We just returned from this year’s Sukkot encampment and wanted to share the adventure with you.
I call it an adventure because it always contains surprises which supersede even the most scrupulous planning.
We had planned to take about 20 Orthodox Day school students and 20 high-school students from NFTY (Reform Temple Youth) to create a celebration of the first 2 days of Chag. The venue was to have been a summer camp about 100 miles from Chicago. For some reason, NFTY backed out about three weeks prior to the event and the camp was no longer a viable option.
In the remaining three weeks, we would literally have to re-create the program as a Day-School only event.
We brought 21 students to a far-suburban JCC in Flossmoor, IL. It is a beautiful site with a huge grassy area, surrounded by trees in the awesome array of mid-Fall color changes. We also would have complete use of the nearby JCC building with its washrooms and kitchen.
However, since this is Sukkot, we were going to center the event on outdoors living. The kids set up seven tents, finished the Sukkah, erected an Eruv, and prepared the dinner – with time to spare before Shabbat approached.
Shabbat Dinner in the Sukkah was followed by a talk by the director of a local homeless-shelter coalition. He explained the many nuances of homelessness – social, personal, financial, familial, health-related, etc. Here we were submitting to the symbolic homelessness implied in the Sukkot experience and he was telling us about the real kind. It was sobering and moving. He also explained that most shelters in America are church based and that the most resistant religious institutions were those under Jewish or Catholic auspices. Needless to say, the kids weren’t proud of that. After the program, the kids all voted to have all left over food brought to the shelters he operates.
The Shabbat davenning, outdoors under a blazing blue sky, was awesome. Imagine singing Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov surrounded by our little tent community. We sang almost everything we could and the sounds of our voices during Tfilah bounced off the walls of the JCC so that even though we were out in the open, there was a reverberation of spiritual energy. On Sunday, we experienced the davenning with our lulavim pointing straight up at the clear sky. They were almost like spiritual antennas. It was wondrous.
Sitting out there in the hot sun, we were acutely aware of what a nomadic people had to endure. And then, sporadically, a cloud would pass by and the temperature would cool down and we could feel the difference. We all knew that agrarian people would value sun and they would value rain – but clouds?? Perhaps that is why the symbolism of Ananaie haKavod or the importance of shade in the Sukkah is so important. We need respite even from the nurturing rays of the sun. That was an observation encountered by the kids.
Shabbat afternoon, we played some values-clarification games. The two issues we addressed were (1) Jewish Unity, including our relations with Jews who behave Jewishly differently than we do, and (2) What they perceive as their responsibilities if a friend of theirs was using illicit drugs. Those were 2 very intense discussions. Our speaker for the evening arrived early and sat in on the discussions and was visibly moved by what he heard. Only later, during Mincha, did he explain that in his earlier life he had been an abuser of dangerous drugs and wished that his friends would have taken some of the concerns voiced by these kids. And here is where planning gets shoved aside by serendipity. He then addressed the kids about his own drug experience and movingly gave them a first-hand story about what it really is and how important it is for them to not stand by.
To demonstrate our commitment to full participation by the kids, we offered a $10 discount on the trip price to anyone who prepared a laining, dvar Torah, or Shiur. Nearly everyone qualified! And they did a great job. But the maxim opus was a shiur delivered by one of the students which had 17 citations and was woven together with professorial skill. It was a review of the various themes of water on Sukkot and it was awesome.
After dinner, the speaker mentioned above spoke about the current situation in Israel from a real-politik perspective, especially in terms of how we as American Jews can mobilize our concerns. He spoke about the structure of the Jewish community and the different styles and agendas of various components. He explained how certain ideas may not be PC (politically correct) even if they are what is needed to deal with the circumstances of the moment. We asked the kids whether they wanted to grow up to be leaders (almost all) and outlined 18 characteristics needed to develop leadership skills – starting now! What was scheduled to last about 45 minutes went for over 2 hours.
I could continue on with other details, but it really isn’t important. The bottom line is that these Day School students had an enriching experience – one in which theoretical concepts and book learning became real and experiential. In fact, in a post program summary, the one features mentioned by most of the kids was the fact that they had the opportunity and encouragement to do things for themselves (including cooking and cleanup!)
Sukkot is a natural time to do this kind of a trip – but so is Shabbat, Tu b’Shvat, and almost anytime. The important factors are to have a real and meaningful theme, to do the event “with” the kids, not “to” them, and to put them into situations where they will have to think and encounter ratherthan recite previously learned slogans.
I have planned programs like this for Shabbat, Purim, Chanukah, Tu b’Shvat, Tisha b’Av, Slichot and many other times of the year. If there is any way I can share ideas or brainstorm with you, it would be a pleasure.
I am Larry Engelhart. Contact me at email@example.com or 312-399-3974.