Let’s Build Better Sanctuaries Together

Look into the passages of the Torah and it will reflect what is happening in the “real” world, my friend Stuie Wax once told me.

“They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell amidst them.”

Two weeks ago I set foot for the first time for Shabbos at the Song Leader Boot Camp Ramah Shabbaton in St. Louis, MO. The fun filled Super Spiritual and Elevated Shabbaton was followed immediately by the most amazing Shacharit Singing Service I’ve ever attended on a Sunday morning in my life. I’ve taught at/helped to run over 30 Jewish Camps/Schools/organizations and never in my life have I felt so connected to everyone in the room whilst praying, dancing, singing, and signing (in sign language) the entire service. SLBC and the Ramah movement are doing something very right with the Singing Services and all of the Jewish Educators and Tefillah Leaders in our current place in Jewish history can learn from it. The sanctuary we are created lending everyone’s voice in such a colorful way was so beautiful.

The next day something happened that confirmed some of my greatest fears and gave me great pause.  I had a conversation with a new friend/colleague who works with middle school aged campers in the summer at a Jewish camp.  He said that he was mortified that all 25 of his 6th grade boys last summer took 3 pills before they went to sleep: Anti-Anxiety, Melatonin for depression and sleep medication, and Anti Acne medicine which reduces the acne caused by the other two medications.  


He also said that the boys would often seem listless during times when he thought they would otherwise be excited. Like when they would go to the basketball court they would be out of breath and when he tried to get them on the court they would all be sitting against the wall in a line with their heads down, arms out as if there were a phone in the hand even though there were no phones there, no phones allowed.

“You shall make a menorah of pure gold. Of beaten work shall the menorah be made—its shaft, its branches, its goblets, its bulbs and its flowers shall be [hammered] of the same [piece of gold].”

Like the ornaments of the Mishkan, G-d is instructing us to create and take care of ourselves like we are pure gold. There is reason and rhyme in the distinctions and the exacting in the construction.

Camp is a place where kids are meant to be their free-est, most self expressed, versions of themselves. Like the Israelites coming out of Egypt who complained and walked in that same oppressed way we once did in slavery, how can campers be free if they are still addicted to the negative thoughts, habits, and practices they did at home?

When I responded, “Well at least they are without their phones most of the time during the summer!”
He responded with, “Well sort of. We have this new technology now at camp which recognizes all of the campers faces in pictures and there are 5 camp photographers at camp all the time snapping pictures all day long of every single camper so that their parents get one shot of each of their kids per day.”

“Why so often?” I asked, “That can’t be how it was in the past.” To which he answered, “It’s just how things are now. The kids may not have a phone in their hands but they know that their faces are showing up on someone else’s phone ever day and they pose for the pics like they’re famous people for the paparazzi. And if their facial expression looks anything other than ‘Happy and thrilled to be here!’ we hear back from their irate parents.”

I was so upset after this talk with my new friend and colleague. What is the point of going to camp if you’re not going to learn skills to deal with anxiety, getting through difficult moments/self soothing in healthy ways, and getting away from technology?!

“Six branches shall come out of its sides: three branches of the menorah out of the one side, and three branches of the menorah out of the other side.”

The 6 branches refer to the 6 days of creative work and the absence of the 7th is for Shabbat-to rest.  Camp time is like the 7th candle on overdrive. It’s a portal for kids to jump out of their busy-ness during the year and reJEWvenate in a new fun fulfilling way away from home.  How are we making this experience meaningful and different to them if they’re being controlled by the same habits/addictions that they have at home? 


This whole conversation alerted me to the wake up call we are experiencing now as Jewish Educators in Informal settings in 5780/2020.  We have to look at what is going on with our campers and see their issues as our issues.  

We need to take the time to speak with parents of campers and discuss how we are creating safe spaces for the campers at camp.  Why on earth are there paparazzi photographers at camp? Why are the parents on their phones so much that they need a picture of their kids each day? Shouldn’t camp be a time for parents to unplug a little bit more as well? To miss one another makes the heart grow even fonder and it allows for some much needed independence on both sides to appreciate time spent together and to learn how to create healthy boundaries.


Camp was the MOST important thing that ever happened to me in my childhood. I learned so much about myself and my parents by being away from them.  I had such amazing life affirming experiences that not a summer has gone by since that I haven’t either worked, ran, or guest taught at a camp or two.  Camp experiences can teach us how to be with ourselves in a new way-away from the trials and tribulations and distractions from our everyday lives and pressures.  It can also be a safe space to try weaning off medications and learn powerful tools to deal with difficult emotions-especially in a more religious/observant setting.  

I teach a Mindful Evening Practice at different sleep away camps which can help both staff and campers go to sleep effortlessly.  I have taught these tools to both young children and Adults who had major difficulties going to sleep who no longer are on tranquilizers, anti anxiety, anti depressants, melatonin, and sleep medications.  There is so much great stuff being taught and experienced at camp but still we can do better.  


It’s time to get kids back to the basics of being and thriving in the outdoors.  It’s time to get them out of distraction and into introspection. It’s time to get parents off of the phone and taking the time to regroup and be there for themselves so that they can be even better parents when the kids get back home. 


From the Heart,

Barbara Heller


Barbara Heller is an Artist and Educator who lives in both NYC and LA.  She has had the privilege of working at over 30 different Jewish Schools and Camps where she teaches Jewish Studies, Mindfulness, Creative Writing, Theatre, and Voice.  You can hear her voice on Disney Junior’s Vampirina, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, as well as in numerous commercials. You can see her original Documentaries, and Web Series on her Youtube Channel, and sometimes catch her singing and telling funny stories live at clubs in NYC and LA.  www.BarbHeller.com www.MindfulJewess.com