Temple arts camp teaches kids to shine, stars or not

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In six days, God created the earth. And in the same amount of time, the children of Congregation Emanu-El Arts Camp created a musical extravaganza based on the Creation.

They were so cute, even Darwin would have cooed.

In multicolored T-shirts and jeans, these 30 to 35 kids swayed, snapped and sang their way through last week's performance of "The Seven Days of Creation." The show capped the first of three summer sessions at the San Francisco synagogue's arts camp.

Some of the kids, ages 5 to 14, strode confidently through the choreography, while others timidly marked the movements as musical director Othello Jefferson vamped softly on the piano. Some sang like angels, imbued with their own immortality as they gazed directly at the audience. Others were more earthbound, shuffling their feet and mouthing the words silently.

With a mish-mash of ages and abilities, the performance was both polished and endearingly unhewn — like a handmade teddy bear with a loose eye. Parents kvelled palpably as their children sang "Morning Has Broken," and "Let the Sun Shine In."

But no one kvelled with more verve than camp director Jason Britton, who tapped his fingers against a wooden pew and clapped heartily after each number.

"I was really impressed," he said. "It took me to tears a couple times. I realized how they used their energy, how they overcame their fears and put themselves in a vulnerable position, standing onstage. Most have never done that before."

"I saw an amazing development of self-confidence," he added.

But the arts camp's sole purpose isn't just touchy-feely self-esteem boosting. The kids spend each day studying acting, voice, dance and visual arts with local professionals. Britton himself holds advanced degrees in both dance and arts education and works locally as a director and choreographer.

He sees arts education in a Jewish context as multipurpose: It teaches kids skills in the arts, enhances their social abilities, teaches them about their culture, and encourages lasting friendships and respect for children of other ages and talent levels.

"They understand that it's OK if you can't sing that well. But they try, they work on it. Everybody has talents, it's just a matter of tapping into them," Britton said.

For some, visual arts were the most enticing part of the program.

During the performance, a slide show projected some of the campers' art work overhead. Working with artist Sandy Cohen-Wynn, the students created Plexiglas mosaics inspired by the temple's own large-scale mosaic of the twelve tribes. They also studied the stained glass work in the temple's sanctuary, and applied the theme of Creation to their own projects.

In the next two sessions, campers will perform Broadway classics and excerpts from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

This summer, Emanu-El's camp will last a total of eight weeks, double the length of previous summer arts programs there.

Synagogue leaders felt that "art shouldn't be looked at as a trivial matter," said Britton, "but revered as both a creative and spiritual connection to our culture."