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Music and Shabbat at Camp

The lights in the Chadar Ochel go out. Candlelight flickers on faces beaded with sweat. The room is still buzzing, perhaps reverberating, with echoes of clapping, stomping, and some sort of scream-singing. But for just a moment, everything is relatively quiet, relatively still. Finally, the guitars start up again, and hoarse voices find some sort of will power to sing the words “Dodi Li” (my beloved is to me). And this sound is not beautiful only because it is slow, soft, and sweet, so drastically contrasted to the forty-five minutes of fast-paced music which came before, but also because the collective voice of camp is unbelievably gorgeous.

The music of G.U.C.I. has always been perhaps the highlight of my summers, from the incredible song-leading staff which I can finally call myself a part of, to Dan Nichols and Alan Goodis, now stars of Reform Jewish music who long ago grew up at our own camp, to all the other campers and counselors around me who all seem to be incredibly musically gifted. Each voice in our community finds a way to contribute and the final sound is truly unimaginable, and perhaps only as describable as what I have already attempted. Regardless, our camp comes together day after day, Shabbat after Shabbat, and year after year to put forth the same intensity of energy and beauty of singing. I absolutely love it.

Now, I mention Shabbat in particular because this is certainly when camp is at its best. We start the day with a Shabbat walk which winds around the majority of camp. Three song leaders take the head and direct the long line into the Beit T’fillah (outdoor prayer space) for Friday night services. The singing at services sets the tone for the day. I find the attitude of everyone becomes serene, reverent and even peaceful. But as I have said before, there is something unexplainable about the atmosphere of Shabbat, and you will simply have to believe me when I say that there is also a certain urgency in the air. Perhaps this is simply because everyone knows what craziness lies in wait on the other side of dinner.

The only way I can describe the first, more upbeat section of Shabbat song session that follows dinner is literally. Even the end of the after meal prayer is turned into a (somewhat) controlled chaos. The entire camp—campers, avodahnikim, counselors, top deck, and faculty all begin banging as hard as possible on the tables. The room belts the niggun-style “Yai Dai Dai”s at the top of its voice, and all the long, song leaders wave their arms about as if flapping wings trying to slow the tempo camp is already try to run away with. From there on out we have about forty-five minutes of nearly continuous jumping clapping and yelling. There is only one break to catch your breath as we sit to sing a song. But after that, we’re all back up going all out again.

Finally the scene I first described plays out. But in no way is the night over. We all head out to do Rikudei Am (Israeli dance)—some kids and counselors are as into that as song sessions, including me. And finally we head to a campfire, where we slow things down once more so there’s a chance the kids will want to sleep.

And while that’s the end of the night, there are still beautiful and moving services Saturday morning and night. In fact, I would be remiss to not go into the night’s service, Havdallah (separation), in a little detail. The service itself is quite short, consisting only of LaYahudim, four blessings and Eliyahu HaNavi. But the feeling of and music for Havdallah are ethereal, made even more beautiful by the setting sun and true sense of community created by sitting on the floor together as an entire camp rather than on benches like normal services. Certainly these moments of music and beauty are some of the many I look forward to throughout the week as they resonate with me on such a deep emotional and spiritual level. If you can excuse me using the word once more, Shabbat and its music at G.U.C.I. may be the truest and purest form of beauty I can experience anywhere. Not even just at camp.

Charles Stone

Songleader and Counselor