I had the privilege of spending much of this week up at Camp Ramah Darom with our Middle School on its annual retreat. What an experience. I certainly know my middle schoolers better than I did before the trip – and I may know a few of them better than I ever wanted to! I cannot think of a more powerful and important experience to offer our teens than an opportunity to break out of the walls of the school to spend time together creating community, forging relationships, pushing comfort zones, and interacting with each other in ways we never could in school.
Is it worth giving up almost a week of school? Without question. The momentum and memories will infuse the quality of learning to exponential levels. The ability to work more closely together and with greater trust will only enhance our ability to achieve.
Is it worth the personal and institutional expense? I hesitate to speak for other people’s pocketbooks, but from the school’s standpoint: Yes. Each dollar was well spent. Any family who needed help received it and the energy that goes into raising those funds comes back to us tenfold. Traveling as far as we do is necessary not just to provide the activities. It is precisely the being-so-far-from-home-ness of the experience that lends it some of its power.
Risking sounding overly hyperbolic, this experience changes evermore the energy of a group. Watching some of our exuberant eighth graders (literally) embrace some our shyer sixth graders simply would not happen if not for the retreat. It validates the time and energy dedicated to inculcating Jewish values when you see it come to life before your very eyes. Those moments stick. They live on in the classrooms and the cafeteria. Yes, sometimes intimacy breeds contempt, but sometimes it breeds even-deeper intimacy and this was certainly the case for us.
We prayed together out in God’s grandeur. We studying and explored Jewish values through creative, informal educational programs. We sang around the campfire. We engaged in ropes courses and other team-building activities. We shared meals and cabins. And yes, we went down the river and took a collective leap of faith as our boats went over the waterfall – there can be no more power symbol of our faith in each other than sharing those exhilarating 45 seconds together.
We trusted in each other and safely navigated our boats over the waterfall, through the rough currents and into calm waters. So it was in Georgia. So it shall be back at school.
We shall use this experience to catapult our year forward. I, for one, will use this experience to better reach my students because now I know them much better. The other teachers who were there feel the same way.
I am already thinking about next year’s retreat and how amazing it will be. Fifth Graders beware, the waterfall awaits…but your middle school friends and teachers will be there with you ready to take that leap of faith together. Hold on to your paddles!