This past spring, our son Avi’s Pirchei baseball team made it to the championship. The final game was played in Boulder Stadium, a ten-minute drive from our home. Boulder Stadium is the equivalent of a minor league stadium, with a beautiful, manicured field, a couple of concession stands, a massive sound system, and the capacity to hold a few thousand fans.
The Pirchei championship game was played on a Sunday afternoon, shortly after the home-team Boulders had finished a game. When I arrived at the stadium with Avi, there were still a few thousand fans in the stadium from the Boulders game. The music was still blaring, and select fans were lining up to run the bases or have a catch in the infield.
When the stadium finally cleared out, it was time to play Pirchei baseball. The game was nice, and it was definitely exciting to play on such a professional field. But it lacked the energy and excitement that the Boulders had generated during their game an hour earlier. There were only a few hundred spectators, no open concession stands, the scoreboard was off, and there was no announcement of players or music played or fun competitions between innings. It was like playing a regular game, just on a more beautiful field.
It was clear that part of what makes it to so exciting to attend a Boulders game is the hype and energy generated by all those side things. Although the priority, and the only thing that really matters, is the game itself, those additives make it more fun and exciting. It helps the home team play harder and the fans enjoy the game more.
Our family has had the good fortune of spending our summers at Camp Dora Golding for over two decades. Among the many other wonderful assets camp offers, is that Camp Dora Golding boasts an unparalleled learning program. Aside from the fact that we have almost perfect attendance at daily learning groups, more than 80 percent of the campers learn voluntarily for three hours in the camp shul on Shabbos. In addition, a half hour before Minchah on Friday (and we all know what that time is like each week), a couple of hundred campers come to the shul, dressed and ready for Shabbos, to learn. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. In addition, this summer there was a celebration for 291 campers (!) who completed a masechta of mishnayos during the summer.
What’s the secret of our success? Our incredible learning director, Rabbi Noach Sauber, raises thousands of dollars for top-notch prizes. Prizes that, in some places, would be grand prizes barely make it to the medium level in our prize auction. Prizes include tickets to sports events (Yankees, Mets, Giants, Islanders, etc.), a Jacob DeGrom autographed baseball, a Luka Doncic autographed basketball, and a Devin Booker autographed jersey. In addition, there is a music package, football package, baseball package, hockey package, relax package, music package, and a talmid chacham package. Each package includes numerous items connected to that theme. This year, top prizes included an Oculus, 3D printer, basketball hoop, electro bike, X-box, Nintendo Switch, and a PS5.
But there’s more to the program’s success than just the prizes. Rabbi Sauber is a master of hype. At the beginning of the summer, he introduces the learning program, mentions some of the prizes, and how campers can be eligible to win. He calls winners from previous summers on stage to talk about what they won. Throughout the summer, camper progress is posted weekly, and Rabbi Sauber reminds the campers of the great prizes awaiting them. At the end of the summer, there is a massive barbecue for all those who achieved the maximum points. Then, on the last day of camp, every camper has a chance to put raffle tickets in for the various prizes, depending on what level they had achieved. The entire camp gathers in the camp theater for two prize drawings. It’s a major event with music, cheering, and tremendous excitement.
The prizes speak for themselves, but the hype generates the excitement that propels the event to a different level. In fact, the only reason the prizes have become as extraordinary as they are is because of all that hype. Many, if not most, of the prizes are donated by current staff members and camp alumni, including some who were in camp over a decade or two ago. They were inspired by the program, at a time when the prizes were impressive, but far more “modest,” and now want to contribute to giving that inspiration to the next generation of campers. Back then, the program’s success was more clearly the result of the hype and excitement that Rabbi Sauber, and his predecessor, Rabbi Pinchos Idstein, generated.
It’s been said that anyone who says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover never tried to sell a book. Although ideally one should only judge a book by its contents, the reality is that most people wouldn’t even pick up the book unless it has a cover that catches their eye.
When I mentioned the idea for this brilliant essay to our wonderful camp neighbor, Rav Hersh Kasirer, he recounted a thought from his rebbe, Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l: In various places in Shas, the Gemara relates that an Amora “stood up on his feet and said…” (see Shabbos 26a, Bava M’tzia 59b, Sanhedrin 68a, B’choros 36a). If the Gemara wants to relate what was said, why add that he stood up on his feet?
Rav Henoch explains that the Gemara is teaching us an integral lesson about education. Teaching is not merely about transmitting information, but about trying to ingrain those lessons upon the hearts and souls of one’s charges. To do so, rebbeim and moros need to be innovative and resourceful, wisely employing ploys and incentives and, at times, theatrics to engage their students. The Gemara is subtly demonstrating that it wasn’t enough to just state his viewpoint. Rather, “he stood up on his feet and said” with dramatic emphasis.
In a sense, Torah and mitzvos are like a beautiful stadium, a perfect and magnificent structure. But it’s up to us to provide the sound system, the scoreboard, and the music. Our task is to invest emotion and instill the passion and excitement that makes the stadium come alive.
Torah speaks for itself, but we can make the Torah stand on its feet and proclaim its piece directly into our hearts and souls.