A Black Box

Rachel Dobbs Schwartz1.26.18

A Black Box. No windows. No light. Inside, it is hollow…or is it?

It sounds cold, closed, uninviting…like a jail cell, or worse. It could be scary, lonely, and grim.

Who would think to find freedom in such an environment?

But….it feels different. It is insulating, secure, and only limiting to those who are bound by what they can see with their eyes.  It is not a place for condemnation or judgment. It is a place of quiet, with no distractions. A place to find yourself, a place to nourish your soul, a place for an idea or thought to linger and develop…a place that can see as little of you, as you can see of it.

Image from Songleader Boot Camp 2016

In February of 2017, I attended Songleader Boot Camp(SLBC) in St. Louis for the second time. This conference is unlike any I have attended before. Imagine 300 talented musicians, singers, and entertainers from across the country sharing, teaching each other, and learning how to create spiritual moments for themselves and their communities at home, through music.

This was my second time to Songleader Boot Camp and I came prepared to take it all in with questions, music, and plans, for the future. What I wasn’t prepared for, were the personal spiritual highs, the musical enhancements to my moments of connection, and the incredible feeling of warmth and community that filled my world with harmony, if only for a few days. I also didn’t expect to see Rabbi Abe Friedman, a friend from middle school, who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Reconnecting in this kind of environment was special, and was made more so by the fact that Abe is an incredible Rabbi.

I mentioned to him that I had not ever laid Tefilin before and that it was something I was thinking of trying. He asked me, “Why now?” I thought: Why did I ever think I shouldn’t try? Was it the lingering idea that putting on tefillin is something that only men do? In today’s society; in today’s Conservative Jewish doctrine, it has been decided that the mitzvot traditionally practiced by men apply to women as well, and hold the same value, meaning, and holiness for all. Why was I stuck in the past in this one area of my life?

This was a moment for me. To all who grew up in a time when egalitarianism was just becoming the norm when very few synagogues mentioned the Imahot, when a female Rabbi was extremely rare, you may empathize with me.  If this is unfamiliar to you, please know it was not so long ago that this shift occurred in the Conservative Movement.

Ironically, this conversation and revelation occurred in a room in the St. Louis JCC called the ‘Black Box Theater’.

A Black Box Theater is a performance space that looks like, well, a Black Box. There are no windows. It is insulated and acoustically perfect. There is seating on all four walls, surrounding a square performance space in the center.

Songleader Boot Camp uses this space for tefilah (prayer) each morning.  There are musicians, educators, and storytellers ready to share their talents and help create moments of connection and community. The room is packed, with standing room only, each morning.  The music is intoxicating, harmonious, and soulful.  One of the things I notice about this particular service, and this particular gathering of people, is that it truly is free from judgment, and you can feel it. People stand, raise their arms, sing, dance, and move as if no one else is in the room. Everyone feels as if they are in their own Black Box.

Abe jumped up from his seat in the middle of the service. He slipped through the crowd of people to the other side of the theater. Moments later, he came back with a set of Tefilin.  Slowly and methodically, he began to explain what to do, what to say, and when.

Liberty. Freedom from restrictions, whether they are self-imposed or put upon us, feels like flying.

Irony.  There I was inside an insulated Black Box, physically binding the laws and ideals of Judaism to my body…and I felt freedom.

Judaism is funny.  At one moment, you are both confined and free, closed and open, in, and out.  The Sukkah – just insulated enough to create a community, but open enough to see the stars.  The Havdallah candle – lit for just long enough to see the light shine on your hands and fingernails, and then quickly snuffed out. Though keeping Shabbat poses what many would call restrictions (no using of lights, tv, etc.), the purpose of Shabbat is to give us the freedom from the meetings, school work, phone calls, and emails that eat up our time during the week, and the freedom to spend time with our family and friends –  to sleep and dream, to nourish oneself.

“Our religion and heritage constantly reminds us that we are ever changing, and that we cannot take anything for granted, even our own ideas and beliefs. And that even when it appears that we are closed in, and that there is no escape, we truly are free to make our own choices.”

I would never have had this experience at SLBC, had I not come to work for Ramah Darom. In fact, I can think of so many important things that I would not know or would not have experienced was it not for Camp.

Since that moment, I have thought a lot about what led me to this experience, and why our Camp is different, special, unique.  Why is the Ramah alumni base more involved in the Jewish community than any other across the country? Why is it that over 90% of Ramah alumni are members of a synagogue?  There are lots of overnight camps. They all have archery, sports, color war (Yom Sport), and campfires. Why are we any different than the others?

It is Camp that has led me to understand that our Jewish Journey is about discovering ourselves within the confines of a secure and nurturing community. It is Camp that has given me the confidence to be myself and to be constantly seeking knowledge and experience. I started playing the drums at camp. I never considered it before – wasn’t an attractive instrument – bulky and difficult.  I was 16. It was “too late” to start playing a new instrument. But it was the freedom at camp, the secure freedom of the “black box” that is camp, that gave me the will to try, fail, and try again.  I have been playing the drums for 20 years now, and it brings me more personal joy and gratification than almost anything else in the world. The drums do not define who I am, but they have enriched my life in an enormous way.

Rachel drumming at the 2016 Songleader Boot Camp

“It is Camp that has led me to understand that our Jewish Journey is about discovering ourselves within the confines of a secure and nurturing community. It is Camp that has given me the confidence to be myself and to be constantly seeking knowledge and experience.”

This is the same with Jewish practice and learning. Our campers have found their own way to connect with being Jewish. They have made their own choice to continue connecting throughout their lives to their history and heritage.  They have also made their own choice to take woodworking, climbing, or yoga for 5, 7, even 9 years in a row. The focus of our camp is on creating an environment where our campers feel comfortable enough, challenged enough, and supported enough, to grow into themselves, and pursue their interests and dreams.

“Camp is not about being Jewish. It is about being you, and having the opportunity to enrich your life through the knowledge, practice, and freedom of Judaism.”

Camp is not about being Jewish. It is about being you and having the opportunity to enrich your life through the knowledge, practice, and freedom of Judaism. As a result, our campers understand and internalize, that Judaism is a path to know oneself, to be a better person, and to live in a way that grants both emotional and physical freedom.

You will often find Rachel drumming on stage at Camp Ramah Darom

Sometimes the restriction of the black box can open us up to unlimited possibilities.

I wish you all a moment of clarity like this on your Jewish journey.
May you find freedom and light in the places where it seems there is not any.
May you have the confidence to know, that you can find the answer, and may you find a place like Ramah Darom to help you along the way.

Learn more about Songleader Boot Camp.