Last month, thousands of Jewish children around the country packed their bags and headed off to Jewish overnight camp for the summer. There is no doubt that these children are playing, laughing and learning a lot not just about Judaism, but about life in general. What amazes me, though, each summer, is how much we as staff have to learn from them.
The first summer that I worked in omanut (art) at Camp Ramah Darom, I learned more from my campers in four weeks than I had learned in five years of rabbinical school. Confident in my ability to teach Torah but less sure of my skills as an art teacher, I wanted to infuse my artwork with Jewish meaning and share my enthusiasm for both scholarly and creative pursuits. My transition from day school teacher to “ceramics rabbi” might have gone unnoticed–might not have even happened–if a small group of rising tenth graders had not listened carefully to my every word.
I began taking art classes when I was in my 30s and never expected pottery to be more than a hobby. I soon realized, however, that my time in the studio was sacred; sitting at the wheel, I was contemplative and open to discovery. Being in the studio was not so different from being in the synagogue or day school classroom. Just as wisdom emerges from the study of Torah, important lessons can be learned from the clay:
- Don’t rush
- Be firm, but gentle
- Recover from mistakes with grace
If I could apply what I learned in the studio to other aspects of daily life, I would be centered like the clay spinning on the wheel.
That first summer, I taught my campers the basics of hand-building and throwing–helping them acquire skills and encouraging them to continue taking art classes during the school year–and I shared the rules of working with clay as “life lessons.” There were some I repeated so often that the campers began to refer to these lessons as “claymandments.”
One morning, during our last week together, I arrived at the ceramics rooms in omanut (art) to find my campers sitting around the glazing table. One girl sat in front of a poster board while another sorted through a bin of Sharpies. A third read from a page of notebook paper and the others nodded in agreement. Their gift to me and future campers hangs above the counter above buckets of wedged clay:
Every summer, as I unpack the boxes of tools and glazes during Staff Week, I stop to reread this poster and remember that first summer that I served as “ceramics rabbi.” I am filled with gratitude for the lessons I learn each summer from the clay and from my campers.
Rabbi Pamela Jay Gottfried teaches Torah and Ceramics at Camp Ramah Darom, and is also the Director of the Jewish Women’s Retreat at Ramah Darom (October 20-22, 2013). The rest of the year, she serves as a rabbi/artist in residence at synagogues around the country and teaches lifelong learners at the JCC in Atlanta. Learn more at www.pamelagottfried.com.