This summer at Camp Newman Isaac and I were asked by Rabbi Allie Fischman to help create some new tallitot (prayer shawls) to be used when the counselors bless their campers on Friday nights. We were tasked with finding a way for each eidah (session) to work together to create a single tallit, at the same time giving each camper and counselor a chance to contribute in a personal way.
The challenge was that the groups ranged in size from 30 people to 120 people. How could we find a meaningful way for each participant to be a part of a large group project? And all in an hour-long evening program?
We decided to create fingerprint mosaics, where each camper had a chance to add their personal mark to the tallit and, ultimately, create a work of art that was not just for those campers, but would be enjoyed by everyone. The idea was that fingerprints are personal, but combined together they create a mosaic-like pattern, creating a communal work rather than an individual one — and that it would take the fingerprints of the whole eidah to create a finished work.
The fingerpainting itself was a big hit. Rabbi Laura Novak Winer helped us paint all the fingers, and campers and counselors alike were thrilled to try a form of art they had not done since they were little.
There is often a desire expressed by participants when creating camp art to put their name on it somewhere, to create something to be a legacy and that they can point to summer after summer and say “I made that.” We chose fingerprints instead of names to allow that personal connection, and combined those prints into images: waves on the water, the spreading branches of a tree, the seven species, Jerusalem, Miriam’s Well.
With the Avodah campers we created a rainbow huppah for them to carry at the San Francisco Pride Parade. Rabbi Rick Winer helped them tie gorgeous colorful tzitzit on the corners, and accompanied them to the parade.
Some of the counselors asked how we could do such a thing — to fingerpaint on a tallit! We were able to paint them because they were not tallit yet; we were fingerpainting on a four-cornered piece of fabric, but they would not become tallit until after we tied the tzitzit on to the corners. It is the tying of tzitzit, the knots in the fringes that remind of the 613 commandments, that turn the fabric into a holy object and transform it into a tallit.
On Friday night the counselors held the new tallitot aloft over their campers while singing a blessing to them, and on Saturday morning the new tallitot were worn by campers called to the Torah for an aliyah.
There is such a joy in creating new ritual objects, in engaging in hidur mitzvah — the beautification of the commandments — and you can see that joy reflected in the campers as they stand under the tallitot that they helped create.