Building Community with Dinosaurs?

I wasn’t sure how the dinosaur theme was going to work out. Each year we empower our 8th grade Religious School class with the task of selecting the theme for our fall 5th-8th grade youth retreat URJ Camp OSRUI. Over the past few years they’ve picked fun, normal themes like food, movies and music, and we’ve made connections to Jewish culture through those lenses. But dinosaurs? I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t know how we would make it meaningful.

I often refer to our fall youth retreat as one of the best opportunities to make friends at Temple Sholom. In Religious School classes, students often gravitate towards friends from school or camp, but during retreat, we only have one cabin for boys and one for girls, with twenty beds each, so the whole group gets closer. During the day, we divide participants into small, multi-age groups led by our teen madrichim, and the whole weekend is a competition, which builds bonds within the small groups. We also have plenty of non-competitive activities, like walks with our Rabbis, tie-dye, and a “Beit cafe” Saturday evening talent show.

When we arrive at camp on Friday night after several hours in traffic, the group has started to bond over hunger, tiredness and whatever movies they’ve watched on the bus (this year they picked “Prince of Egypt” and “Fiddler on the Roof”). But when we eat Shabbat dinner together, sing the blessings, and welcome Shabbat with song and stories, suddenly our retreat group becomes their own tight-knit community. This year, Friday evening also included “The Dinosaur Song,” artistic renderings of team-named dinosaurs, and our SWAG (stuff we all get): dinosaur sweat pants.

Saturday was a packed yet relaxing day, beginning with early morning sports and Shabbat morning services featuring a student performance of the Torah portion, Toldot, about rival twin brothers. Because the first snowfall of the season coincided with our weekend, we spent the late morning sledding on Bayit hill. In the afternoon many of us gravitated to the Mercaz Sports (sports center) to play basketball, ping-pong and volleyball, and in the late afternoon, each group made a video depicting the “discovery” of their team’s dinosaur.


We wrapped up Saturday evening with Havdalah, the separation between Shabbat and the week, and then Caleb appeared in a full dinosaur costume to host the Beit cafe. Caleb also brought dinosaur eggs and floor puzzles as new additions to our tradition-filled relay race (unchanged since chaperone Zach Mauer was a participant), and Rabbi Gellman even wove the theme into services, connecting it to the story of creation.

Somewhere in the middle of “Fiddler,” which they viewed both to and from camp, the magic happened, as it always does. The chedar ohel (dining hall) was filled with smiles and giggles, birkat hamazon (the blessing after meals) was led by student volunteers, and hand motions instantly accompanied our after-meal sing-alongs. The fun of sledding, playing gaga (Israeli dodge ball), and traipsing around camp in new-fallen snow created bonds that will no doubt continue to grow in the years to come. Traditions from various summer camps came alive in moments throughout our winter weekend.

Dinosaurs. Who knew?

By Jay Rapoport, RJE