The following post is the second in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.
In an often-told story, Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. His response was, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow person.” This is the foundation of the most basic rule of Jewish ethics: We should do no harm to other people.
Most of us don’t think of skipping the gym or choosing fries over salad as ethical decisions. These are personal decisions, the rationale goes, because they don’t harm others. But before deciding on your next snack, you might consider a very new perspective on Jewish ethics: Making unhealthy decisions is unethical because of the impact those decisions have on our peers.
Let’s use a brief thought experiment to understand why: If I were to tell you that most of my friends are health-conscious gym members, what would be your most reasonable conclusion about me? If you answered that I am also a health-conscious gym member, then you have successfully learned something about me from a statement about my friends.
Some recent research actually provides scientific backing for this conclusion. Social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found a correlation between our personal health choices and the choices made by members of our social circle. Their study, which relied on data from one of the longest health studies of the past 100 years, The Framingham Heart Study, led to the theory that seemingly-personal decisions about health influence the behavior of others. When one person in a community is active and eats healthy foods, everyone around them is more likely to do the same.
The Talmud teaches that “all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.” Based on this ideal, we all might do a little more to make good choices and inspire healthy living in our community. This is why my wife and I decided to launch Camp Zeke, the first Jewish camp where kids celebrate healthy, active living.
Our inaugural summer is off to an amazing start. Campers are choosing from action-packed electives like running, yoga, strength training, dance, gymnastics, Krav Maga, and sports. They’re also putting on aprons and cooking healthy, gourmet dishes with a professional chef. In the process of making lifelong memories and forming amazing bonds with new friends, our campers are making very real connections between Judaism, nutrition, and fitness. When they go back home as ambassadors of vibrant good health, they will bring all of us one step closer to a healthier Jewish community.
Our staff have arrived for training and summer is soon underway! All year long I work hard to recruit staff, interview them, and hire the most exceptional applicants to work with our campers. This process comes to a climax on the first day of staff training week, when all the individuals who I have hired over the course of the year arrive to camp and gather in our Commons. There we circle up, and I get to see the team I have worked to form.
I love that moment when I look around the circle of staff for the first time. All of these faces that I know from the interviews that I conducted, along with little facts about their lives, goals, and interests. I know them all as individuals and now during this training week, I will work to transform this a group of unique individuals into a strong, united staff team. It is a phenomenal process, one that is only topped by the arrival of our campers.
I can’t wait to see how these staff members grow over the course of the summer and work to change the lives of our campers. They have so many talents to share, stories to tell, and skills with which to enrich the camper experience. For some staff members, this summer is a goal they have been working towards for years as a camper that grew up at camp. For others, this is an entirely new experience and one they are taking on with an open mind, open heart. But no matter our various backgrounds, we are all here for a common purpose – the kids.
We are really looking forward to the arrival of our campers so that we can work to change their lives in positive ways! I once attended a seminar where the presenter said something to the effect that without our campers, camp staff would simply be a collection of very trained, talented, and enthusiastic adults with nothing to do. As much fun as we are having this week, the magic isn’t created without our campers. So enjoy your final days of camp preparation at home and make sure to fill out all of your pending camp forms! We are waiting for your children and can’t wait to have the best summer ever.
“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” ~ Maya Angelou
When I think about the most significant experiences in my life to date, events that helped propel me into adulthood and that gave me the confidence to venture out on my own, my last year as a camper here at the Ranch Camp always comes to mind. At age fifteen, I participated in Ranch Camp’s TASC (Teen Adventure and Service Corps) program, where I learned a lot about the art of surrender.
Ranch Camp’s TASC program consists of a 10-day trip away from camp where campers go backpacking, whitewater rafting, enjoy a Colorado hot spring, and participate in a community service project. My parents were never especially outdoorsy, so I went into my TASC year as a total backpacking novice having never spent any length of time on a camping trip. We went to a camping store to buy all the gear I needed (most of which I still have to this day) and I headed off to camp that summer facing “the great unknown” both excited and nervous.
During our first day of hiking in Colorado’s beautiful backcountry, we were plagued by heavy rain. One boy on my trip was especially slight of build and was weighed down by a very heavy, ill-fitting pack. He had been headstrong and not listened to the staff when we were packing for our trip as they warned him against carrying so much weight. A few miles into our route, he was visibly weak and was having trouble maintaining his footing on the now slippery trail. Seeing his distress, we all stopped and together unpacked his pack and redivided his gear amongst the whole group in order to lighten his load. By each of us taking on a little more, the boy was able to continue and succeed during the rest of our hiking trip. From this experience, I learned the importance of surrendering one’s pride in order to accept the kindness and help of those around you.
My next big lesson came a couple days later when we arrived at the most memorable campsite of our trip. The site was reached after a long, exhausting day of hiking. The site was located next to a gorgeous circular lake that was nestled beneath a horseshoe shaped mountain. And although we were all tired from the long hard hike that day, seeing that the conditions were ripe for a beautiful sunset, one of our staff members invited anyone who wanted to join him to go on an optional hike to catch the sun as it set across the vast mountain range that surrounded us. About six of us decided to join him that evening and we quickly scrambled up a hill to the high vista above our campsite. There we were rewarded by the most spectacular sunset that I’ve ever seen, even to this day. The views were breathtaking and the colors were so vivid – it was majestic, magical, and memorable. I felt like I was on top of the world that evening and it was there that I learned the beauty that can be beheld when you surrender your bodily exhaustion and push yourself to find your inner strength.
We finished an amazing TASC trip and headed back to camp for the final few days of the session, and suddenly the last day of camp was upon us. Like all last days of camp, I remember there being hugs, tears, and prolonged goodbyes. It’s never easy to leave camp, your friends, and the staff members you grow to love. For me, this particular last day of camp was even more difficult because I knew that I was never going to come back to Ranch Camp as a camper. This chapter in my camp life was ending and the next time I would come back to camp, I’d be returning as a staff member. Nothing was ever going to be the same and I had no choice in that moment but to let go and embrace the future. It was here that I learned the importance of surrendering what has passed for the prospect of what is to come.
Camp has taught me so much over the years but my TASC trip at age fifteen was a profound learning experience. During that summer, I learned that not only was surrendering honorable but also empowering. For giving yourself over totally to an experience is as awesome as it is fulfilling.
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There are plenty of reasons I became a social worker and a camp director within the Jewish community. Recently, there have been a chain of events that have shown me that I had no idea what the true benefits of my job choice would be. I mean, I knew I was pretty fulfilled with my life; I enjoy waking up to go to work and feel somewhat valuable in the daily life grind. But there have been instances recently that have led me to believe that this job I chose might have this incredible side effect: this job gives me HOPE.
Hope, as defined by good old Webster’s, is: “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”
Hope is perhaps the single greatest benefit that could be bestowed upon another person, and this job allows me to hope so very much. There are a lot of negatives in a daily CNN viewing – people seem to be pretty messed up on this planet. here are so many people fighting for freedoms, against violence and just for the right to gain more education that it is actually heart-breaking. I look around at times and wonder: WHAT IS GOING ON? People can’t shop at a mall safely. Countries are maiming and killing their own. Schools spend so much time trying to answer to the state that they don’t get an opportunity to create a love of learning. I could go on and on … and sometimes, for just moments, I do. I get so discouraged. It all feels like it is never going to get better.
But then it happens. I talk to one of my staff members from the summer and I realize that there is so much ahead. I know that working with children allows most people to gain some wistful thoughts about the future, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about being so blessed as to meet the next generation of people who are going to make this world a better place. I am talking about the letters I get to write to City Year, Avodah, Teach for America and other year-long volunteer programs that my staff are hoping to get into. I speak to them and they talk about taking a year off to work in organic farming, volunteer for an environmental company, or take a year to live in another country to educate people and gain knowledge about what is “out there.” These 20-somethings are not getting arrested for DUIs or creating havoc, they are not blasé about the world around them; they are creating change and working towards the betterment of others.
As camping professionals, we use the term “role model” for our staff. We talk with them about how the kids need to look up to them. But I don’t think it ever dawned on me that they are my role models too. These young people are what keep me positive and aware. They inform me about things that I sometimes have stopped paying attention to in my cynical views of the world. These young adults keep me HOPEFUL. They don’t let the world beat them down; they fight it, they know they can make a difference, and they give me back my idealism. Who would have thought it? I spend hours in a year creating an orientation for them to know how to work with children and all along they are giving me one of life’s greatest gifts just by being themselves.
Whether it be a video sent to me where ten of my former staff are celebrating Shabbat together and just wanted me to know that camp made a difference, or a staff member from 20 years ago posts a Facebook message that they are working with children who learn differently and that camp made the difference for them to chose that career, or even when I reconnect with my own peers from my days of being a camp counselor and I realize that, well, these people are the good ones, the ones who are doing things that make this world a more productive, compassionate, and better place. My staff call during their own time to let me know that two campers are having an issue on-line and how can they help. They ask me about what the adulthood thing is really like and are there any secrets to making it all work. They care for and about each other and others. They make me proud. With that pride comes a realization that something good is happening in these summer homes. We are not merely helping families and children through their search for a Jewish connection or a place where kids can be better than they get to be in their everyday lives. We are allowing these staff to create glimmers of positivity. They are learning and being and creating HOPE.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
The gates of camp will open in just over 100 days, and our participants from around the country are already counting down to sunny days at their summer home. At Kutz Camp, one aspect of camp we are particularly proud of is our Mitzvah Corps program. With the recent focus on disabilities and inclusion, it makes going into our 23rd summer of special needs camping that much more special. The Mitzvah Corps program at Kutz has grown and evolved into a truly integrated, mainstreamed summer camp program for Jewish teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). There are two aspects of this program that are really remarkable.
The Mitzvah Corps program itself has been designed to meet the unique needs and characteristics of each participant in the program, creating individualized accommodations and modifications which allow each camper to succeed. These teens enjoy every aspect of camp life, and are able to build independence and resilience by having real choices in their daily activities. They are welcomed into the community with open arms, into an environment which fosters reciprocal learning, empathy, and understanding. In this open, friendly and supportive camp community, our teens with ASD are able to create friendships, explore their identity, gain independence, and grow in many ways. Perhaps the greatest outgrowth of this program is meeting with the parents of these teens, who are often overcome with gratitude and emotion for making a normative summer camp experience available to their child.
One of our campers, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, loves learning about Judaism and is particularly interested in prayer. She finds it difficult to fit in with her peers at school and in her home congregation. At camp, she participated in the Torah Corps Major, where teens gather for three hours each morning to study Jewish text, Jewish history, and engage in meaningful discussion and debate about a variety of topics relating to Judaism. Throughout the day she chose classes to attend on the subjects of Israeli culture and Jewish ethics, and participated in a variety of other activities and experiences. On the last night of camp, during a closing circle with the all of camp, she, who is generally very quiet and prefers not to be around large groups of people, stood up and addressed the group. She thanked everyone for helping create a place where she felt that she could “unwind.”
A few days after returning home from camp, her mother shared, “My daughter came home with enormously enthusiastic reports about her time at camp. She said she loved the Torah study and Israeli culture sessions and the singing and services. I really couldn’t be happier. Her older sister commented tonight that she was so much more outgoing and engaged this evening than she was before she left. We all think this is because she got accustomed to the much higher level of social demand at camp and it really strengthened her ability and desire to engage. I can’t tell you what a giant step forward this experience is for her. We are excited about how it has enriched her life and the possibilities it opens up for her future.”
In addition to the incredibly talented and dedicated staff who help make this program a reality, what gives the program its sparkle are the Chaverim. At Kutz each teen chooses a Major, a leadership learning area that is their primary focus during the session. The Mitzvah Corps Major is comprised of neurotypical teens that learn the skills of special needs inclusion, and are able to work as peer-engagers, helping with the integration of our special needs population into mainstream camp culture.
Not only are we able to provide a safe, nurturing, camp experience for our teens with ASD, we are also able to train the next generation of compassionate young people who will choose to continue this valuable work of accessibility for special needs populations as they move through college and into the work world. Fostering the next generation of advocates who will stand on the shoulders of all of those doing remarkable work around disabilities and inclusion today is one example of our commitment to a vibrant and just Jewish future. We are so proud of our hundreds of alumni of this remarkable program.
Find out more about URJ programs designed for special needs populations here.
Our friends at JTA have rounded up some of their readers’ most amusing camp stores.
From New York’s Eden Village Camp:
Craziest thing confiscated: A mom who knew that we don’t allow candy at camp wanted to give her kids a special treat, so she packed some Snickers bars in a tampon box! While we applaud the creativity, it didn’t change our “no candy at camp” rule.
Most extreme example of helicopter parenting: We had a parent who actually flew over in a helicopter! (He was a pilot, but still! He took an amazing aerial photo of camp.)
Most amusing crisis weathered: The freezer broke on the hottest day of the summer, and the campers were forced to eat all of our homemade ice cream.
And find JTA’s complete 2014 Jewish camp package, full of articles and fun features here.
Gilad and I welcomed our baby girl into the world on January 1st. Sivan Amali Shwartz arrived just in time to help us celebrate one of my favorite Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, which began last night.
Tu Bishvat is known as the New Year of the trees, or Jewish Arbor Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate trees and all their fruits, as well as the beauty and wonder of Nature. There are many different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat – planting trees, participating in a Tu Bishvat seder, writing prayers for the trees, decorating trees with personal prayers and/or psalms, or simply eating fruit!
During camp each summer, it feels like a 10 week Tu Bishvat celebration in many ways. It is amazing to see campers arrive to camp and become immersed in the natural world around them. Free of their video games, computers, smart phones, and other technology, campers return to picking up natural materials and playing with them. Many of these materials come from the plethora of ponderosa pine trees that are situated on the Ranch Camp property. Sticks, pine cones, and pieces of bark transform from something that campers may not even take notice of at home to exciting toys and building materials here at camp.
For the last two summers, one of our most popular chuggim (electives) has been Fort Building. Boys and girls eagerly venture out into the forest, collect tree branches and construct natural structures with the help of staff members. I love to walk out and observe campers doing this activity. It never ceases to amaze me how really little it takes to make kids happy when they are given a mission and are turned loose in nature to use their imaginations and make it happen. The children play with and amongst the branches of our forest and in turn, become reconnected with the natural world around them.
Sivan is a little too young this year to truly celebrate Tu B’Shevat but I’m grateful that she will share her birthday roughly with that of the trees each year. Tu Bishvat is a great opportunity for us to get out in nature with our children and share with them the wonders of Creation.
Chag Sameach! Here are some resources to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat with your family this year:
1. Punk Torah’s Tu Bishvat Ideas
2. Make a Fruit Mandela With Your Kids, From Kveller
3. Creative Jewish Mom’s Tu Bishvat Crafts
4. MyJewishLearning’s Tu Bishvat Recipes
I recently saw “Matilda” on Broadway. Let me tell you – the kids in that show are incredible! I was truly in awe of the way they sang and danced with such energy, enthusiasm, and excitement; their talent was almost overwhelming.
Besides the amazing actors, the awesome and colorful sets, and the wildly imaginative staging, I was really touched by the story. (I’m not sure I ever read the bookand it’s been more than a decade since I last saw the fantastic movie version.) From a young age, Matilda is misunderstood, under-appreciated, and shockingly unloved by her parents. In a school with a horrifying headmistress, she is seen for who she really is by a kind, gentle, loving teacher. The friendships and new families that form throughout the story are inspiring and remind us of the incredible power of positive connections.
Along the way, some magic happens and so does some “magic.” If I tell you the first, it might give away too much of the story. The latter, on the other hand, is well worth sharing. In one song that stayed in my head for days, the kids sing what has been clearly drilled into their heads over and over again: that they are “revolting children living in revolting times.” The magic of Matilda is in the realization that nothing could be less true: despite (or, perhaps, because of) the revolting tyranny of the adults around them, these kids really know how to act. Maybe this is the kind of revolting they mean – revolting against a view of the world, and of childhood, that is itself revolting. These kids know how to treat one another, how to celebrate differences, and how to work together for the common good.
After a few weeks of break (or, at least, a change of pace), we recently headed back to school. In the course of our regularly scheduled lives, it can be easy to miss the magic. It’s all too easy to see the revolting times and tell ourselves – and our kids – that we are a product of that kind of a world. But if we look more closely, we know better. We know that there are incredibly talented children out there. We know that they are taught by teachers who are caring, passionate, and creative. We know that they can build communities that will help to make the world a better place. And, even if it’s easy to forget when the lights go back up in the theater, we know that there is magic in the world.
Have you ever felt immediately welcomed in a new place? Well recently, Gilad came back from a recruiting trip to a congregation here in Colorado beaming from his experience. We had never been to this particular synagogue before and therefore, didn’t know what to expect or how we would be received. But as soon as Gilad arrived, he was immediately greeted by a point person for the synagogue who welcomed him and invited him to partake in a lunch they were having. There she introduced him to some of the congregants to help him build connections and then some of the children came out to help him bring his materials from the car into the building so that he could set up for his presentation. Gilad felt so embraced by everyone there, so welcomed and included. This spirit of hospitality extended into his presentation, where the children and adults were actively engaged by participating, asking questions, and showing enthusiasm for the information that he was giving.
It is so fun and warming to enter into new environments where this is the experience you have. And this is exactly the kind of environment that we try to build every day at camp, starting from the moment campers arrive.
A few years ago on the first day of Session 2, I remember stepping into our dining hall for the first lunch of the session. The chadar ochel (dining hall) was bustling with ruach (spirit); the air was full of chatter, cheering, and a sense of anticipation for the session ahead. And as I waited in line for my food, a first-time camper approached me and said, “Miriam, I have not even been here a whole day yet, and I already feel like this is my home.” This moment stands out to me as a highlight of my directorship of Ranch Camp because it optimizing our camp mission and what camp is all about really. Ranch Camp has been my home since I was 12 years old and it is always a tremendous thing for me to hear our campers and staff talk about camp in these terms.
We all need a place to belong and thrive. A place to connect, to love, and to be loved. I am so happy to discover new places that make me feel like this in my community, and even happier to provide a camping atmosphere that creates this for the youth that we serve each summer.
*The title of this blog was taken from an Arik Einstein song. Arik was an Israeli music icon who passed away suddenly a few weeks ago, sending the country into a state of mourning. You can listen to this song here.
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More thoughts on giving.
‘Tis the season of thankfulness and giving. Are these words synonymous in meaning when it comes to the holidays? For some the answer is yes and for some no. When I think of the holidays I generally think of family and then quickly think hmmm, what am I going to get everyone this year? Then the thoughts become about me (obviously) and I think, what do I want for the holidays this year? There is so much about this happy exchange, ripping wrapping paper and watching the reaction when exposing the innards of such gifts that make the childish giddiness resurface.
This year when thinking about Hanukkah and gift giving, I am feeling intrigued by the calendar collide. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving join forces forming what is being marketed as Thanksgivukkah. The holiday for which we reflect on what we are thankful for and a holiday that has become a celebration of eight nights of presents. A funny symmetry, receive a gift for one holiday and be thankful for it for another… no, that’s not what this is about? Or is it?
When I was a young girl, part of the requirement towards becoming a Bat Mitzvah was to complete a certain number of hours of community service. I was set up with an organization and once a week after school I went to this office space and stuffed envelopes. I had no idea what I was folding. Not a clue what I was shoving into those white envelopes. And even less of a thought as to whom these envelopes were being sent to. Did I think to ask? Nah. There wasn’t internet at the time and if there was, would I have cared to look up what this organization did? Probably not. I did what was asked of me and earned my necessary community service hours and I am proud to say that I achieved my requirements towards becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Mazel Tov (congrats) to me and anyone else who walked through these motions to meet the requirements of our adolescence.
Flash forward to present day, a time in my life where I use the Hebrew phrases, tikkun olam (heal or repair the world) and tikkun midot (heal from the inside out) almost daily to describe a portion of the Jewish values that we focus on at “my” camp, Passport NYC and at 92Y. Values that help to find meaning in the actions of each day. Meaningful in the way that we reach out to the community within the space we live or the space that surrounds us. Meaningful in the way that helps those around us and the earth beneath our feet. Each and every one of us have the opportunity to find meaningful ways to give, whether it is our time, our money, our leftovers, our unused clothes, our energy, our knowledge, our passion, our friendship, our love – giving lends itself to you, the giver.
Recently I was invited to the 4th birthday party of a close friends son, included in the invite was a link to donate to a charity of the child’s choice in lieu of gifts. I was amazed and impressed. I was thrilled and surprised. I was even more in awe when the child himself told me that he knows there are kids out there that could use the gifts more than him. Yup, 4 years old.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3rd a day has been dedicated to just this, Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday). Our modern day has allowed us to turn the days after giving thanks into days in which sales blast stores and the internet, known as ‘Black Friday’ followed by ‘Cyber Monday’ and within these great sales and opportunities for us consumers to consume the day has come where we can give, however you feel empowered to give.
Maybe this holiday season you choose a charity that means something to you and stuff white envelopes or share a link to a charity you connect with for holiday gift donations or indulge in the wrapping paper ripping, but whatever route you take- giving doesn’t only have to take place when we’re saying thanks. There are so many ways we can give and be thankful that don’t need to come wrapped with bows and dreidel printed paper. We can come together with family and friends this holiday season and give with meaning. I hope you can take your Thanksgivukkah moment to be thankful, to give gifts and to give back and feel thankful for the ability to do just that.