A memory from high school: My friend Michelle and I were at the mall (yes, some New Jersey stereotypes are true). I became friends several years earlier at a junior youth group event, but that’s a story for another blog post. At this point, we were both heavily involved in JFTY, the then-name of our NFTY region.
We were just finishing lunch and we looked up at each other and said, “Hey! We should do Birkat Hamazon*!!” (In reality, we probably said “The Birkat” but my grammar nerdiness won’t let me type that. Again, that’s a story for a different post.) And we did. At the table in the food court. Before we finished our sodas and went to go ride on the merry go round. And we smiled about it afterwards, and referred back to that moment for years.
There are a couple of things that I find interesting about this memory–looking back at it with an adult rabbi lens. First is the sheer joy that we took out of singing this blessing. Because that was the feeling we associated with the prayer. For those of you that have not been to Jewish camp or a NFTY event, the kids sing this blessing after each meal with what I can only describe as reckless abandon. While we can debate whether banging on tables and shouting out some of the words is a good thing or not (I happen to think it’s wonderful). And if we could get rid of “Woopdie Doo” that would be much appreciated (…as a small aside, I happen to like Jeremy Gimbel’s suggestion to replace it with Baruch Hu! (traditionally said within Blessings as an extra shout out to God). But I digress…) I think that anyone who has seen it can agree that the enthusiasm that the community has when singing it is palpable–the energy truly capturing the concept of thanking God.
At these moments, the youth are not just reciting a prayer–not just going through the motions of reading through a liturgy that has been passed down to them. They are fully praying. With their voices, their bodies, their spirits…their whole selves engage. They are taking this rather long prayer (even the shortened version we do in the Reform movement is probably longer than any other single piece they learn in Hebrew School and B’nai Mitzvah prep) and they are giving their all to every word. And just like Michelle and I that day at the mall, they are feeling joy as they give thanks.
The second thing I find interesting about this memory is that this was not a usual spiritual practice for us, nor did it occur to us to make it one. Birkat Hamazon was not something we could conceive of as having a realistic place outside of the context of NFTY and camp. It only made sense on that afternoon because we were together. And it was out of the ordinary enough for us to be saying that blessing outside of its familiar realm that we remembered it.
I would guess that for most of our youth today, unless the blessing after meals is something they do in their home regularly, they feel the same. I wonder if there’s an educational opportunity for us there. To teach it not as something we do at camp–but as something that Jews do.
To remind them that the joy that they’re feeling at singing these words is really what blessings are all about.
Blessings are there so that we can have the opportunity to be thankful–to express our appreciation for what we have–to take a moment out of our day (or a few moments in the case of Birkat Hamazon) and to use it to be mindful, to notice life in a different way, and to shout out in joy that we have such opportunity.
*Grace After Meals