Tying Myself into Jewish Peoplehood with Tzitzit and Friendship Bracelets
The gates read “Welcome Home,” but I had left my home five hours earlier. As my dad and I approached the table labeled “1,” we met a woman who checked my name off a list and gave me a bracelet. That, too, read “Welcome Home,” and as I watched her explain it to me, I could see in her eyes the glow of comfort and security she felt here at the URJ Kutz Camp.
Kutz, I had heard, was “like a three-week long youth group event,” something that sounded perfect for me after my freshman year in NFTY-Northeast, a regional branch of the North American Reform Jewish Movement’s youth movement. I had fallen in love with the magical community of NFTY in December of ninth grade at an event where I participated in an activity making tallitot, prayer shawls that have knotted fringes at each of their four corner and are worn during morning services.
At that first NFTY event, I sat with a few upperclassmen I didn’t know and we began to decorate our tallitot using fabric markers, paint, and stencils. At first, I worked quietly, listening to their chatter and glancing up from my own work to see how the others were using color and pattern to represent themselves on fabric. As we waited for our painted tallitot to dry, we divvied up strings and began practicing tying the tzitzit, the knots and fringe on the end of each corner. By Ashkenazi tradition, the white strings created 613 knots, symbolizing the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. The girl next to me looked on as I wrapped one string around the other, counting carefully to ensure the proper number, and when I paused, she asked for my help. Turns out it was her first event, too – and just like that, I had made a friend.
Returning to the basement room the next day, my new friend and I walked together, grabbed our now dry tallitot, and picked the strings we wanted for our tzitzit. After a good night’s sleep, I felt more comfortable in this new environment, and on the second day, the conversation flowed more easily as we talked about home, family, and traditions. I barely noticed it was happening, but by the time the leader came around to check our progress, the group at my table had grown. We were all chatting as we knotted tzitzit.
Sitting on my bunk bed in my new cabin at camp, I was reminded of that first day, when I didn’t know anyone at my first NFTY event. As one of the few people who had driven to camp, I had arrived early and was now watching my bunkmates who arrived by plane as they unpacked and set up their spaces. To kill time, I pulled out my baggie of brightly colored string, picked a few out of the bag, and tied a knot to start making a friendship bracelet. Another bunkmate, who had also arrived early, asked if she could use some string, too, and before long, our whole bunk was sitting in a circle together – some made friendship bracelets, some snacked, and some just chatted.
Just like that, it became a ritual, and every day after that, our cabin spent its free time together. As I learned more about my new friends and told them about myself, I finished bracelet after bracelet and gave them to as many people as I could.
Throughout the years since becoming involved with youth group and summer camp, I have found that the basis of Jewish ritual is connection. While the ritual of the tallit has been practiced throughout history, friendship bracelets bring modernity into my Jewish life – both of which begin with tying something loose into a tight knot, creating a strong bond.
In addition to the links across generations, the friendships I have formed through my participation in Jewish communal life have proven strong, sustaining through distance and time zone differences. I’ll be headed to college in the fall, and while I am excited to make new friends, create new memories, and have new experiences, I know that my Jewish foundation – full of tradition, friends, and deep meaning – will remain strong.
The tried-and-true summer camp tradition of tying friendship bracelets and the incredibly old Jewish practice of tying tzitzit allowed me to tie myself into the Jewish community, and place where I feel most comfortable and at home.
Hannah Elbaum is a member of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. Throughout high school, she was an active member of NFTY-Northeast and attended the URJ Kutz Camp. This summer, she is the communications intern at Advah Designs, offering a collection of handcrafted Jewish prayer shawls and wedding canopies. Join her in exploring Jewish ritual and connection on Advah Designs' blog.