by Benjy Forester, Tikvah Counselor
Last summer, one of my campers in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin agreed to spend some time with me learning to lead the birkat hamazon, the prayer that is said at the conclusion of every meal. For many campers, leading the prayer is as easy as tying their shoes. For others it is a significant challenge.
My camper and I used a laminated blue sheet that has the birkat hamazon transliterated into English. As we practiced, he would grow frustrated, saying, “This is so stupid!” But we didn’t give up; we worked together until he no longer mumbled or omitted words.
After about five practice sessions, I thought he was ready. Before the meal I put the blue sheet in front of him and he threw it on the floor. I said it was ok and we’d try again another day. The next time our Tikvah Rosh Aidah (division head) asked my camper if he was ready to lead the birkat hamazon, he said he was. I reminded him to speak slowly, loudly, and to read every word. He had an ear-to-ear grin that conveyed both feelings of nervousness and excitement.
The meal ended, announcements were made and it was time for the concluding prayer. I pointed to the top of the sheet and the words, “Chaveri nevarech,” which is the leader’s invitation to the community to join in. My camper projected his voice and sang the tune that he has heard three times a day for the past two summers. The whole chadar ochel (dining hall) quickly noticed who was leading, and the room was silent. A room of over 200 teenagers and staff members listened attentively as our birkat hamazon leader followed my finger along the words of the prayer. He followed through the whole birkat, something that has been a very difficult task for him.
Finally, the end of the birkat arrived, in which the leader sings a number of “Harachamans,” or closing blessings. Once more, the entire room was silent as my camper carefully pronounced and sang the words. People patiently listened, and they waited in silence as he corrected himself when he mispronounced a word. The last Haracham arrived, which has a couple big words that he had never been very strong at pronouncing. He hit every syllable of the words with mastery and poise that I didn’t know he had. The last word, “Hamashiach,” was always the word that he could hardly pronounce. Eager to finish and not willing to pronounce the difficult letters, he would usually just mumble that word and move on to end the prayer. This time, when he arrived at the word, he raised his head and yelled “Hamashiach!!” and the entire room applauded and responded with the end of the blessing. The birkat hamzon ended and he stood up and was greeted by hugs, high fives, and handshakes from campers and staff members. People approached him from the other side of the room to congratulate him. I have never seen him more proud or more accomplished.
This summer, I was so glad to see my camper had returned to camp and was once again in my cabin. A couple weeks into the summer, I handed him the blue sheet while he was resting in the cabin, and he greeted it with the same nervousness as he initially did last summer. He tried reading it and we both realized he remembered it quite well. Once more, he had a chance to lead the Birkat Hamazon for the entire dining hall, and everyone listened attentively. The same chorus of cheers followed the prayer, including a big hug from his brother, who is a counselor in a 10th grade cabin. Leading Birkat Hamazon is one of the many ways that the Tikvah program gives campers a venue for both Jewish and social growth through a single action.