Tefillah Jam Session: January 2019

Posted by on 01/04/2019

January, 2019

A Note from Rabbi Joel Seltzer, Executive Director

I was hopelessly out of place. The prayer leader stood in the center of the black-box room and requested that we stand. He asked us to practice involving our bodies in the act of prayer, by first squatting, arms aimed low, and then by quickly raising our arms and our bodies to the sky as we proclaimed for all to hear: “Praise Yah!”

I imagine in that moment, shacharit (the morning services) at the Songleader Bootcamp Conference in St. Louis, Missouri in February of 2016 there must have been a neon sign above my head screaming: “This guy went to JTS, and he’s not entirely sure if he’s allowed to ‘Praise Yah.’”

The truth is, that I was uncomfortable. This was not my home base. Yet it was meant to show me that my own prayer often under-utilizes two important aspects of the classic religious/spiritual experience: body and breath. By using my legs, my arms, and my lungs as part of the prayer experience, I was engaging the body in the ritual, even if my own, staid theology struggled to catch up.

And the other important truth stretching from this awkward moment in time, is that you can draw a direct line from it to one of the most meaningful prayer experiences of last summer (and indeed my life.)

It was Tuesday, July 10th of this past summer and (for once) the sun was shining on the faces of over forty chanichim (campers) and tzevet (staff) as we began our shacharit prayers that morning. Tuesday mornings are our ‘Tefillective Tuesdays’ and this group was about to participate in our regular Tefillah Jam Session. For two years, along with our music and educational staff, I have helped to lead a Songleader-Bootcamp-inspired Tefillah Jam Session for our oldest campers, and for two years our campers have struggled to allow themselves to fully emote during such a prayer experience. Sure, they’re great a singing with ruach (spirit), we have that down, but being a bit vulnerable, opening ourselves up to spirituality – sometimes that comes at a higher premium.

But this Tuesday felt demonstrably different than the other sessions I have helped to run over these past two summers; this Tuesday, we had a celebrity in our midst: Josh Warshawsky.

Josh, a proud product of Ramah Wisconsin and a rabbinical student in his final year at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, was spending a week at Camp Ramah in the Poconos (his second favorite camp) as our artist-in-residence working with singer-songwriters and bringing his brand of musical tefillot to all of our campers – including, of course, Tefillah Jam Session.

I had met Josh years ago at Ramah Wisconsin, and then again, at Songleader Bootcamp, where I unashamedly bootlegged a recording of his Lecha Dodi and absconded with it to the Poconos. I am also thrilled that so many of our congregations and communities have seen, or will have a chance to see Josh in action this year, including recent or upcoming visits to Adath Israel, Beth Hillel Beth El, Beth Am Israel, BZBI, Chizuk Amuno, Temple Beth Shalom, and Kellman Brown Academy to name a few! (And right now, right now he’s with 26 of our staff members at the Weinstein Training Conference at Ramah Ojai!)

Because of Josh’s dynamic presence, and yes, also due to our intentional investment in the culture of musical spirituality at Camp Ramah, our campers opened up like flower petals in that morning sun. We sang the alphabetical words of El Barukh, we focused our energies on the music and meaning of the Shema, and we rose in humility for the Bar’khu. It certainly didn’t feel, look, or sound like Bubby and Zaide’s shul, but neither did it still feel foreign and distant from our camp culture. It felt like movement. It felt like growth; like we are trying to find ways of involving both the body and the breath into the camp experience.

At breakfast that morning, I found Josh and whispered in his ear: “I know it’s hard to believe – but we changed lives this morning.” We had.