Sara Beth Berman is a Nadiv Educator working at URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA in the summer and The Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia during the school year.
I have been to the mountaintop. Learning with students in my day school, we recently discussed the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and his last speech. We talked about looking toward the future. A future of rights and equality. A beautiful future.
I also see a beautiful future.
I have been to the mountaintop of Jewish summer camp. I have learned with great teachers while wearing flip flops and reeking of SPF 85. I have rejoiced in the beauty of Israeli dance with hundreds of people in one space. I have consumed the proverbial bug juice and I now continue to try to reproduce it – every meaningful, sweet-as-mountain-air, drop. We remove our shoes and wiggle our toes in the gravel. This is holy ground. It’s serious experiential education. As Heschel put it – we are praying with our feet.
I have been to the mountaintop of Jewish day school. I have watched sixth, seventh, and eighth graders equate 1960s Civil Rights with modern social justice issues. I have seen them grapple with the text of the Binding of Isaac. I have been moved, as their teachers helped them to sketch in chalk, what this prayer or that prayer means to them. They stomp their feet in the coordinated “Mr. O’Dell Shuffle” as we return the Torah to the ark, a dance named for their 8th Grade Judaic Studies teacher. Their shuffles, their teachers, and our Torah, turn the gym into holy ground.
I have been brought to a new mountaintop. This mountaintop is also revelatory, as I begin to feel and see the connections between camp and school in a way that I didn’t before Nadiv. As I chat with URJ Camp Coleman campers in the hallway at The Davis Academy, I’m transported to the dining hall at camp. I can feel the heat of hundreds of kids singing “Im Tirtzu Ain Zo Aggadah” – if you will it, it is not a dream – at the tops of their lungs. Hundreds of feet, skipping forward and then back, as they celebrate the Israeli harvest of strawberries. This, too, is holy ground.
I have been to the mountaintop and I can see the future of Jewish education. Take your shoes off, friend. We’re walking on holy ground and praying with our feet.
Miriam Shwartz, along with her husband, Gilad, is the co-director of JCC Ranch Camp in Colorado’s Black Forest.
My first and perhaps most impactful memory of camp happened on the very first day I set foot there at age 12. I came to Ranch Camp from the distant and sometimes seemingly foreign land of Iowa. My parents were adamant that I attend a Jewish camp to make Jewish friends and strengthen my Jewish identity, as both were hard to come by in Iowa. All I cared about was that at camp I was going to get my own horse that I could ride every day (every little girl’s dream). So, I found myself utterly surprised on my first day of camp to find something that I didn’t know I was looking for – kehillah (community).
As the whole camp gathered at the flagpole that first night of camp, we formed a large circle. I remember looking around the circle and being overwhelmed by the sight of so many kids of all different sizes, shapes, and colors and knowing that they were all Jewish, just like me. It might sound silly but I didn’t know that there were so many Jews and that they could look so different. I think it was this moment that my parents had in mind when they sent me off to Ranch Camp, the moment when I understood that I was a part of a global Jewish community. At age 12, I fell in love with camp; a love affair that has lasted for 16 summers and counting. It’s not just the beautiful setting of sprawling Ponderosa Pines, wide-open pastures, crisp Colorado air, and clear blue skies, it is the intense feeling that when I am at camp, I am at home.
Each year, we choose a summer theme and this year I’m so excited that the theme will be kehillah. What better place to think about, talk about, and experience community than within the confines of camp? We will explore this concept through camper and staff programs on diversity, inclusion, sensitivity, and group dynamics. Both through structured and experiential means, we will strive to strengthen existing connections and build new ones within our small camp community. In this way, I hope to create an atmosphere for others where they can feel a sense of pride and belonging just like I did around the camp circle so many years ago.
Lauri Exley lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband, four-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son.
It’s February! For some, that means goodbye to failed New Year’s Resolutions, yearning for warmer weather, and seeing hearts, chocolate, and roses everywhere you look. For parents, it means it’s time to start planning for summer. Do we send her to a day camp all summer? Do we enroll him in sports camp? Do we send them away to sleep-away camp? What are their best friends doing? Do we plan a family vacation, and if so, do we schedule it around camp, or schedule camp around the vacation? While the kids are counting down the days until summer, the parents are already stressing out. I’m starting to understand why some people enjoy year-round school.
I am a mom of two: Miss B is four years old, and Mr. Awesome (yes, he is) is 18 months. We’re in a weird transition year. Miss B is off to Kindergarten next year, which is a whole other bag of stress, and Mr. Awesome is starting preschool in the fall. While he is too young for most camps, his preschool provides a weekly camp to prepare them for the Fall. Easy enough. However, Miss B is an entirely different story. She will graduate from Pre-K in May and while I will probably enroll her in the preschool camp for a few weeks, she is involved in so many different activities, that I feel I need to keep her involved in those throughout the summer.
I don’t remember there being so many options when I was a kid. As a young kid, I went to my synagogue’s camp every year. As I got older, I just spent the summer hanging out with friends. I think it was the summer going into seventh grade when all my friends were at camp or on family vacations and I was stuck at home, bored out of my mind. One of my best friends broke the news to me one day that she was going to be gone all summer. She was DREADING it! Her mom took a job as the nurse for a sleep-away camp and she had to go with. She promised she’d write every day and couldn’t wait to come back. She kept her word, maybe not every day, but I received at least five letters from her that summer. However, from the first letter I could tell, she definitely did NOT dread it. She already had crushes on boys (who were teaching her how to play guitar) and she was meeting some amazing people. She came home after that summer and could not stop talking about camp. She had changed – like something had turned on inside her – she was more adventurous and outgoing. It was a good change.
My friend insisted I join her the following year, and after much cajoling, my parents agreed. Off I went that following summer, to the happiest place on earth. No, not Disneyland, this was better. This was Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. I was so nervous. Although several of my friends (and my three cousins) were all there, it was new to me. I was away from my parents and in a new place. Writing about my experience, and subsequent summers thereafter, will take too long for this specific blog entry, so I will sum it up with this: my summers at camp provided me with a greater sense of Judaism and helped me establish friendships with my closest friends to date. In fact, it was one of my oldest camp friends who asked me to write this blog!
I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to go to sleep-away camp, where they can hopefully have similar experiences to mine. Until then, I will continue to spend my February trying to figure out what to do with them all summer!
We are often asked what our favorite thing about camp is. The answers vary: leading Shabbat services, free swim, extra-long song sessions, first kisses, being Maccabiah (color war) general…
One of our secret answers though is canteen. We all have different names for it – “candy trunk,” “snack bar,” “hanutia,” – but no matter what you call it, it is always a place where everything evened out. There was no worrying about whether or not you were going to make that goal, or be on your best friend’s team, or wondering whether the lake would be cold that day. At canteen, you could just hang. It was a time to see friends in different camp groups, get mail, catch up with a sibling, and maybe catch a glimpse of someone you “liked.” For some, it was one of the places you first learned to make choices. What nine-year-old doesn’t want to follow a tomato soup and grilled cheese lunch with Razzles, squirt cheese, and a Sunkist orange soda? And where else in your life can you actually do that?
We hope The Canteen is everything to you today that canteens have been to us over the years. A few minutes to unwind, catch up, and enjoy a treat in an otherwise busy, structured day. And like a canteen, we hope it will have something for everyone: thought pieces, Jewish elements, craft projects, recipes, and of course, camp stories.