Thoughts from a Youth Movement Outsider
By Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet
There have been many aspects of my Jewish life where I’ve felt an ‘outsider’. Having grown up outside the confines of the organised Jewish community, I consider it a badge of honour to be a rabbi who understands what it’s like not to be able to read Hebrew or not to know what page we’re on during services. Yet, perhaps the most profound lack resulting from not having a Jewish education as a child has been my complete exclusion from (and often, confusion about) Jewish youth movements and camps.
So many of my classmates, now colleagues, based their Jewish life on experiences they had at camp. They would, almost to a wo/man, identify camp as the thing that sparked their love of Judaism. Having not had that experience, I was always a bit sceptical of it. At college, when we had to do a rotation with a youth movement, I worked as a youth director in a synagogue rather than spend a summer at camp or on Israel Tour.
However, I’m happy to say I have had the opportunity to see the other side of that equation. The lateness of this message is due to the fact that I’m currently aboard a train home from Northumbria where I’ve spent this past week teaching and learning and sharing in Noam pre-camp – the training camp for Noam leaders.
It’s hard to praise Noam without using clichés, so instead, I’ll give a few examples from the past days:
- Today I spent an hour teaching a group about how Jewish mystics have used bizarre numerology and Torah verses to (fairly) correctly assess the age of the universe. I had a discussion with the madrichim which aptly demonstrated the seriousness with which these young people approach Jewish learning and the depth of their thinking. After we wrapped up, I overheard one of the students excitedly telling a friend about the new thing she had learned. There’s no greater compliment than hearing that which you’ve taught re-taught!
- Yesterday, after a morning Shacharit service where the madrichim were encouraged to try leading prayer even if they’ve never done so before, two young women who had been leading left, looking clearly disappointed that they hadn’t sounded as good as they hoped. Without being asked, and against the packed schedule of the day, another student saw this, pulled them aside, and they spent most of the time devoted to breakfast sitting instead on a field, siddurim open in front of them, practicing their singing of the Kaddish.
- Lastly, more than once, one of the young people pulled me aside over a meal time or a free time (the quantity of which was precious) in order to ask the ‘big questions’ about philosophy and Judaism, religion and science. How can we believe in God? How can Masorti Judaism justify the changes it makes to Halachah? As a rabbi, I was floored that even one person sought out such a conversation – much less, several!
I leave camp deeply impressed with the quality (and quantity) of our young Jewish leaders. Noam manages to ensure serious and intense Jewish learning while creating innumerable options for personal development, as leaders, as Jews, and as humans.
I know that when Noam camp starts next week, these amazing madrichim will give their young charges an experience that deepens their Jewish life and provides an incomparably liberating space for them to grow and develop into the leaders of tomorrow.
Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue