayers and the Torah reading.  Shabbat lunch is extra long with the whole camp picnicking and lounging outside for longer than they would on a weekday.  The lazy lunch is followed by unstructured free time, which leaves the campers feeling refreshed and impresses upon them just how special Shabbat is.  The camp brings Shabbat to a close with folk singing around a camp fire and s’mores, as well as with Havdallah, the ceremony that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week.


It is certainly not impossible to experience Shabbat, with its “oneg” (pleasure) and leisure at home.  However, there is incredible power in celebrating Shabbat with a group of Jewish friends, peers, and role-models.  This experience teaches the campers the meaning of Shabbat and leaves a permanent imprint on the campers.  Moreover, this experience has the potential to deeply influence the way that these campers relate to Shabbat for the rest of their life and to strengthen their connection to Reform Judaism.