By: Anna Akullian
Last month, I swelled with pride as our inaugural cohort of students graduated from Camp Tawonga’s Bar & Bat Mitzvah Program, culminating a meaningful two-year journey. As program manager, I have had the honor of getting to know these 50 students and their families and supporting their individual paths through this sacred Jewish rite of passage.
It’s through Camp Tawonga that I also traversed the threshold into Jewish adulthood. Let me backup a few years (18 to be exact). Summer after summer, every Friday at Camp, I sat in the Dining Hall singing songs, arms around my bunkmates, with challah and Shabbat candles on our table, and a huge smile on my face.
Through Camp, I came to define my connection to Judaism as being surrounded by ponderosa pine trees, singing on Shabbat with the entire Camp community, staring up at the stars and feeling a deep passion to make the world a better place and an eagerness to be my best self.
Rooted by Tawonga’s lessons and community, I was honored last year to join the year-round Tawonga team to help develop and run the new Bay Area-based Bar & Bat Mitzvah Program. Many questions came up: What is the best way to weave together an observance stemming from the 16th century with the values and traditions of Camp? What does it mean to come of age in the lens of Tawonga? What knowledge, experiences and perspectives should our students take with them?
Through immersive retreats in the Marin Headlands, grappling with the deeper meaning behind torah readings and prayers, field trips to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, volunteer projects at Planting for Justice, 28 Tawonga Bar and Bat Mitzvah services (so far), Havdalah in Tilden Park and so much more, I witnessed the Tawonga spirit come alive through this program.
At these first graduations of the program, joined by friends, family and teachers, it was clear that the students had grown from their experience. They were bonded together, and they were beaming from all they had accomplished.
The mood was joyful at each graduation, with a Tawonga song leader playing some favorite Camp tunes. Each student presented on their Mitzvah project, and I was blown away by all the different ways that they contributed to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), from creek clean-ups and serving food at Glide Memorial Church, to baking cakes for senior citizens on their birthdays and teaching dance to hospitalized children.
As they spoke, each student affirmed the value of the program as they shared the impact of their service projects within their communities.
“May we pray with our feet”
Knowing that our students have already begun living their Jewish values, and with the knowledge that they will continue to do so, I was moved to close out the graduations with a reflection.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “I prayed with my feet” while marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. I shared this response by Rabbi David Kalb:
“What was his point? That his marching, his protesting, his speaking out for Civil RIghts was his greatest prayer of all. Traditional prayer is important. However, it is also important to see that when we do something to make the world a better place, when we use our feet to pray, that is real powerful prayer.”
“May we pray with our feet, with our legs, with our hands, and with our arms. But not just with those parts of our body — with every part of our body and with everything we have…”
I am so thankful to all of our families and especially our students for taking a leap with a new program, for inspiring me and for laying a foundation for many years of Tawonga Bar and Bat Mitzvah experiences to come. I know the world is in good hands with these students as the next generation of leaders.
As I take my next steps into graduate school this fall, studying alternative education and human development, I will take the lessons I learned from the 99 bright and curious students with me, I will continue to look at the stars on Shabbat and will commit to praying with my feet.
Camp Tawonga is grateful for the tremendous impact Anna has made on the Bar & Bat Mitzvah Program and is proud to see her off to Harvard for graduate school! This month, another phenomenal Tawonga alum, Meg Adler, is assuming the role of Program Manager. Meg recently earned her Masters in Religion from Yale University, and you can read about her here.