It’s only November, but I am already hearing the buzz of kids at Kiddush lunch talking about their plans for the summer. One particular young lady spent about a half an hour with me asking all of her most pressing questions as she mentally prepares for her first summer at Jewish sleep away camp. She wants to know what she should pack, what she can wear, will the girls be open to having a new person in their bunk, do the boys have payos –Hebrew for sidelocks or sidecurls, and will there also be other kids at camp who attend public school. What she was really getting at was the following: Will I fit in? Will the other campers and counselors look like me? Will I be at a disadvantage? Will I have fun? Fortunately, this 6th grader is very articulate. She is aware of her feelings and can ask for help in preparing for this big step in her childhood. She has already asked for some time to sit down with me again in the spring to further prepare and she has asked me to speak to her mom to provide any information I think would be important for them to know.
On another Shabbat, I had a conversation with a parent who has never experienced Jewish camping at all. His child has never attended a Jewish day camp and the family has never visited a sleep away camp. What this parent does know, is that every summer almost all of the children over the age of eight disappear from the halls and the sanctuary of the synagogue. They all go away for four to eight weeks to Jewish summer camp. And he knows when they return they are taller, they are happy and they have stories to share about their summer at camp. This is the experience that he wants for his child as well, and there are many questions to be asked about the different options available that will meet the family’s desires. What makes this conversation unique is that this parent has a child with a disability. That changes the nature of the conversation.
As the conversation progresses, the family expresses their desires (level of Judaism, types of activities, lake vs. pool, proximity to home) and the child also expresses their desires (activities that they like, food served at camp), but there are many more questions that are not expressed by the child. Unlike the girl I mentioned above, this child is not able to articulate her needs in the same way. For this family there is an awareness that they will need to make some compromises in order to find a place that will be the best place for their child. The non-negotiables: counselors who will know how to work with their child’s particular disability, their child will have fun, and their child will make a friend. While these desires are no different from the desires of other parents they may not make the top three on the list on non-negotiables.
Yes, finding the right summer home for a Jewish child to spend the summer is not an easy feat. For families of campers with disabilities the search may be a bit more extensive. Where to start? The Foundation for Jewish camp has a Find a Camp feature which enables users to search for camps throughout the country. You can also speak to your synagogue rabbi or other parents in your community to learn about the camps their children attend. The number of camps offering programs for children with disability continues to increase. Parents now have options across every Jewish denomination and movement, including non-denominational camps. Options also include general or specialty camps that exist in many parts of the country.
There are Jewish camps that offer programs for children with disabilities including, but not limited to: Deafness, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental disabilities as well as physical disabilities. I want to share a few examples of such programs. The Foundation for Jewish Camp welcomed Aryeh Adventures, its newest summer program for teens with disabilities in 2014. It is a teen travel program where participants travel across the West Coast. In the summer of 2014, Camp L’man Achai opened a program for Deaf boys and has plans for an even larger group this summer. Round Lake Camp of NJY Camps offers specialty camps with a variety of options including fine arts, sports and the sciences. Camp Moshava Malibu opened its doors in the summer of 2014 and already experienced much success with its inclusion program. Camp Yavneh in partnership with Yachad will open an inclusion program in the summer of 2015 and Camp Ramah Darom which runs a family camp, Camp Yofi, at the end of each summer, will now offer summer sessions for children with disabilities. Camp HASC is another such program which is focused on serving the social, therapeutic, academic, recreational, and medical needs of campers with intellectual and physical disabilities.
As you prepare for summer camp, I encourage you to meet with a senior member of the camp staff so that you can get a better sense of whether a particular camp would be a good fit for your child. You should also feel comfortable sharing as much information as possible about your child with the staff at your camp so they can begin to prepare for a successful summer for your child. Feel free to share things that make your child happy, their interests, their fears, their favorite bedtime rituals, their triggers and strategies that work well for you at home or for the teachers at home. Let the staff know how they can support your child and what tools they can use to help to make for a meaningful and fun summer at Jewish camp.
The number and variety of options will continue to expand as the Foundation for Jewish Camp continues to work towards our goal of meeting the needs of a diverse community and ensuring that every Jewish child experiences the joy of Jewish camp.
A colleague recently voiced frustration that “mitzvah” has been mis-translated as “good deed” instead of “commandment.” I agreed, griping in tandem. And then…this happened: In the Davis Academy Middle School Sukkah, we fulfilled a series of commandments, and it felt like such a good deed! What a joy for the students who signed up to host and entertain participants in a Jewish Family & Career Services program for adults with developmental disabilities.
We started out by having our Jewish Life Leadership students understand what the program would entail for them and for their classmates. Then, they agreed to advertise it in one of our all-school Tefillah programs. Sign up sheets went up and kids from 6th, 7th, and 8th grade signed their names, checking with multiple teachers to make sure that they could miss classes during the time of the activity.
They prepared themselves by asking questions and gathering at 15 minutes early on the day our guests were slated to arrive. They asked such important, thoughtful, kind questions:
“What kind of disabilities will they have?”
“What if they’re gluten-free?”
“Can I eat my lunch while they’re eating?”
I asked the students if they could name all of the mitzvot – commandments – that they were doing. The most interesting question that came up was about bikur cholim, visiting the sick. A student asked if we were visiting the sick, because our guests have disabilities. In our open group discussion, we found that while our guests may have certain limitations, they’re not actually sick and in need of healing. Thus, we settled on building community, kehillah, one of our school’s core values, in addition to the mitzvot of welcoming guests and welcoming guests into their sukkah.
When our guests arrived, students were eager to welcome them, peeking out of the front door of the school, bopping around with smiles on their faces, and leaping to introduce themselves to their new friends. Students offered to fill out their new friends’ guest name tags, and went in pairs downstairs to lunch. It was a little too soggy out at the sukkah, due to pretty gloomy weather, so we ate lunch in our cafeteria alongside our entire 6th grade. Escorted through our lunch line (on pizza day!), our guests filled their plates with food and filled their tables with conversation. Some residents were less verbal and some were more loquacious, but every Davis Academy student asked and answered questions, telling stories and learning about their new friends.
After lunch, and clearing off the tables, our students, joined by an 8th grade Hebrew class, escorted our guests outside to our sukkah. Luckily, the skies were clearing, and as a group, we were able to stand in the sukkah, learn a bit about its construction, and learn and follow along with the blessings for shaking the etrog and lulav. Many, if not all, of our guests were not Jewish, and had never been exposed to this holiday, and many were tickled by the exposed sky through the sukkah’s schach, in this case, a bamboo roof.
At the end of the program, students and guests hugged and smiled, posed for pictures, and bid each other farewell. Guests chattered happily with their staff members as they left for the next part of their day, and our students went back to class with their hearts full and eyes gleaming with happiness. They all felt so good for what they had been able to do, and that through these commandments, they had done a good deed.
Summer is over and the excitement of my son Jonah’s longest ever stay at sleep-away camp, three weeks, is starting to feel like a distant memory, an anomaly even. In other words, fall is here and things are returning to what feels, for better or worse, like normal for a family with a child with autism.
If summer seemed full of promise, fall feels more precarious. School has started. There are buses to be met, lunches to be prepared. And the leaves are changing. The fickleness of the weather—balmy one day, freezing the next—is not something I ever paid much attention to as a lifelong Montrealer. But most kids on the autism spectrum don’t like change and Jonah’s no exception. That includes changes in the temperature. Some mornings, he and I end up in drawn-out, complicated debates about the appropriateness, say, of wearing shorts and sandals on a chilly October morning.
This time of year, the Jewish High Holidays, also add to the feeling that we’re back on the same old autumnal schedule. My family remains actively involved with our Reform Temple, often without me, I confess. For the start of Rosh Hashanah, for instance, Cynthia and Jonah showed up along with the rabbi and other members of the congregation at a pond in a neighborhood park to participate in Tashlich or the ritual of casting away our sins. As Cynthia described it to me later, the ceremony began with some songs and prayers and the usual-suspect list of sins: deception, selfishness, arrogance, that kind of thing.
Everyone had also shown up with bread crumbs—symbols of their transgressions—which they were expected to throw into the pond. Before doing this though, each person went off on his or her own. It was an opportunity to meditate on the past year and the year to come. “I liked that part,” Cynthia told me later. “But Jonah really got into throwing the bread into the water.” Apparently, he had used his meditation time to compile a rather extensive list of kids he’d bugged on the school bus. Cynthia did her best to keep pace, but it wasn’t easy. As Tashlich ended, Jonah, with his own typically dramatic flair, threw one final and substantial fistful of bread crumbs into the pond, exclaiming as he did: “I cast away the sin of being a pest.”
Fall, more than any other season, reminds me that I have to be aware of how our son interacts with the world and how the world responds to him. The world, I’m afraid, does not always respond well. Lately, I’ve noticed more jokes about “short buses” – the kind of school bus that picks up Jonah every day—and the kids who ride them than in recent years. I’ve heard these jokes repeated, in one hurtful form or another, on TV shows, spoken by beloved characters, on podcasts from respected cultural and political commentators, even at a speech at a wedding of close friends we recently attended. I know it is easy, sometimes reflexive, to make fun of people who are different. I just wish it weren’t. I wish that this commonplace, everyday kind of intolerance was one transgression we all worked harder to cast off.
People are mostly nice, Cynthia wanted me to add here, but there are still looks and comments she and I deal with or, more likely, ignore every day when we are out in the world with Jonah. They happen everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Here’s an example of an experience Cynthia and Jonah had the other day at Temple. The story is related in my wife’s words:
“I was looking around at the family service and all the beautiful children, especially a little girl snuggling with a boy and an even littler girl. I thought how nice it was for them to have that cosy time together and to get a good feeling for the service. Then this sweet little girl turned around and told my son, who was singing the prayer (correctly, I might add), to be quiet. Then my son started talking to himself and writing with his finger (a kind of stim he uses to calm himself). The little girl looked at her friends and made the finger sign for ‘crazy’ about my son. I am not sure if he noticed or not.”
Incidentally, Cynthia emailed this story to our rabbi, who included the passage in her recent Rosh Hashanah sermon on tikkun olam. To Cynthia’s story, the rabbi added: “There is so much that needs healing. But our tradition teaches that that is precisely why we are here and why our existence is worthwhile: to be God’s hands in this world.”
Last year, Cynthia started a special needs committee at the Temple. The idea remains a simple one – help make a place already welcoming, by definition, become more so.
“I don’t know how to help these children be more compassionate and be enriched by people who are different,” Cynthia concluded in her email to the rabbi, “but that is the goal.”
Not a bad one for this time or any time of year. Not a bad time, either, to cast off the normal ways of thinking about my son and others like him and get to work on fashioning a new normal.
Shana tova and chag sameach! The Jewish fall calendar is full of celebration and festivities and one of my favorites is Sukkot. During Sukkot, we commemorate the forty years during which the Israelites wandered through the desert and lived in temporary shelters. On this holiday, we are commanded to build a sukkah and to “dwell” there.
Sukkot is an opportunity for us to think about and explore the concept of “home”. My husband and co-director, Gilad, and I have been thinking a lot about “home” in the last few weeks. After seven years of living at the Ranch Camp full-time and having it be our primary residence, we now have officially moved to our own property a little ways away. Moving is truly bitter-sweet. After all, we have considered camp our home for many years, even before we moved there permanently at the beginning of our directorship. I know that many current and past campers out there will know what I mean when I say that camp feels like the truest version of “home”. It is a place that is constant, unwavering, a safe haven; a magical place where you can be the best version of yourself (if you allow it to be so) and where there are always loving arms to embrace you both figuratively and literally. While I look forward to establishing a home in this new house of ours, I am also grateful that camp will remain my “forever home” and my summer seasonal residence.
I encourage you during this holiday season to consider what “home” means to you. What constitutes a home? How do you make a new place feel like your home? What do you really need and what is most important to you when establishing a home? Perhaps in asking yourself these questions, you will come to the conclusion, as I have, that home has very little to do with the walls and things that surround you. Sukkot offers us an opportunity each year to ask these important questions, do some introspection, get back to the basics and re-ground ourselves as we enter into a new Jewish year.
So get outside and enjoy! And here are some suggestions for how to bring a little camp into this already very outdoorsy holiday:
Connecting with Nature
Build a fort using natural materials
Sleep outside under the stars
Have a picnic
Make fall decorations from natural objects
Visit a local orchard and harvest your own fruit
Tikkun Olam Projects
As the seasons change and the weather grows colder, we acknowledge that not everyone in our community is lucky enough to have regular access to shelter and food. Consider making a donation to your local homeless shelter and food bank!
What is wrong with the title of this article?
It’s simple, Instagram is not for children under the age of 13 years-old, but some parents are allowing their children to create social media accounts prior to reaching this legal age requirement.
What message does this send to your child?
Are you children above the rules online?
Just because you believe the child is ready for this social media, you can over-ride the rules?
What is the lesson that will carry into your child’s future?
Rules, guidelines and boundaries are given to us for a reason. Whether we are adults or children, safety should always be a priority.
The Internet isn’t any different; it has rules and regulations for our own good. Sometimes known as code of conduct or terms of service (TOS), these guidelines are implemented to protect their users and age restrictions are put in place for a reason. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was enacted to protect children under the age of 13. COPPA actually makes it illegal for kids to sign-up for Instagram and other social media sites that have age restrictions.
What parents need to keep in mind is this is not about Instagram not liking little kids; it is about what is in the best interest of their children. Maybe parents don’t understand what is truly lingering on these sites — it may not be for little ones’ eyes. Remember, even with the best privacy settings, there can be mishaps in cyberspace.
Monitoring our children online is part of parenting today. Prior generations didn’t have to worry about texting, tweeting, emailing, or other digital habits. We have decisions to make today that our parent’s never had:
• When should we give our child their first computer?
• When should we give our child their first tablet?
• When should we give our child their first cell phone? Smartphone?
• When should we allow our child on social media sites?
In many families the first few questions may come down to economics, which is reasonable, combined with the responsibility of your child.
However the last question is one that has been up for debate with some parents. According to a recent study, four out of ten children give a false age to be able to create accounts on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Some parents may believe their child is ready for Instagram, but the fact remains that Instagram is not ready for them.
Facebook recently announced they are working on a patent to allow kids under 13 to join. In doing this they are working to comply with the section of COPPA’s that prohibits children under 13 from using online services that collect data without explicit “verifiable parental consent”.
Even if Facebook is able to find a way to follow COPPA and allow younger kids online, offline parenting remains your best tool for your child’s online safety. Communication is key to digital decisions for social media choices.
Unfortunately, your child can still go behind your back and create a fake email account and attempt to join any social media site they want to. It’s your job to equip them with knowledge and empower them with tools to know better than to create a fake account or, if they do, enable them to make wise choices when confronted with uncomfortable situations.
It’s not about denying them access to Instagram, it’s about helping them to understand that we are not above the rules, and the rules are put in place for our protection. Instagram is not all about fun and funny photos. As many headlines have outlined over the years, there are disturbing things that can take place on Instagram such as porn, cyberbullying, predators and more.
Give your children other age appropriate, social media options and encourage them to share them with their peers. There are some excellent social networking sites for children under 13 years old. Visit Common Sense Media for Kids for a list to choose from.
When your child comes to you and says “All the other kids are on Instagram, why can’t I sign up for it?” be prepared to have a conversation about COPPA, following the rules of the Internet, and although you may trust your child, you know Instagram is not a place for them.
At the end of the day, it’s about the best interest of your child — and being under-aged on Instagram is not in their best interest.
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As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.
Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.
I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my gay children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):
1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.
2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.
3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.
4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.
5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha—sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.
6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children— not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.
7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi—she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.
8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu—to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.
There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.
In the Talmud, the following story is told: One day Moses descended from heaven and sat down in the eighth row behind Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and listened to the discussions on the Torah. Moses knew the letters and the words but did not understand any of the arguments and or follow what they were saying. Eventually, the disciples asked Rabbi Akiva, “Master, where did you learn this?” and Rabbi Akiva replied, “It is that which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.”
In a sense, that’s how I felt as a member of the faculty at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, which just wrapped a very successful inaugural summer. No, I’m not comparing myself to Moses. I’m saying that like Moses, I knew all of the letters and words but still couldn’t always follow what the kids at Sci-Tech were saying.
Despite having graduated with an electrical diploma from Brooklyn Technical High School, and despite being certified to teach 5th – 9th grade math, Sci-Tech campers’ breadth and knowledge of robotics, video game design, environmental science, and digital media production was astounding. Some things I learned during my time with them included the definition of MMO, M7, SSD, a dangle, and VCI; many of our conversations focused on calculus, derivatives, and linear functions. You know, just ordinary camp conversation!
Amidst the dense but commonplace dialogue, campers were also constantly reminded of the camp’s unique equation: Science + Judaism= fun. The campers, who hailed from 22 states and Canada, were constantly reminded of the four goals of camp:sakranut (curiosity), kesher (connection), taglit (discovery), and kavod (respect), in everything they did. Those goals permeated the entire camp experience, from the morning’s Boker Big Bang (where something was usually set on fire or soaring in the air),to each meal, where campers joyfully sang prayers; at the ever-popular gaga pit, and during menucha (rest time) and breirah (free time).
At Sci-Tech, loners are never lonely, which may be one of the most fascinating and powerful things I witnessed—even beyond the highly detailed explanation I received from Israeli Tech staff on how the Iron Dome defense system works. Sci-Tech campers were always working in partnership or in small groups with other like-minded campers, or with counselors, who acted more like mentors and spoke the same language as the campers. Campers learned to respect others’ opinions and ideas while learning how to compromise. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a camper comment, “I thought I knew so much when I came here, but many of the other campers know so much more.”
For children with an affinity for science and technology, nothing is more ideal than being a quick bus ride away from the MIT corridor. Forget trips to the Boston arcade or the bowling alley. Sci- Tech campers had the opportunity to take field trips to Hermonix, a video game design company in Cambridge; iRobot, a robot factory founded by MIT roboticists; Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant; the WIND Technology testing center; and the MIT Museum.
And what of the culinary spread? Because camp is located on the grounds of The Governor’s Academy, the oldest independent boarding school in the United States, Sci-Tech has access to a state-of-the-art dining hall. One visitor likened it to eating three meals a day in a gourmet restaurant.
Luisa, the camp nurse, had nothing but praise for the facilities and the experience. She told me, “It’s the type of place where, if you didn’t need the money, you would work for free. It’s the kind of place kids with passion will always be welcomed with open arms.” And it’s the type of place where nearly every camper said they were going to urge their parents to let them return next summer.
I have a confession to make: I am deep in the middle of post-summer camp blues. Campers and staff, and possibly many Canteen parents, understand this feeling. It’s different than being knee deep in post-summer blues. The post-summer blues (which usually come around January and February) suggests missing the feeling of grass in between my toes on the athletic field, or the cool feeling of the lake on a hot day. For me it is distinctly different than the August and September post-summer camp blues. The post-summer camp blues are the camp memories and feelings I can remember so vividly it could have happened yesterday. Only camp ended three weeks ago and school is just around the corner. The post-summer camp blues are when you obsessively make plans with your camp friends for every free weekend, and you sing the Birkat Hamazon in your head (or out loud) after every meal. Sentences frequently start with “this summer at camp…” Eventually, as school picks up, these feelings start to fade. But for now, the post-summer camp blues are in full swing.
Last week, as I was really experiencing the post-summer camp blues, I got a text message from my summer roommate. She was going to be in Boston as part of her post-camp American travels, and she wanted to meet up. I met her, her boyfriend, and two other summer staff on a quiet, sunny day in Harvard Square. We spent the next couple of hours wandering around downtown Boston, and it was just the type of fun I needed. Even though I hadn’t been close with everybody traveling in the group (the consequence of being in two different departments during the summer!) it still felt right. We might not have all spent time together during the summer, but spending an afternoon together laughing and joking about all the absurdities that happen at camp felt like home.
As a camper, the days after camp ends were always filled with sleepovers and play dates with just camp friends. My friends and I would spend hours together in my living room laughing over nonsensical inside jokes and singing camp songs in an effort to re-create that effervescent summer feeling. And maybe you would be surprised to know (or probably not, given the readership demographic of this blog!) but as a staff member, we crave the same thing. Every summer, in the weeks after camp ends, my Facebook newsfeed is clogged with photos of staff taking post-summer trips together. In fact, just this week I scrolled past a photo of two camp supervisors sporting their staff t-shirts at the very top of Machu Picchu. I found myself unable to contain my smile at the sight of them wearing their camp shirts in Peru.
Summer is over, and while we are all deep in the middle of post-summer camp blues, the magic of camp is currently being re-created both in living rooms at home and the far reaches around the world. My summer home might be closed for the next ten months, but the people who embody its spirit are really just a phone call or mouse click away. How lucky are we? As a camp person, you are never too far away from the people you call home.
According to Hasidic thinking the days of Elul are the time when “the King is in the field.” The metaphor follows that gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, these royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.
Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. According to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavicher Rebbe) during Elul “anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b) Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. This explains the shofar. Here in the field the formality is transformed into familiarity. We the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive personalized blessings. During Elul, with limited effort, the King is accessible. We just need to go out and greet the King.
When I try to imagine that space of meeting the King in the field I am transported to rich memories from my youth in nature at camp. Jewish summer camp is an amazing place where many of us had our first experiences of spirituality, community, and personal connections to Jewish life.
In my six years working at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I am consistently amazed by the senior leadership at camp. Each of them in their own way play an incredible role in setting the stage for joyous Judaism in their camp utopia. While most of the year they are running a business called camp, when the time comes to move up to camp they are transformed. You will see many of them walking around their camps picking up trash as if you were in their living rooms. They treat camp as their home and they invite hundreds of people to sleep over. Walking around camp they know everyone’s names, their stories, and how to make personal connections. They decide who stays and who goes. They are responsible for so many lives, but they are not cowering behind their desks. Rather, they are out there on the playing on the baseball field. In the environment of camp the senior leadership is king, but camp is special because they know that their power is making room for others and being accessible. Each camp is creating an environment in which their campers and staff feel that they belong, make a difference, and are part of something bigger then themselves. We all owe the camp leadership a great deal. Thank you. In these moments we can experience the majesty of Elul.
Have a wonderful New Year.
I’ve been involved with the Foundation for Jewish Camp for a long time. I’m a Nadiv educator (working in a shared job between URJ Camp Coleman and The Davis Academy, a day school in Atlanta), I’ve worked on the Cornerstone Fellowship program for years, and I even worked in the NY office. As a result, I know many, many people involved in the programs. What’s awesome is when they come to visit me!
Recently, an Atlanta camp fair brought a number of my colleagues into town. First, my URJ 6 Points SciTech colleague (and former Coleman programmer) Robbie Berg, let me know he’d be in town. Since Robbie had visited Davis before, we discussed bringing him in to do something exciting for the middle school kids in Tefillah. More camps signed up for the camp fair, and the emails kept coming! Other camp people from around the country – my incubator friends – wanted to come teach at Davis! SciTech is just one of the latest crop of incubator camps – and Mara Berde from JCC Maccabi Sports Camp and Dan Baer from Camp, Inc. wanted to come and learn with the students at Davis. We worked out interest-based Tefillah, where each kid got a taste of the incubator camp offerings. Twenty minutes were dedicated to your topic of choice – SciTech, Business or Sports – and then 10 minutes to the other two options.
For 40 minutes, students scribbled ideas about their potential businesses and their “special sauce” secrets to success. Students squealed with delight at the SciTech Boker Big Bang pops and explosions, and students shouted with ruach for whomever bested them in rock-paper-scissors (which is apparently called Rochambeau on the West Coast). There were business conversations, scientific hypothesizing, and sportsmanship chatter. Each Incubator related their work to Jewish topics, such as philanthropy, ruach, caring for your body, and the daily morning blessing of thanks for being made a free person.
It just so happens that Mara and Robbie are two of the most influential educators I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from and work with in my life, and Dan and I have also had positive interactions for years. What a blessing to be able to share these friends with my amazing students! What a cool school to trust me to bring in cool campy people, ready to make a difference and have some fun. I’m so glad that the Foundation for Jewish Camp keeps finding ways for me to share my friends, and their genius, with others!