Relational Judaism in Action

by Rebecca Hirschwerk – Director of Congregational Education

A day or so after we returned from our annual synagogue school trip to the Ashokan Nature Center I received this letter from a parent:

[Our child] came home and was just so happy. She had the best time and wants to go back (right now, all summer, always). She said how much she loves and is proud to be Jewish and really just could not say enough things about the madrichim, the activities, the entire experience….

Aside from sharing this immediately with the adults who helped make the magical weekend happen (not to mention with my husband, my children, my parents, my sister, my hairdresser, my mail carrier, and my high school guidance counselor….) I was touched by how this students’ experience spoke directly to our vision of community at RSNS which is centered on Relational Judaism, a theory described by Dr. Ron Wolfson. Wolfson believes that unless a program gives thought to how the experience will help offer participants a deeper connection to each other, it will be just that-a lovely event with no lasting impact. Ashokan is a perfect example of relationship building at its best. It begins at drop off when Bob and Ellen Schwartz, who so generously provide the bus year after year, hop on board to wish us a warm bon voyage. It continues on the ride where there are no electronics or movies-just connecting. And once we arrive the bonds grow deeper through the sacred work of our teens (madrichim) each of whom is responsible for a small group of kids throughout the weekend. From getting-to-know-you games in the bunks, walks to the dining hall, check-ins at the campfire, and belt-it-out sing-alongs, our kids feel cared for right away-it is a central component to the weekend, and you can see it in the hugs (and sometimes tears) when it’s time to say goodbye back at RSNS. And how to get the teens connecting with each other for hours after the kids have gone to sleep? Four words: Twizllers. Doritos, Skittles, Oreos. But, of course, it is beyond the candy. We create a culture of caring through experiences and one of connection through a celebration of Jewish life. It is a joy to nurture these relationships and see their impact back at RSNS. As Woflons states, “When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”

The photo is from another recent RSNS experience that also embodies the spirit of enrichment that Wolfson describes. In my last Shaliyah article, I introduced the One2One program, pairing American and Israeli high school students for half-hour Zoom sessions over the course of a few weeks -an opportunity of a lifetime for our students to stand with Israelis in a meaningful way. I don’t think any session ended after thirty minutes. Whether they spoke about the current situation, soccer practice, getting a driver’s license, or pop music, our teens were building relationships and understanding through their compassion and curiosity. What a blessing to be surrounded by such thoughtful students in our community. Shanyna Blumenfeld, an RSNS junior, just got back from a brief trip to Israel, and almost as soon as she landed, she met up with Ben, her One2One partner, and they spent hours picking up where they left off.  This is relational Judaism at its finest. During Shabbat services on Friday, January 19, our One2One teens will share why they joined the program and what impact it has had on them. It’s clear to me from Shayna and Ben’s faces that the impact is lasting. Please join us.

Whether it is at Ashokan, during Synagogue School or programs like One2One, the educational mission at RSNS remains the same: to create experiences that build connections that play an essential role in strengthening the bonds of Jewish Peoplehood. May we continue to benefit from the light of these moments.

Rebecca Hirschwerk