By Jeff Agron, Coleman Faculty and Alum
“The greatest distance in the Universe is between the head and the heart.” – Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement
This is my 11th summer as visiting faculty at Camp Coleman. Assuming I come back next year, which I intend to do as it is one of the highlights of my year, then it will be 50 years since I first set foot at Coleman. It was 1969 and I was an 8 year old first-year camper in bunk B1A. That is when my Coleman journey began.
The above quote, which is often repeated and attributed to various teachers (try a Google search), is the basis for Mussar. What is Mussar? It is an authentically Jewish spiritual practice of self-discovery and personal growth. I like to call it Jewish spiritual soul development. Mussar practice recognizes, as the quote indicates, that knowing the right way to behave in the world does not mean that one actually acts that way. Knowledge alone does not make you a mensch. The key is getting the heart to understand what the mind already knows. Meaning that we have to take intellectual knowledge and put it into action through our behavior.
So, what does this have to do with Camp Coleman? Mussar is my passion and has been my spiritual path for the past 13 years. I am still working on making myself a better person, as we are never done growing. As Alan Morinis says, our reason for being here is to continually refine our souls.
It has been a dream of mine to bring Mussar to Coleman. This past week (2nd session of 2018) I was able to bring Mussar to group of Chalutzim campers, those going into 10th grade. See the accompanying picture of our mighty spiritual group. Although we only had a week, I was able to at least introduce this Jewish spiritual path. I had a small but eager group of teens who were willing to be leaders, take a chance on something new and step outside their comfort zones. We learned about the basics of Mussar practice; we did some meditation, study and journaling. This was a group of campers who were into introspection and self-improvement. I was so impressed with their eagerness and open mindedness. We created a safe space and shared openly and frankly about life’s challenges. Admittedly, this is not for everyone and maybe not for most teens, but I believe that we are never too young (or too old) to work on ourselves and become the best versions of ourselves we can be.
Mussar understands that we all have the same inner qualities or character traits (middot in Hebrew), such as honesty, generosity, compassion, anger, humility and honor. While we all have the same qualities, each of us has those that we need to work on. The ideal is to be in balance in each quality. Our group focused for 2 sessions on humility (anavah in Hebrew). The trait of humility requires us to walk between arrogance on the one hand and self-deprecation on the other hand. We don’t want to be arrogant, but we also don’t want to think that we are worthless or have nothing to give to the world. The key is to find balance in this trait and all traits.
Our group did a guided meditation on humility, examined our personal strengths and weaknesses, and journaled about our life experiences with this character trait. There is a saying from my teacher which expresses how we need to occupy our rightful space in the world: “No more than my space and no less than my place.” The campers understood that we each have our own place in the world and we need to rightfully claim it. None of us is so great that we “all that”, yet none of us is so low that we are worthless and unimportant (which can lead to depression). I really think these campers got it! I was so proud of them as these are deep concepts. I left them with a humility bracelet to remind them to practice humility and self-esteem in all that they do.
I look forward to bringing more of this practice to Camp Coleman.