We’ve become a world of feeble and fragile infants.
In today’s Tablet Magazine, Marjorie Ingalls wrote a facepalm-inducing article entitled “How Summer Camps Should—and Shouldn’t—Observe Tisha B’Av”. In it, she writes:
DO YOU RUN A CAMP? DO NOT DO THESE THINGS!
Former Camper #1: The worst thing was having kids build a model Temple, only to have the counselors burn it. Or to burn letters that kids wrote about their hopes and aspirations. This was a program taken straight out of PTSD for Idiots.
It brought me back to my first summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. It was 1975, I was 12, and I’d never even heard of Tisha B’Av. I was Conservative, you see, and since Tisha B’Av wasn’t during the school year, it didn’t exist for me.
For the entire week leading up to Tisha B’Av, we had arts and crafts virtually every day. We were all given a piece of construction paper, and told to decorate it with everything we felt about Israel, Judaism, and Jerusalem. If you’ve never been to an 8 week summer camp, you may not know this, but a week up there is like a month or more in the real world. It was a long time.
Erev Tisha B’Av, we had seudah ha-mafseket, the final meal before the fast, which, like every meal other than Shabbat for the past nine days, had been dairy. After we said birkat ha-mazon, instead of getting up to leave, we sat at our tables, by cabin, and the counselors passed out song sheets. The songs we sang were ones with dirge-like melodies. Al Neharot Bavel. Eili, Eili. Avinu Malkenu. It created a somber mood.
After a while of this, when it had gotten dark out, they started leading us out of the cafeteria, one cabin at a time. As we exited, we saw another world. They had set up a path of fire for us to follow. Bags of sand with candles in them lined the sides of a pathway that led to the auditorium. Additional lights spelled out Zachor—”remember”—on the grass of the commons.
We walked slowly down the path, and when we got to the auditorium, we filed in silently and sat on the cement floor. We continued singing those same songs as we sat, waiting for the remaining cabins to arrive. When we were all there, a spotlight came on, lighting one person, sitting crosslegged on the cement. And he started reading Eicha, the book of Lamentations.
After the five chapters of Eicha had been read, each by another spot-illuminated reader, the younger campers were taken out while the older campers continued reading kinot, or additional lamentations. We were taken out to one of the sports fields, and when we got there, a flood light was turned on, lighting up something beautiful. It was all of our artwork about Israel, about Judaism, about Jerusalem. All combined in a gorgeous tapestry, held up by poles on either side.
And then they torched it.
I’ve been on the walk around the Old City of Jerusalem the evening of Tisha B’Av many times. It’s an intense experience. But nowhere near as intense as that summer up at camp. Nowhere near as meaningful. Nowhere near as inspirational. I’m not sure I can think of another experience I’ve had in life that equals it.
I’m not a very spiritual person. I’ve never felt drawn to God or religion. I’m Orthodox primarily because what I learned in college convinced me that it was true. But the pilot light of the flame that kindled inside me while at college was lit that night in 1975.
Once, while on staff at the same camp, I watched a 13 year old girl sob her heart out as she read the English translation of Eicha in the booklets that had been handed out. For some people, grasping the enormity of the destruction we suffered came more easily than it had for me. But I don’t think there was a single person there that night in 1975 who has forgotten it. Not out of some sort of PTSD, though we, as a nation, do—and should—suffer from that, but because of the sheer impact of the message that we received.
How do you teach a bunch of spoiled suburban kids what it means to truly suffer loss? Read them stories? Show them films? Have them watch candles floating on a lake? No, understanding loss requires experiencing loss. And I will always be grateful to whoever the staff members were who thought of and implemented that evening’s events.
Which brings me back to Ingalls’ article. We live in a world where children aren’t allowed to make their own mistakes and live with them. Where adults aren’t, either. Between nanny states and the victimism of trigger warnings to prevent people from experiencing anything that isn’t 100% comfortable, we have become a culture of glass, only able to experience outrage at those who disturb our comfort with their own outrage at true injustices and tragedies.
We wonder why our children leave Judaism. The answer is that children have a keen sense of justice and injustice. And an even keener sense of BS. It’s while they are children that we need to inspire them. Not with pale stories and weak films, which will bore them, but with vivid experiences that will allow them to feel our history and our purpose. Anything less is a disservice to them, and loses us their hearts.