It was a steep, downhill walk from our bunkhouse to the marquee where we would be lighting Shabbos candles. A weak sun sank lower into the mountains, the sky behind it a hazy yellow with streaks of pink weaving their way through purple accents.
As we walked, I listened idly to the conversation of your bunkmates, my campers. You were at that age where you are young and innocent enough to cruise comfortably through life, yet old enough to start understanding the dynamics of social equality. The discussions were light, yet already, certain elements of subconscious peer pressure were beginning to make themselves known. Two or three girls walked at the center of the group, their laughter dominating those at the sidelines, their silent but obvious confidence and self assurance automatically portraying them as leaders.
Those who trailed behind that halo had shoulders stooped over in humble, yet sad defense against the powers that were just too forceful for them to break into.
As we walked, we were joined by other groups of girls heading for the lighting ceremony. I observed similar group dynamics in the other bunks, but it appeared to me your loneliness and stark isolation from the rest of the bunk was that much more apparent. Undercurrents of bullying had been playing into effect all week and I had already dealt with enough scenarios to know that I was in for a tough summer. This, I knew, was particularly due to the ringleader of our bunch. I had watched the goings on through careful eyes but hadn’t quite been able to pinpoint exactly where things were going wrong in our bunk.
We reached the dining room. Over one hundred candles were set up on a long row of tables. The girls, most of them not from religious homes, were dressed in their Shabbos finery. For some, like you, it would be their first time lighting Shabbos candles. For others, it was a yearly ritual they only got to practice when they came here, to this camp in the mountains every summer. And others had taken on the mitzvah and had shared it with their families.
Each bunk was called up one at a time to light the candles. The head counselor stood by the table, overlooking the sacred moment. The large hall was electric with the atmosphere of Shabbos and we felt it as soon as we entered.
In due course, our bunk was called up. Ten fresh faced, tanned, eager young girls stood around the candles. Some were already lit and the air was filled with the fumes of burnt matches. I inhaled deeply, the smell awakening in me countless Friday evenings of lit Shabbos candles.
The head counselor surveyed the cluster of girls seriously, her gaze taking in every upturned head. She started to speak in a low, soft voice.
“Since the time of our forefathers, Avraham and Sarah, Jewish women and girls have been lighting Shabbos candles. Some start doing it at the age of three, some start at Bat Mitzvah and some start when they get married, lighting two.”
Behind us, bursts of laughter and echoes of lively conversation faded away. It was just us, the candles and the lulling explanation.
“Lighting the candles for Shabbos is a mitzvah that has belonged to Jewish women and one that has helped them keep their faith throughout history. The candles are lit to bring in the holy, sacred day of Shabbos, a day when we on this world get to taste a little of what the angels above experience near the Heavenly throne.”
All the girls, you especially, were silent, enraptured.
“The time of lighting candles is a wonderful and auspicious time for asking G-d to bless us in the forthcoming week for whatever we need. It is at this time that the heavenly gates are open and our prayers go straight to Hashem, where He receives them with open arms.”
I turned to look slowly at you, gauging your reaction. You had been through a lot this week. You were, undoubtedly, the social outcast of the bunk. If the girls had just ignored you, that would have been almost fine. Instead, with one clever instigator at their head, one who manipulated the rest of the group, you had been subject to a week that had left me, never mind you, broken hearted.
You stood there now, wearing an oversized, faded flowered dress, your stringy, matted hair overgrown and sticking to your neck. Your misunderstanding of social cues and norms was sadly pushing you to be the centre of attention – negative attention.
“When you light the Shabbos candles, think of the week that past. Think of what you want, what you need, what you would like to pray for.”
The past week. You looked pensive and I too, thought back to the past week. It had started with Sarah not wanting to sit next to you on the bus, had continued with the girls snickering at your lisp and slightly slow way of talking, and had finished off today with a snide comment from Fiona, the ringleader, of “Is that your Shabbat dress Ariana? Where is it from?”
“If you had a great week, thank Hashem for it and ask that He give you another. If you had a tough week, this is your chance to pray that the coming week is better!”
You weren’t smart, but you were no fool. The simplest person can feel sad and I had watched the spark in your eyes diminish over the past few days. I, who had never felt hopeless at anything in my life, felt your eyes on me as I reprimanded the girls for their comments, pleading with me not to say anything because when I wasn’t there you only got it worse. And I had racked my brain to figure out how time and time again, Fiona managed to fix her eyes on me and turn the entire situation around to ensure her own innocence and, if anything, sterling behavior.
I was young. It was my first time being a counselor at a girls overnight camp and I had forgotten how cruel girls could be. Cunning and sly, just a gesture or a look could suggest a thousand words and evading trouble was easy that way.
“Now girls cover your eyes, say the bracha together, and pray.”
Eleven pairs of hands made three large circles in the air.
“Boruch atah Hashem Elokainu Melech haolam, asher k’dshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”
There was quiet. Before I said my own bracha, I looked over at you again. It was with pain and shock that I saw your young shoulders shake with the cries of a ten-year-old girl. You may have been queer, eccentric, even and a little spaced out sometimes – but you had a heart and it was hurting. Your small hands covered the tears that were snaking down your face and suddenly your faded dress looked beautiful and your oily hair looked sleek and voluminous.
I felt my own eyes grow heavy with tears. Tears of helplessness and disappointment – in myself and in the girls I had in my care. I covered my eyes and felt the saltiness on my tongue. And I prayed, too.
Please, Hashem – give me the strength to help those who need it. Give me the strength to be discerning, understanding, bold and determined. Help me to advocate kindness, promote goodness and encourage acceptance.
And Hashem, please don’t let any of my girls cry next week when they light candles.
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