One of the things I love most about working at Camp Ramah is the impact that it’s had on my own personal spiritual development. I grew up going to a Jewish sleepaway camp, so I remember how profound it is to live in an immersive Jewish community for weeks at a time. I remember how the pace slows on Shabbat, how the spirit lifts during an exciting round of Israeli dance, and how the soul is refreshed during quiet Saturday night singing under the stars. I remember all of these things, but the depth of change in my own spiritual being now that I’m experiencing Jewish camp as an adult has come as a surprise to me.
This year, in particular, I came to camp seeking a particular kind of change. During the off-season, I work in a supplementary Religious School. Part of my job is to teach students to read and chant tefillot. I get a lot of satisfaction when my students can recite all the words of Birchot Hashachar or can chant the Amidah flawlessly after weeks of practice. However, I’m aware that these accomplishments would feel much more rewarding if reciting these prayers felt more personally meaningful to me. And so, I came to camp this summer primed to deepen my own prayer experience.
I had several “Aha!” moments during Staff Training week. The first was during Tefillot on the second morning of training. The leaders of the activity encouraged all of us to brainstorm ideas for getting our campers “physically and spiritually ready” for tefillot each morning. This was a new thought for me. I always just show up at tefillot. I never thought about how the experience would be different if I did some type of preparation. But once I thought about it, it made so much sense. Musicians can’t produce beautiful music without tuning and warming up their instruments. Athletes can’t accomplish amazing physical feats without stretching and warming up their bodies. To what new heights could we lift our campers’ prayer experience if we helped them get physically and spiritually ready for tefillot? To what new heights could I lift my own tefillot? I left the session eager to explore.
The next “Aha!” moment came during a staff learning session about the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. I was deeply moved by Amichai’s simple but elegant imagery, as he explored themes of man’s relationship with G-d, peoplehood, and prayer. The poem that resonated with me the most was titled simply, “A Tallis Poem”. In the poem, Amichai uses beautiful images to explore the experience of wearing a tallis. As soon as I finished reading the poem, the answer to the previous session’s question (how can I make myself physically and spiritually ready for tefillot each morning?) became clear. I wanted to try wearing a tallis.
Sometime in the coming year, I plan to make an excursion with my daughter to buy “real” tallitot for the two of us in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. But for the purposes of this summer, I felt a sense of urgency. I went on to Amazon (yes, you really can buy anything on Amazon!), and picked out a simple tallis. It was light-weight, with a pretty purple and gold trim, and most importantly, they assured me it would arrive by Shabbat.
Wearing a tallis during tefillot has changed the experience for me. I used to scan the room during tefillot and think that everyone else looked like they were doing “real” prayer. I often felt like I was just saying words, but not really praying. I felt like there was some intrinsic difference between everyone else’s prayers and mine. My brain was always filled with thoughts like, “I didn’t go to Day School, I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t go to a Conservative Shul. Everyone else knows what they’re doing here, and I don’t.” Making the decision to purchase and wear a tallis, for me, was making the decision to take ownership of my own tefillot experience. While my background in tefillot might not be as robust as other members of the camp community, I can feel good about where I am on my journey. I can take any step I want to deepen my own spirituality and heighten my own prayer experience. This summer, the step I’ve taken is to start wearing a tallis.
Tefillot feel so different to me now. Every morning, I make an effort to arrive a few minutes early. I take a moment to breathe deeply. I kiss the tallis and recite the blessings. I swoop it up over my head, and feel the weight as it rests on my shoulders and envelops me. During those few moments I settle my own mind, and I set my own intentions for tefillot. I feel, for the first time, warmed up. I feel physically and spiritually ready for tefillot, and for the rest of the day.
A Tallis Poem
By Yehuda Amichai
Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it
around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping
his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon
of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.
And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.
Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44