To view photos from our High School Shabbaton, click here.
In this article, I am going to attempt to answer a lingering question I have had for many years in Jewish Education: Why are our kids uninspired?
Throughout my career in formal and informal education, I have had the privilege of being part of many meaningful trips, shabbatonim, and moments, but this past shabbat was different.
As I arrived at Fort Lauderdale airport, I witnessed a sea of students and I said to myself “Oh my, this is gonna be wild!” I was not worried about the capabilities of our staff, and how we would manage, I was simply stunned that we made it to this moment. When the shabbaton was announced at the end of last year, the administration got a standing ovation (pretty cool), and it was at that moment when I asked myself, could this be a tipping point for the school, culture and overall image? The ovation comforted me, but I said to myself, it's early to celebrate the win, let's wait until all is done, and the shared feedback is in, all the data will be processed, and then, we will high five for the win. As we boarded the plane, the JetBlue staff made a comment, “We didn't realize this is practically a chartered flight!” It was that kind of a scene, Hebrew Academy High School took over the route of FLL to JFK. From eating lunch on Central Ave, in the Five Towns, to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and eating dinner at Tribeca Synagogue was the first day. We boarded our busses at 8pm, and started driving upstate, to the area of “no cell phone service." The roads were dark, and getting more narrow. We could tell we were “not in Kansas anymore." Deer were lingering by the dark roads, but then we arrived at Camp Seneca Lake. If you’ve never driven up to camp, it's the kind of feeling you get when you’re traveling in the desert, and an oasis appears. Out of the darkness of all woods, suddenly a well-lit bungalow appears. The students disembarked and were pointed to the camp dining room by one of the Directors Ross Zuckerman (who was an amazing host) to enter a warm room, with a freshly grilled BBQ on display, great background music, and just awesome vibes. First impressions do count, and I can safely say, that midnight arrival set the tone.
After a great first night, the entire next day was on campus, and the students played sports, went swimming (heated pools) and just had a great time bonding with their friends. The sun was starting to set, and that's where the magic began. Pre-Shabbat music was heard over the loudspeakers, students were preparing for Shabbat in their bunks, and slowly the students started making their way to the Shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. Everyone came in good spirits, dressed in Shabbat attire and filled the warm Shul. As our musical guest Noah Solomon (Soul Farm) got up to begin the traditional Yedid Nefesh melody, I scanned the room, and that's when I knew this was going to be that kind of Shabbat. Students began to hum along, siddurim in hand, and many even closed their eyes while singing. The area which we would refer to as a “dead cell zone” is actually what makes camp so special. Even though on Shabbat cell phones would not be used, the entire day was a “no service day” and our students were outdoors, playing sports, and other activities, forming bonds with their peers, and entering Shabbat on a high note. When I got up to speak upon our arrival on Thursday night, my message was, “Let's all use this time while disconnected from our regular lives, to form new connections." It is true that many students did not have a choice in this, and the lack of service was due to our remote location, but in this case it worked to our benefit. The entire shabbat was filled with moments of genuine conversations. Healthy socializing. Meaningful singing, and praying. The disconnection fulfilled its purpose.
Late Friday night as the students were invited to a separate dining room for what we called a Tisch/Oneg, they were thrilled to see an endless candy buffet. Each student grabbed a few gummies and found a seat and began to sing. We handed out song sheets with 30 Jewish songs and lyrics. We could have gone through three more sheets, as the students and staff refused to stop singing. Where is all of this ruach (positive spirit) coming from? Where has it been? The standing ovation of last year reminded me, this is something the students wanted. As we prepared to start Havdallah while Noah would lead us in the singing, the students were standing in a large circle, arms around one another, and just waiting patiently (not an easy thing with teens). They were not in a rush, and there was no worry in the world. On a typical Saturday night, many of us rush through Havdallah, so we can grab our phones and see what “we’ve missed." The dancing that broke out on Motzei Shabbat as the words “Hashem Melech” (tune by Gad Elbaz) were being played was all positive energy. You know those groups of people who never want to enter the dancing circle, or stand on the sidelines watching others dance? Well, those people didn't exist. EVERYONE WAS DANCING. This was something truly amazing. Song after song, chant after chant.
On Friday night, I had asked one of my personal mentors Irv Bader, legendary educator and the camp owner and founder, to share some words with our group. He could have said anything, he could have repeated stories from his last 45 years in camp, but he did not, he chose to speak about how lucky the Jewish people are to have SHABBAT! Irv went on and on, with silence in the room, the entire school all zoned in, and he said it over and over again “It's up to your generation to preserve Shabbat, and keep it special, it is what saved the Jewish community”. The weekend was simply uplifting in and out. It was as cold as 27F at one point, but everyone was thrilled to be there.
If someone were to ask me what is the goal of this Shabbaton, I would answer to unite the school, and strengthen the bond between our school community, and have a memorable experience. We sent out a student survey (we know how much people love surveys) and we were amazed at the response rate, and even more impressed when we read the answers.
To conclude and to answer my opening question, I believe inspiring youth requires buy in. The students were excited about the idea of us taking them to NY, and that started the buy in. Lack of cell phone service forced more direct communication, and this led to more buy in. When Irv Bader reiterated the point of “valuing” shabbat, this led to more buy in. When you look to your left and right and see your fellow schoolmate praying/singing/laughing/dancing, this naturally encourages you to buy in. The spark is always there, but it is our responsibility to try and keep it lit at all times, and this is also the challenge. This past weekend when we traveled as a group of 150 students and staff, it showed me how awesome a community can be when everyone buys in. Inspiration can only come when we establish the right environment, and then work on the buy in. There were many people that questioned the decision that we had made, to fly up an entire school and splurge on such an event, but I must say, we as Jewish parents should demand more and more of this. If we can pull off an event and get close to 100% buy in, and close to 100% positive feedback, and get 100% soul from each of our students, we as adults should probably give a standing ovation to our amazing students for stepping up to the plate, and knocking it out of the park, as they ALL BOUGHT IN and inspired one another. Jewish education is all about camaraderie and connecting to Hashem, both were accomplished. I want to thank our amazing team of chaperones, starting with our Director of Student Activities, Rabbi Oded Karavani. Dr. Lieber, Rabbi Koriat, Rabbi Wrightman, Mrs. Handwerger, Mrs. Klees, and Miss Ehrlich on a job well done. To future moments of inspiration and growth, and of course - MORE BUY IN.
Rabbi Aharon Assaraf
High School Assistant Principal