“Where’s our fearless leaders?”
“They’re out getting some twigs.”
I’m with a bunch of teenagers at a camp in New Hampshire getting ready for the fire-starting contest. Leaders Nathan and Sid are teaching the campers how to start a fire in the woods without the usual assists of kerosene, candle wax and the like. The kids, who had seemed apathetic and bored in the way teenagers usually do in the presence of adults, come to life even before their little fires do, as they race to be the first one to get a sustained blaze going. As a veteran campfire builder I’m pleased to see that they learn a thing or two.
Next morning the kids and their leaders gather for shachrit, the traditional morning prayers. The kids again look properly bored at first, but soon they are into the service, with most of the young men saying the blessing and putting on the tallit, everyone reading prayers together and learning about the traditions. They are able to recite the five pillars of the traditional morning prayer service with enthusiasm. Let’s see if I can remember their titles—
“Hello God”—the morning blessings
“Praise God”—verses of song
“God is One”—the Shema
“Standing Before God”—the Amidah
“Wow God, You’re the Greatest”—concluding prayers
Summer camps have proven to be one of the most formative of all experiences for Jewish young people, and for years UMJC leaders have talked about the need for a distinctly Messianic Jewish camp, where kids can get away from the normal distractions for a few days, have new adventures, lots of fun, and a crash course in Jewish life infused with the spirit of Messiah. This year, Sid and Nathan and their wives Diane and Raina organized just this sort of camp as a UMJC Northeast regional event, co-sponsored by the New England Messianic Jewish Council. I’m invited as the visiting rabbi, who just happens to be an outdoors guy too. Young adult counselors Jared Eaton and Becka Sisti are helping to make the whole thing work. The camp is small and experimental, just nine kids, and we will explore the possibility of expanding it over the next two or three years into a national UMJC camp that can be sustained year by year.
Activities included a massive paint ball fight and a rope challenge course out in the woods, swimming and water play in the lake, hanging on to an oversized inner tube being towed in the wake of a really fast speed boat (I did this one myself and found it terrifying and exhilarating, especially getting flung off tube as the speeding boat made a wild turn to end the ride), and as the final leg an overnight hike up nearby and very steep Mt. Washington.
On the final night, at the Mt. Washington base camp, I asked a few of the younger kids (ages 12-13) why this camp is a good thing.
Carrie said, “It was the best camp ever, better than Girl Scouts.”
Bobby—“It was the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
Carrie—“What makes it so much fun is that it’s almost like family.”
Bobby—“If I could relive one week of my life over and over it would be this camp.”
We had this conversation over plates of rather soggy macaroni and cheese with tuna mixed in, which Nathan had cooked over a little alcohol stove made out of an aluminum soda can—it was delicious. I asked the kids if they had learned anything spiritual at the camp.
Bobby—“It was very spiritual and I found I could get closer to God. I learned a lot about the morning prayers.”
Jay—“I learned how to say ‘baruch.’”
Leaders feel that teaching Messianic Jewish spirituality in the outdoors is an especially powerful mix for teens. “Kids need challenges,” Sid said, “and they aren’t always challenged enough at home or school. Creating a Messianic Jewish camping movement will help bridge the gap between the bar mitzvah years and college. It will provide a strong framework for Messianic Jewish spiritual growth and love for Hashem among our youth.”
Nathan spoke about a vision to provide a nationwide leadership experience for Messianic Jewish teens. “What I mean is developing them into leaders,” Nathan said. “It’s hard enough being a teen, and it’s even harder being a Messianic Jewish teen. Our teens need each other, they need a shared experience, and camping provides this. Even of they don’t remember all the particulars of the things we teach them at camp, they will remember the experience itself, and that will continue to encourage them for years.”
UMJC Executive Director