Jewish Sleepaway Summer Camp is known for many things. Drama (of course), experiences and spirituality, just to name a few. The Northern Californian camp I go to is centered around the idea of a kehila kedosha, or a holy community.
We, a regrettably large amount of the time, fall short of this ideal. The girls in my age group can gossip, be cruel, say cruel things and demean one another in front of boys. We are not always a community. Sometimes, we are just cliques. The groups within our community know bounds, and we rarely cross them.
My camp has a tradition called masa — journey. This year, we went on a day-long camping trip into the Redwoods where we all pitched tents or slept beneath the stars. We did a lot of enjoyable activities, yes, but we also did one especially heartfelt one that I found myself loving.
We were split evenly into two groups (1 and 2, for the sake of this explanation). Group 1 sat down, spread out across the entire site, with their eyes closed. Group 2 matched up with someone from Group 1 and sat down silently across from them. This became a pair. The facilitator asked a question to the whole group and the representative of Group 1 (Person A) quietly answered it to the representative from Group 2 (Person B). Person A talked for a couple of minutes (or, in some cases, was silent), all while not knowing who the person they were talking to was. Person B was completely silent the whole time, only tapping the group or a palm to say I’m still here. Then, the facilitator called for a switch, Person B left, and the cycle began anew with a different person. Later, Group 1 and 2 switched so Person B talked and Person A listened.
The questions asked were deep. They weren’t silly things. They were deep things that were sometimes hard to say, hard to admit. And no one, in the lengthy time in the session afterwards, said a word about what anyone had said. It was quite possibly the only unspilled secret of the entire two weeks. How crazy is it that over forty 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds actually managed to keep a secret?
Nothing too out of the ordinary happened from confessing your secrets to an unknown person, but the activity had one very noteworthy result. The formerly addressed bounds between friend groups did not disappear all of a sudden, by any means. But we all got an important reminder that broke through those bounds.
We’re all human. We all laugh, we all struggle, we all cry, we all smile. We are human. It was dastardly and stupid of us to forget that, but we did.
I forgot it at school, too. We dehumanize people we don’t like in order to justify our words and our actions. We take away the possibility that they’re struggling too in order to validate our cruelty and our assumptions. The people we didn’t interact with ceased being people, simply stories and gossip other people spread about them.
I am not going to sit here and say that I am innocent on the gossiping front. I am not. Gossiping can be healthy and fun, but it isn’t healthy nor fun to make gossip your entire opinion on someone.
This may seem obvious as words on a page, but I would wonder just how obvious it is the next time your good friend is telling you a story about someone you’ve never met before in which they are the perfect hero and the stranger is the unfeeling, cruel villain.
The lesson to be learned here is that you can never truly judge a person until you judge all of them. Allow, in their bad, for some good. Allow, despite a botched first impression, for a good one.
That’s how we can become a holy community: Judging less, loving more. Remind yourself, on occasion, that there’s a real, living, breathing, hurting and loving person opposite your loaded gun.