Recovering Hak’hel: The Lost Art of Youth Engagement
by Joseph Reimer
Many of us are looking forward to gathering this Sukkot with family and friends in the make-shift sukkah that reminds us that, even with our good fortune, we dwell precariously in the presence of the Divine.
A less well-known gathering on Sukkot is called “Hak’hel.” As described in last week’s Torah portion, every seventh year during Sukkot all of Israel is to gather -presumably around the Temple- to hear the reading of the Torah. “Gather the people-men, women, children and the strangers in your communities- that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching” (Deuteronomy 31: 12). What is striking about Hak’hel is its inclusive nature. The Torah is clear about who has to be involved: all the adults and all the children. Rarely in Torah are the children explicitly included in such public events; perhaps Moses our teacher long ago figured out how to make Hak’hel work so that even the youngest children present could feel addressed and engaged by this particular public performance of Torah. If only we knew the secrets of his powers of engagement.
I am thinking of Hak’hel this Sukkot because it happened every seventh year and this is that moment. I am also thinking about Jewish communal leaders who in our times have creatively engaged varied others in Jewish experiences and ceremonies. I recently completed Making Shabbat, a book (published by Brandeis University Press) about celebrating Shabbat at Jewish summer camps. I realize that the founders of intentional Jewish camps had to rediscover in the early decades of the 20th century the lost art of Hak’hel. They had to refashion the celebration of Shabbat to make it work for the children who would attend their camps. They seriously confronted the question of “What does it mean to celebrate Shabbat when the primary celebrants are children?” There were few precedents for the design work they undertook, but after several years of experimentation, the founders came up with a design for Shabbat at camp that both honored the Sabbath traditions and spoke to the campers and staff. That design is still with us in the ways that contemporary Jewish camps celebrate Shabbat.
What my ethnographic research at three veteran Jewish camps reveals is that Shabbat at camp is not simply a joyous festival that campers enjoy but also a carefully designed learning environment that helps campers over time to become increasingly involved in learning and leading the Shabbat rituals. At these camps I was able to describe a three-step learning process that accounts for how staff work closely with campers to help move them along a growth path from being newcomers to becoming insiders to ascending to lead significant parts of the Shabbat ritual. Here are the three steps.
Step one: Guided Participation
When children first arrive at camp, they are not yet campers. They become campers by learning to participate in the activities that camps sponsor. One such set of activities is celebrating Shabbat. Much of Shabbat is new to them. What allows new campers to cross over the threshold and enter into Shabbat is how the staff and older campers guide their participation. Newcomers are not left alone to discover the way. At each step there is a welcoming presence to support newcomers as they take their first steps. Newcomers can also see that their older peers are fully engaged. That is highly motivating for taking the leap into the unfamiliar
Step two: Skill-building
After their initial time at camp, campers begin to realize there are diverse skills they can develop to enhance their participation in celebrating Shabbat. There are songs to sing, hand motions to acquire, dance steps to learn, Hebrew phrases to master, and a choreography to follow in each service and ritual. Camps allow campers a wide berth in building these skills. There is much staff support for actively developing skills, but also many opportunities to learn by observing and participating. Camps allow campers to choose their pace and route to skill-building while also encouraging and rewarding those campers who lead the way. Camp is a place where it is still cool to be Jewishly engaged.
Step three: Learning to Lead
While in many Jewish communities, teens are scarce after their bnei-mitzvah, these camps have turned to their teen campers to lead significant aspects of the Shabbat ritual. As campers mature, opportunities to lead increase with the prized roles saved for the oldest campers. Asking teens to lead has its hazards as they can be wild and undisciplined. But what amazed me is how eager these adolescents are to lead and set an example for younger campers. Camp leaders realize that teen enthusiasm is contagious, and if staff can support and guide youth leadership, the example set for the younger campers is highly motivating.
What the research reveals is that these camps have an implicit informal curriculum for how to move campers from being newcomers to entering the circle of Shabbat where they can over the next years build their skill base while awaiting their opportunity to lead the camp in celebrating Shabbat. This curriculum is kept hidden so no one will confuse camp with school. But while hidden, the curriculum works efficiently to prepare campers to engage with Shabbat and become more adept at its celebration.
Every seventh year we are reminded to create an inclusive and engaging learning experience for the entire community. We can look to how our summer camps celebrate Shabbat for inspiration on recovering the lost art of Hak’hel. Imagine what it would mean if we could move all the people from guided participation to skill-building and then to learning to lead. Were Jewish spaces redesigned to truly invite that full participation, perhaps in the next seven years we could create a post-Covid version of Hak’hel.
Joseph Reimer has recently retired from 36 years as a professor of Jewish education at Brandeis University. Making Shabbat, his third book, is published by Brandeis University Press.