The View from Ramah: Doing Shabbat When You Don’t Have a Lake in Your Backyard

There’s an old joke about a camper who, having experienced each Saturday night the magic of a lakeside havdalah, is saddened that he’ll no longer be able to participate in the ceremony after returning home.  “I’d love to do havdalah with my family each week,” he says wistfully, “too bad we don’t have a lake in our backyard!”

Parents often ask me about the “secret” of prayer at Ramah.  Why are kids so enthusiastic about a camp that requires 50 minutes of daily prayer and more than 2 ½ hours of worship each Shabbat morning?  There must be something special going on – couldn’t we import Ramah’s secret ingredient and utilize it to the benefit of our own synagogue’s worship?

Havdalah and Kabbalat Shabbat at camp are truly inspirational moments.  Some of the magic comes from the beauty of the setting, some from the sound of hundreds of voices joining together in song.   The counselors in charge of daily services, moreover, do strive to spice up weekday davening with fun and creative elements.

But if you really want to know the truth, there is no secret recipe.  Indeed, worship at Ramah is highly regimented in many ways.  Boys over the age of bar mitzvah have to wear tallit and tefillin, and may not remove them until the last note of Adon Olam.  All page announcements are made in Hebrew, while none of the liturgy is recited in English.  There are new melodies, of course, but a good chunk of the liturgical music is familiar to me from my own days as a Ramah camper more than thirty years ago.  Creativity is welcomed, but only to the extent that it does not interfere with the recitation of the structured, traditional liturgy, which remains the backbone of Ramah-style davening seven days a week.

What makes worship at Ramah different is the totality of communal experience.  I have no doubt in my mind that, if campers were given a choice between soccer, basketball, sleeping late, or praying, the vast majority of them wouldn’t choose worship.  Walk around camp during services, however, and the place is a ghost town – the basketball courts are empty, the canoes are beached, the paths are silent.  Every person is at a service because davening at Ramah is not an elective, but rather an expected and integral element of daily life.

Woody Allen once said, “Seventy percent of success in life is just showing up.”  That certainly is part of Ramah’s success.  When an entire group is present for any activity, worship included, it generates a sense of belonging, of bonding, and of community that simply can’t exist when only a handful show up.  Take two identical Shabbat services – fill half the seats at one and pack the house at the other, and you’ll discern a palpably greater sense of connection at the latter.  Davening at Ramah  works, not primarily because each service is deeply inspirational or innovative, but because there is a pervasive sense of belonging.  Ramah reminds us that often the way to connection with God travels by way of connection with community.

This observation was echoed recently by Synagogue 3000, a study of more than 1,200 Reform and Conservative synagogues around the country, which concluded: “Surprisingly (perhaps), among both Reform and Conservative congregations, more innovative, joyful and innovative services (at least, according to the leaders’ perceptions) attract no more worshippers than do the more “routine” sorts of services.  In short, with respect to generating higher attendance at services, the underlying interest of the “consumer” may matter more than the attractiveness of the “product.”

This isn’t to argue against the importance of innovation and creativity – quite to contrary – but it does point to the truth that novelty alone will never pack a shul week after week.  The most powerful reason for going to shul remains a sense of inner obligation, a need to stand up and be counted, a palpable sense of gravitational pull to be a part of the Jewish community.  If you were to ask the campers at Ramah why they come to services,  most would answer it’s because they don’t have a choice.  Yet with that 100% rate of attendance comes a sense of communal affiliation that creates a momentum all its own.  Sensing the value doesn’t emerge from why they walk through the door, but through what they experience once they’re present day after day, week after week.

Our challenge isn’t figuring out how to bring home a lake . . . but rather how to duplicate that sense of going to shul just because it’s Shabbat, knowing that all one’s friends will be there for the very same reason.

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