By Alaina Yoakum, URJ Camp Newman Director of Marketing and Communications
When life gives you lemons, they say make lemonade. But what are the ingredients and how does one go about making it? Good thing our Jewish tradition actually has the perfect recipe. It’s called prayer.
“The act of saying a prayer makes your perspective shift,” says Elana Rabishaw, a California native who spent 10 years at URJ OSRUI, and the last four on staff. “Often we only notice the bad things that happen during our day.” Elana notes that the rabbis of the Talmud had an antidote to that. They challenged each Jew to say 100 blessings every day.
Here at camp, Elana planned a relay that allowed kids to follow the rabbis’ good advice in just one short hour. Armed with a blessings checklist, our seventh- and eighth-grade Kesher campers split into eight teams and were challenged to see just how many blessings opportunities there are around us.
Here are a few of the blessings our wandering young Jews discovered:
Julie Bressler, our Teen Camp Director and a Rabbinical student, chose to teach the campers about the morning blessing through interpretive dance. Campers were invited to act out what it felt like to open your eyes for the first time in the morning, to stretch, to put on clothes. “I’m so thankful for freedom,” yelled one child.
Before Eating Bread & After a Meal
Rabbi Mona Alfi introduced campers to the meanings behind the prayers we say before and after every meal. The blessing before the meal is short and sweet. But after the meal, the prayer – which means “you shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless” – is one of the longest blessings. “It’s the biggest blessing because it comes after you’re satisfied; you’re saying thank you to God for fulfilling your needs.”
For Something Good
Cantor Natalie Young got straight to the point – Sometimes, she said, you just have to stop and think about all the blessings in your life. “What is good in your life right now? What are you thankful for?” she asked the campers. “Being at Shabbat with my friends.” “Sleeping in.” “My birthday,” said a boy named Felipe. Suddenly, the entire team sang Felipe an impromptu “Happy Birthday” song with big smiles all around.
One camper said she was thankful for fruit loops, while another camper said he was just thankful “to be here and make lasting memories.” One camper said he was grateful for his grandfather. “Being at camp means so much to me. My grandpa used to drive my dad and his siblings to camp every year. It brought me to camp and I’m really proud to be here.”
For Studying Torah
“I’m going to teach you my favorite verse of Torah,” said Rabbi Denise Eger. It’s V’ahavta – the verse we sing on Yom Kippur afternoon, “love your neighbor or your friend as yourself.” What does that mean? One camper answered, “It’s about treating your friend the way they want to be treated.” “Yes!” said Rabbi Eger. “And if we combine that verse with b’tzelem elohim – ‘we are all made in God’s image’ – these two verses together tell us that if everyone is created in the image of God and you’re supposed to treat your neighbors like yourself, then you need to treat your friends in a Godly way.”
For Repairing the World
One of our Mirpa’ah staff, Robby, led this station, which focused on how campers can make the world a better place. Sitting just outside the Infirmary, he asked, “what can we do for someone who is feeling sick inside?” The campers cried out: “Visit them!” “Make them a card!” “Say a blessing for them.” Robby agreed and brought out paper and pens for the campers to make “Get Well” cards.
For Something Beautiful in Nature
One of our Nefesh staff, Bill, was awaiting each team at one of the high points of our camp – at the apex of a short but steep trail that leads to our camp star. From that point, he asked each group to look out over the camp, to marvel at the view and if so inspired, to yell out, “I love being Jewish” – to which all joined in. You could hear them from across the camp.
For Smelling an Herb
Standing in our camp vineyard among the grape vines, it’s easy to appreciate nature. Rabbi Rabishaw met the campers there and asked them to close their eyes. “What happens when you smell things? It’s a feeling, a taste of what’s about to happen. It takes over your senses – that essence of something.” He asked the campers to recall their favorite smells (“my mother’s lasagne” “the Lake Tahoe air” “mint”) and their least favorite (“dog poo” “a port-a-potty at a baseball game”).
“But here’s the thing about smells,” Rabbi Rabishaw said, “it tells you that your body is working. It’s something to be thankful for, to thank God for.” Next, he let all the campers – with eyes closed – smell a sprig of mint. Together, the campers said a blessing, “Thank you Hashem. Thank you for all the reminders that we are alive.”
For Eating Fruit
Sitting in the vineyard with a bowl full of oranges sat our program director, Brandon Binder, who invited the campers to appreciate the trees that give us fruit. “And oxygen!” according to one camper. After saying the prayer over fruit, “…borei p’ri ha-etz,” the campers shared oranges.
Bedtime Shema and Modeh Ani
After roaming through many stations, Rabbi Chuck Briskin told these campers it was time to lie down on the grass and sleep. But not before saying the “Shema,” the prayer one says before bedtime. Then after a brief 1-minute slumber, the campers jumped up to say the “Modeh Ani,” the prayer one says upon being grateful to be awake and alive.
After a day (well, an hour) full of blessings, Jewish educator Lisa Langer implored her campers to think about all the many things that they are thankful for in the world – and to write them down on Post-Its. Their own personal blessings. One of the campers remarked that “we’re so used to getting everything we want – we’re so privileged – that we tend to overreact when the tiniest thing doesn’t go our way.” The blessings helped him – and the others – to see just how much they had to be grateful for.
One of the objectives of this relay was to recognize all the different ways we can appreciate God’s work in the world. While there’s a time and place for praying in a synagogue – the beauty of camp is that campers learn many different ways to pray – from the middle of a vineyard to the top of a hill. Here, prayer can happen any time, any place. And it can happen in those spontaneous moments when we stop to open our eyes and notice the blessings around us.
“The goal of saying 100 blessings helps us to find and focus on the good things that happen. We shift our perspective by framing our day around positive things, rather than negative,” says Elana. When things are dark, saying blessings is like turning on a light switch in a dark room – enabling us to see, appreciate and find God in our world. It’s a powerful potion for stopping and smelling the roses – at camp and in rest of the world.