I cannot decide whose excitement was more infectious: the almost tangible joy emanating off the forty-nine 4th-6th graders attending Congregation Or Ami’s first ever retreat at Gindling Hilltop Camp, the pride felt by the eleven 8th and 9th grade Madrichim (teaching assistants) who led most of the programming, or the energetic passion of Rabbi Julia Weisz who conceived of and created this first retreat. Perhaps it was just the whole”love bomb” I felt when I arrived at camp for the Saturday night program.
I knew something was up when, before our 10 am Shabbat Morning Service, our Cantor Doug Cotler could not stop gushing about how awesome the retreat was. He had spent Friday night at the Malibu camp, co-leading Shabbat services, enjoying a delicious Shabbat dinner, and having a blast schmoozing with the kids and teens.
When I arrived at the retreat with my wife and youngest son after the 4 pm Shabbat service, I was struck by the energetic passion in the room. The group had gathered for a talent show. Everyone was dressed in costumes. Campers were crowded around their Madrichim, sitting close by or on laps. Kids were singing onstage, others doing skits, and everybody sat intently, clapping wildly at the end of each performance. I joined Rabbi Julia for a Matzah Ball Soup Making skit, which we acted again and again to different instructions by the director: slowe, faster, operatic-style, Valley Girl-style. The campers laughed, and we had fun just being silly.
Our national organization, the Union for Reform Judaism, is urging us to join a Campaign for Youth Engagement, committing ourselves to turn around the embarrassing national post-B’nai Mitzvah retention rate of around 10-20%. They contend that the best successes will come from those communities which encourage and foster relationships between children in the late elementary and early middle school years – well before Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Those relationships will keep them coming back once the Service is over.
Proudly, this retreat is accomplishing just that. Kids of different grades were giggling with each other over s’mores, and hugging each other goodnight at bedtime. And the teen Madrichim were having a blast in the hang out/meeting space (complete with more junk food than I have seen since I was in college finals week).
Though we still have a night left before the retreat ends, we extend a huge thank you to Rabbi Julia Weisz (and her husband David who played multiple roles over the weekend), Patti Jo Wolfson who co-created the retreat, congregant Nurse Caryl Kaplan and our faculty.
By the way, there were NO kids who were homesick when I left the retreat. Everyone was having fun.