“Radical Amazement”: Jewish Camp Through an Artist’s Eyes
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Being at Camp Ramah Wisconsin – where the arts are seen and heard throughout the community at every turn – was that kind of “radically amazing.” At camp, there is not a single place where you will not find art. From the art on the walls to the paths to everywhere you turn, the camp’s art reflects a place infused with love of Judaism and community.
Thanks to the Innovation Fund for Jewish Impact at Camp grant from Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Avi Chai Foundation, I was fortunate to get to visit Camp Ramah last summer as a visiting artist. I arrived with boxes full of ink, paper, and other tools for printmaking and spent two amazing days with the incredible and creative staff in Amanut (Arts and Crafts). The building is packed to the rafters with all kinds materials that allow campers explore and to develop their skills as young artists. Looking through the supply closet felt like being an archaeologist, finding evidence of all the amazing artwork that has been created here over the years. As an artist, it was amazing to see that everything a child could want in order to bring an artistic vision into being was within reach.
As I sat at a table preparing to teach a session on printmaking, some campers walked in to check on their fused glass creations and polymer clay figures with Abby Maier, the energetic, creative head of the Arts Department at Camp. Abby knows everyone’s name and knows everyone’s artwork.
In our workshops, campers and staff had an opportunity to explore art as a special way of looking with intention. Looking reflectively at camp, the artists identified places, things, people and times that they felt were somehow special or meaningful. Campers thought about their favorite symbols of camp and drew them onto foam sheets. After cutting out their images, the campers chose colors and pressed their images onto paper. The printmaking process let the campers make multiple prints of their images, experimenting with different colors and methods for composing their images. I reflected on how this process is much like Jewish camp itself: the same environment offers so many rich variations in “color” and experience to each camper – and even to the same camper from summer to summer.
Once we we created the artwork, our tables were transformed into gallery walls. The campers collaboratively built a visual narrative that told the story of their unique moment and place. Their art was colorful, vibrant and full of meaning. Together, they learned how approaching the world with the eyes of an artist fosters a sense of awe and reverence for the world, and supports the habit of actively seeking wonder in our surroundings. In this way, the artistic practice actually becomes something akin to prayer.
Rabbi Heschel also gave the advice that we should each build our life as though it were a work of art. At Ramah, they know that lives are not simply lived, but built with intentionality – just like any great work of art. Creating art in a Jewish environment like camp sanctifies both the act of creation and Jewish practice, and it was truly a pleasure to be able to help the campers develop their own sense of “radical amazement” at their surroundings. It is my hope that – even if they don’t go on to create more art in the future – the sense of wonder and appreciation they felt when looking at the world through an artist’s eyes will remain.
As a camper, Daniel Abramson was always the kid who walked into the dining hall covered in paint or clay. As a staff member at camp, Daniel learned how the arts can be used as a vehicle for teaching meaningful lessons and for exploring identity through thoughtful self-expression. Daniel has been a teacher, program director and youth advisor at many progressive Jewish institutions including the Leo Baeck Day School, Toronto Heschel School, Temple Sinai, Holy Blossom Temple, Hillel and URJ Camp George. During the year, Daniel is busy helping students and teachers explore Social Justice initiatives through their classroom learning.