Rabbi Adam M. Allenberg, MAJE (LA ‘05, ‘07)
This summer, while gleefully visiting and learning from eleven Jewish summer camps in five different states, I confirmed a sneaking suspicion about a new habit at the tables in our collective chadrei ochel, dining halls. I was a little surprised to find many camps playing popular music, usually, though not always, age appropriate, throughout the duration of the meal, and often at a significant volume. It is possible that this custom has always been there and, because of the volume of camps with whom I’ve now had the privilege to break bread, I have finally seen this mealtime soundtrack in full force.
How did it come to be that the comfort of a hot grilled cheese and tomato soup requires being served with the hottest dance track of the summer?
Rich traditions at mealtime abound at camps and so it is no wonder how the generous addition of new traditions can lead to a very busy meal agenda. In most camps, the chadar ochel remains the centerpiece for communicating the day’s news, celebrating, commemorating and building camp culture. However, this new custom bespeaks a much larger sickness in American life that our camps did not create and could never be solely responsible for solving.
American food culture treats us like machines who only require fuel and have no need for quiet conversation while enjoying our food. We dine in the car. At our desks. In line while boarding public transportation. The truth found in the adage, “you are what you eat” is also true of how we eat. Pirkei Avot reports that Rabbi Shimon taught, “...[I]f three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God….” In the context of our camps, let us understand “Torah” as “conversations of meaning.”
The presence of a constant soundtrack, and more directly the constant shtick that sometimes accompanies these playlists, can devalue the shared downtime that people spend with each other. It robs campers of opportunities to process their day, check in on the progress of their latest schemes, talk about news around camp. It steals away precious moments for counselors who, in caring for a dozen or more children at any given time, need all the data possible at his or her disposal to be responsive to each child’s needs.
As a former camper, counselor, unit head, songleader and all around, camp-loving-person, let me suggest it is time we staked a claim on the sacredness of eating meals with your bunk, your unit, or your “Shabbat family”. Let us do what we can to make sure that the words exchanged between campers and staff during meals has the chance to be as nourishing as the food that brought them together. Let our camps eat, bless and be satisfied by all that they share together.