Camp Interlaken (the Milwaukee JCC camp) we had flag raising and lowering every morning and every evening. The whole camp would assemble on the flag rectangle, with the youngest kids closest to the flag. Each unit would do some schtick for the whole camp, twice a day.”
It isn’t relevant why my wife and I were talking about this on the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal at Newark Airport. She reminded me of a time when I was a counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) long ago.
The Limud (educational) theme was Kedushah/holiness and my staff team was planning a session on rituals and their meaning. I forget which one of us keyed on morning flag raising (which we also had, but only in the morning), but I do recall that I and I think Deb Schreibman stopped the morning schtick, claiming that the whole thing was an empty meaningless ritual. We Pretty much accused our fellow counselors and the campers of using the flag that represented freedom and sacrifice for a useless and banal (we certainly did not use that word) activity. Then we lowered the flag, folded it properly into a triangle while everyone looked on, mouths open like trout, and said “let’s go to breakfast” as we stomped to the chadar ochel (dining hall).
The campers went bananas. Breakfast was followed by Nikayon (clean up in the bunks) and then I think Limud. Before it began, counselors came up to us and reported that their campers were irate and very upset with Deb and I for essentially profaning the morning ritual. We unpacked it with the campers and they learned that it was just a way to introduce the topic. We realized going in that talking about the relative importance of a ritual is not very interesting unless the learner has some skin in the game.
In our camps, the ritual of flag raising became essential to our camper’s day. It was Modeh Ani and the evening Shema. It was a profound moment of realizing and declaring that we are part of a community. And because the context of these camps were (and remain) completely Jewish, flag raising is a Jewish act.
In our congregation we are moving rapidly to change the way education happens for our students. We are examining pedagogy and focusing much more on the experiences they have while they are with us (and paying attention to the ones they have when they are not with us). We are adjusting the curriculum content to meet the needs of the families in our program now (a regular act, every 12-15 years or so). And we are changing our branding and the story we tell about who we are, what we do and how we do it. We hope this will renew interest by those who have chosen “none of the above” for their children.
Thinking about flag raising, I see it is clear that we also have to create, adapt or adopt new rituals in our program. We are testing the name Kehillah (Community) instead of “Religious School.” The tag line is “Find. Connect. Belong.” I think that will lead us to some interesting (and I hope humorous) rituals. I am open to ideas, so please share your ideas in the comments or send me an email (email@example.com).