Jewish educator shares conference experience

Shannyn Gelbart, Jewish Experiential Educator at The King David School, recently attended the Brandeis Camp Institute in California. NOTE: We are excited to announce that Shannyn will be sharing her considerable talents as part of the faculty of the Biennial in Perth.

Shannyn Gelbart, Jewish Experiential Educator at The King David School, recently attended the Brandeis Camp Institute in California:

I have to admit, I think of myself as a bit of a Jewish conference connoisseur these days. I have been to my fair share of music, leadership and education conferences. I am used to the ruach, the schmoozing and being the one token Aussie in a sea of Americans. So it was with this level of comfort and confidence that I approached the BCI conference this June, a 26 day program in Simi Valley, California.

The first thing that struck me was the international aspect of this program. For the first time, I was not the winner of most hours travelled!! People were coming to our hotel meeting room with baggage tags from all over the world. Within the first twenty minutes, I had made friends with young Jews from Argentina, Russia, Chile and Las Vegas – I knew that this was going to make for a wonderful month.

The program has a strong focus on the arts – music, movement, visual art, spoken word, narrative puppetry and film were all offered as workshops – and encouraged participants to ‘get outside your comfort zone’. I didn’t know what would challenge me as I am very comfortable in expressing myself and my Judaism artistically. We also had daily ‘beit midrash’ study sessions, where we worked our way through the Jewish calendar, exploring text and Jewish values in many different ways.

For one of our evening activities (the days were long and the programming was intense!) we had a movie night, and I signed myself up to see the movie, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”. I knew the movie was going to be provocative and I was interested in getting an insight into the very real challenge of trying to obtain a gett in Israel today. By the end of the movie night, I was not only insanely frustrated by the struggle and lack of support that the woman in the film experienced, but also having an identity crisis of my own. Having been brought up going to Orthodox congregations, having an Orthodox bat-mizvah and being comfortable in an Orthodox shul, I have always been a ‘congregation chameleon’ – fitting in to many different places and with many different people (even with pink hair!). I also felt that when I decide to get married one day, I would like to have an Orthodox Rabbi involved, to acknowledge my background and ensure any future children of mine could get married in Israel. After watching this film, I was very conflicted about how to connect with both Judaism and feminism – how could I support practises that are so discriminatory to women?? Did I want to be part of traditions that were so sexist?!

I had more than one moment at BCI where I felt an earthquake-like impact had occurred. I was pushed outside my comfort zone and realised that I am not the only one trying to figure this out – young Jews all over the world are trying to discover what Judaism looks like for them. I used my time at BCI, in my spoken-word workshop, in Beit Midrash and on my own – to sit with some of these seemingly conflicting parts of my Jewish identity. I also loved learning about Jewish eco-theology, Jewish feminism and had my mind blown by the Jewish take on process theology.

The biggest surprise for me at BCI were those moments of struggle and challenge. I thought that I knew the ropes, had similar experiences, and would go home mostly unchanged. Instead, I had moments that caused me to question and re-evaluate my whole belief system (although I got some great spoken-word poetry out of it!). One of my favourite things about Judaism is that we are people who wrestle with G-d – we always have been. In parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:3 – 36:43), Jacob is renamed Israel after wrestling with an angel, because he struggles with the divine. This parsha (which also happens to be my birthday parsha!) has always resonated with me. I firmly believe that Judaism is not one-size-fits-all, and will not even be one-size-fits-me! As I evolve as a person, so too will my Judaism and my practise. I don’t know what that will look like in the future, or even exactly what that looks like now. But I am definitely grateful to BCI for the opportunity to learn, explore, express, grow and connect.

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