People are often surprised when I tell them that I never went to Jewish camp as a child. As a student at an Orthodox Day School and growing up in an observant family, my parents wanted me to get other experiences during the summers, and so I spent four summers in Boy Scout camp. For me, Boy Scout camp was a chance to do what I loved doing mostâ€”being in the outdoors and exploring nature. We use to spend most of our day at camp working on different Merit badges. A required one for all scouts was the Environmental science badge. The only requirement I remember from this badge was that I was required to go into the woods and sit alone for few hours. The goal was to be at one with nature, observing the sounds, feels and smells of nature. I have a distinct memory of walking away from my camp site one dayâ€”only a few hundred meters- and sitting there for the afternoon, listening smelling and observing. Nature came alive in a way I had not fully appreciated. I came alive in a way I had never experienced.
Throughout my years of working as a Guide at Ramah in Canada, I often asked participants to do this same exercise each morning for 15 -30 minutes. But rather than simply sit and listen, I asked them to actually pray. They could use words from a siddur or the words in their heart. The goal was to allow each person to experience personal prayer in a whole new way. I cannot count the number of high school campers who told me that these moments of prayer were often the highlight of the entire week long trip.
Yesterday, I had a conversation with a potential staff member of Ramah Outdoors that gave me an idea of how to incorporate an even greater opportunity for solitude into our camp program. There is no doubt that the main selling point for our Ramah camp is that we build intense community at base camp and on adventure trips. Ramah friends are lifelong friends. The Ramah community gives every member a lifetime membership. Yet at the same time, within this intense community there needs to be time for solitude.
The potential staff member was telling me about an experience she had with another camp that featured a solo day. For nine days, the group hiked together, camped together and ate together. Yet for one 24 hour period, they sat in the woods, alone: Listening. Smelling. Observing. She explained that even though she and all the other participants were alone, they were always in yelling distance of someone else and should an emergency arise, they knew that they could yell for help. Yet no one ever did. She also explained that the trip leaders, took precautions to check on the welfare of each person throughout the day, though she never actually saw them doing so. Instead, they had a system of signs that they used to communicate. For example, each participant had a â€œmailboxâ€ made of twigs or rocks about 200 meters from where they were sitting. During the day, they would check the mailbox and find a sign from the guide. It might be a canister of water, or a nice rock. They had to take the sign as an indication that they were OK. This potential staff member said that this was a truly awesome experience. Spending a full day in solitude with only a tarp, some food and water, was an experience she will never forget.
Listening to her made me realize that I had never had an opportunity to be in this sort of situation, nor had I ever lead others in such an experience. I could not but help to think about how amazing it would be if we made a day of solitude a signature part of our extended trips. Clearly the biggest hurdle would be arranging a group so that they are comfortably distant from each other yet close enough to one another should an emergency arise. As we continue to develop the program, this will be another area that I will be exploring. I can only imagine that if high school students tell me that the highlight of their experience on the trips I have lead is the 15-30 minutes of solitude in the morning, how much more they will appreciate an entire day of contemplation–alone in the outdoors!