One of my favorite aspects of Jewish summer camps is their unique ability to bring Jewish values to life every minute of every day for seven weeks each year. Although a whole host of values are infused into every activity, at Crane Lake the Limud staff has intentionally decided to highlight a specific value each week, aptly named the “value of the week.” The excitement builds each Saturday night at Havdallah when our beloved Sarah “Jewish Life” Lauing announces the character trait she wants campers and staff to embody in the coming days. On the first day of camp she let us know that kavannah (translated as “intention” or “focus” or even “goal setting”) would guide us through the first week. At Monday morning prayer, I had a chance to offer my own thoughts about the value of kavannah at camp. They are adapted below.
Kavannah is a word often associated with t’filah (prayer) but it can be used in the context of any actions we perform on a given day. Perhaps we can most easily understand this value by invoking its opposite: keva. Keva is all of the elements in prayer that are set or fixed for us: the words on our prayer cards, the words to the songs chosen by our songleaders, the melodies we use over and over again, the choreography of standing or sitting at the appropriate time. Keva is all the parts of prayer that we repeat every time we come together. It’s the fixed pieces over which we have little control. In contrast, kavannah is what we bring to our prayers. It’s the ideas we have in our head when we are praying, the feeling we have in our hearts when we are praying, the meaning the words hold for us or the intention behind them.
A story is told about a child who has never been to a prayer service before. The child knows almost nothing about the service. She reads no Hebrew and has never heard the melodies that seem so familiar to everyone surrounding her. As the child looks around, she sees the worshipers in deep devotion: singing and dancing and joyfully pouring out their hearts. She wonders what to do. How can she pray with a similar sense of sincerity and joy without knowing the “right” words to say? Suddenly she remembers the small flute that sits in her pocket, an instrument she knows well and loves to play. Instantly, she picks it up and plays it with all the kavannah she can muster. Her sound is so beautiful that others in the service stop in amazement at the music coming out of this tiny instrument and the artistry of this child who has never prayed with them before. This, our Rabbis teach, is the sincerest form of prayer. Even without a single word or melody that usually constitutes Jewish prayer, this child was able to pray with beautiful intention or kavannah. (This story was adapted for camp. For the Traditional version, click here.)
At Crane Lake, I see this story resonate in all sorts of ways. Many first time campers find themselves in unfamiliar situations and are asked to try a new activity or Jewish practice. For them, the story is a reminder that when we have little experience, the right kind of kavannah (a strong positive energy and our best effort), can help us create something beautiful. Others here are returning for their second, fifth or even twelfth summer. For them, setting a particular kavanah (intention, focus or goal) around a familiar activity has the potential to make it new, different and possibly even more beautiful than all of their previous experiences.
Cantor Chanin Becker has served as the cantor of Scarsdale Synagogue since 2005. She is delighted to be serving on the faculty of CLC for her fifth summer. She lives in Tarrytown, NY with her husband and 2 sons, Aaron and Jordan.