Invite 6th and 7th graders to get real about God and spirituality, and the depth of their questions and their unceasing quest for understanding will astound you! In a world increasingly populated by people designated by the Pew study as JNR (Jewish No Religion), these KAQ (Kids Asking Questions) kept peppering us with profound questions about Judaism, belief, agnosticism and peoplehood.
I just returned from the URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA where my wife Michelle and I were heading up a delegation of forty Reform Jews fromCongregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA). In between leading services, planning programs, and schmoozing with fascinating young people, I served as faculty member for Shomrim, the sixth and seventh grade eidah (unit).
The camp leadership challenged the rabbinic and education faculty to create prayer services which were musical, creative and deeply relevant. So we took up the challenge during the first tefillah. Reflecting upon the v’ahavta prayer, which instructs us v’shinantam livanecha (parents should teach Jewish tradition to their children), we challenged our campers to become their own guides of their own Jewish spiritual quest. We asked, “At the end of your four week session at camp, we questions about Judaism, God and spirituality would you like to have explored?”
Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was like this was the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish or worse. They said,
- If I’m not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?
- If I don’t believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?
- The Romans had so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?
- My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?
- Can I be spiritual but not religious?
These 6th and 7th graders shared a unquenched thirst for real Jewish conversations. We promised each other to continue to ask even the hardest questions and urged the campers to push – unceasingly here at camp and then at home – for answers that make sense.
The next two weeks were full of spiritual searching to begin to address the questions:
A mindfulness meditation service to find eternality in the present moment – spirituality without fixed prayers.
An engaging conversation about why the Avot v’Imahot prayer – about the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel and God of Leah – mentions “God of” so many times. Because each of our ancestors had different relationships with God than the others did. And because while there is but one God, there are infinite ways of connecting with God.
A God-shopping program that introduced campers to 8+ unique Jewish God-concepts.
A scavenger hunt around camp to connect texts on Jewish spirituality with multiple religious and non-religious locations, thus experiencing the holiness inherent in … everywhere.
A yoga service during which we embodied the themes of the prayers.
A discussion before Shema about why Jews say there is one God when the Romans and others posit many gods.
My two weeks at camp ended too early. We were just scratching the surface of possible answers to their many questions. Campers’ evaluations at the end of this period evidenced that the campers were engaged and intrigued.
That’s the beauty of Camp Newman: that as our young people are clearly thirsting for real God-talk, camp opens up opportunities to wrestle with deeply profound questions about the existence and nature of the Holy One. That’s why they keep coming back for more. And their enthusiasm and thirst keeps me coming back too!
For ideas on how to engage your own kids as spiritual searchers, check out our new book, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).