We continue our series on giving.
Autumn is definitely my favorite time of year. I love the change in weather, the trees changing color, getting to wear comfy sweaters, and above all, I love the holiday traditions that span the fall months. Thanksgiving has got to be one of the best American holidays ever. Does it get much better than celebrating with friends and family, expressing gratitude, and sharing in a delicious feast? I think not. I also love that leading up to Thanksgiving, I see a lot of people on social media actively thinking and talking about they are grateful for and how they are celebrating the holiday through acts of giving.
Giving is a concept that is very deep-seeded in Jewish tradition (as is celebrating with loved ones and eating lots of food in the process) and one that I’d like to briefly explore with you here. In Judaism, we commonly use the word tzedakah to describe charitable giving. The Hebrew word tzedakah actually means “justice” or “fairness”. This implies that according to Jewish tradition, giving of one’s self to another, whether with money, time, or kindness, is less about going “above and beyond” and more about acting in a righteous way that that is really just expected of us.
At Ranch Camp, we provide opportunities for campers to take part in tikkun olam projects each summer. Our teen travel programs for instance, all have components in which campers go and volunteer in a variety of worthy settings. It is an important part of the trip program experience, giving our teens an opportunity to develop leadership skills, humility, and compassion. Our hope is also that their volunteer experience instills a sense of the importance of tzedakah in our campers and encourages them to undertake such work throughout their lives. After all, giving of yourself to others feels good. Camp is a great setting to develop a love and passion for tzedakah and tikkun olam – it certainly did for me.
The work projects I took part of through my childhood synagogue and at Ranch Camp made me love volunteer work, and in my adult life, I try to take advantage of any opportunities in my community to give back to others in need. In September, certain areas of Colorado were devastated by flash floods. It was heartbreaking to see homes, businesses, and synagogues in Boulder County destroyed knowing that so many in our camp community were being effected by this unprecedented natural disaster. The Denver JCC organized a group of staff to go up in the aftermath of the flood to one of the synagogues to assist in clean up efforts. Seven of us spent the day moving out sludge, taking down dry wall, and trying our best to wipe away the damage that four feet of water had inflicted on the synagogue’s basement. We worked side by side with men and women who call the synagogue home, both figuratively and literally. You see, this synagogue not only is a spiritual home for congregants but also serves as a community homeless shelter. These special workers were giving of themselves to a place and community that had open their doors them in their time of need – they were giving back. It felt incredibly good to be there that day and volunteer my time to this effort. I felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself and that I was making a difference, even if it was small.
During this holiday season, I ask you and your family to consider dedicating part your Thanksgiving celebration to giving. A donation of money, time, or kindness to those in the community that could use support or aid is sure to enhance your own holiday cheer. I have really found that there is something about getting involved in giving to others that is in turn very beneficial for my own sense of well being and psyche. As Maya Angelou noted, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”
I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving and Hanukkah season ahead!
This holiday season, we have giving on our minds and in our hearts. How camp influences what it means to us, how giving is a part of our lives, how we teach our kids about giving, and more. We encourage you to use these blog posts dedicated to the theme of giving to start conversations with friends and loved ones. Happy holidays!
November Director’s Corner
Fall is one of my favorite times of year – the leaves are changing, the weather is crisp and I find myself concentrating my time on some of my favorite things. My mind wanders through wrapping up camp registration, ramping up summer staffing, kicking our annual scholarship campaign into high gear, planning my family vacation and looking forward to my daughter’s first Hanukkah. These things all have the same season in common and they also share one other very important characteristic. They all center around giving.
I think that most people tend to focus on giving this time of year, usually with a focus on giving (and getting) gifts. Admittedly, that is a nice part of this season and I look forward to watching my daughter’s face as we open Hanukkah gifts. However, the giving that I love so much is a bit different…
With registration wrapping up in September, we get to give 700 campers the opportunity to have the best summer of their lives at Beber Camp! We are part of a community that gives Jewish Identity, life skills, friendships, new experiences and memories that will impact our children for years to come.
With staffing ramping up, we get to give dozens of amazing young role models the chance to positively impact the lives of children. These staff members are committed to developing their campers and are also looking to be developed themselves. We often forget that we are in the staff development business as well and this season starts our intense gift giving through selection, training, preparation, development and staff support processes.
With our annual campaign kicking into high gear, we get to directly give all families the ability to send their children to camp through the generosity of our Beber community. We also get to give our annual scholarship campaign investors the opportunity to support something that they believe in passionately.
With my family vacation, I get to give time and love to my family that is separated by distance most of the year. People will be coming from all over the country to spend time together, reminisce, share and create new memories. I also get to give my family amazing quality time with my daughter Micah and in turn, I get to give Micah one of the greatest gifts I have – her loving, supportive family. It is important to note that one of the reasons that my extended family is so strong is that the kids all spend their summers together at Beber Camp.
Finally, I get to give my immediate family our first Hanukkah. I am beyond excited to share in the magic with my wife and daughter, as we continue to create our own Jewish traditions. The magic that I am anticipating isn’t all about gifts, rather it’s about community, family, love, appreciation and giving. These are things that my family learned directly from our Jewish summer camp experiences.
Hopefully, you are looking forward to this season as well and you are personally excited about giving. Please make sure to take a minute to think about all of the different ways that you can give this season. Maybe it will be the gift of family time or the gift of a summer at camp for your child. Maybe it will be a directed gift to the Jewish summer camp or the gift of encouraging your college-age child to return to camp as a staff. Maybe it is the gift of support, compassion and community…..or maybe it is the gift of another pair of dress socks for the first night of Hanukkah. Thanks in advance, mom!
We are told very early on in our Jewish history of the importance of ruling over our lands responsibly, of tilling and tending to them as shomrei adamah, guardians of the land. It is also something on our minds now more than ever as we endeavor to use events outside our control as a catalyst for responsible growth and stewardship.
On August 17, less than one week after the last of our summer campers went home, the Rim Fire ignited in the Stanislaus National Forest, mere miles from Camp Tawonga. A hunter’s illegal campfire caught the surrounding brush on fire and for the next month a wildfire, that spread over 400 square miles, would become the third largest in California state history, destroying landscape, livelihoods and property.
Through the heroic efforts of firefighting personnel and our own fire suppression practices, Camp Tawonga was spared the worst of the damage, losing three of our 71 buildings and suffering (repairable) damage to some of our program areas. You can see some of that impact in these photos and this video we shared with our community.
It is easy to rush into decisions when a new building or programming space is needed. It is easy to listen to the loudest voice in the room, the voice promising the quickest results or the cheapest options. But we know from years of experiences across all aspects of camp operations that “people support the things they help create.” Knowing that, we take this opportunity to bring people together from across our community to hear their vision not only for what camp will look like next summer but in ten summers.
When constructing something new on land that we were gifted and on which we will ultimately be only passing visitors it is important to consider many factors. These factors include, but are not limited to money, aesthetics, our mission and ethics, green practices, safety, legacy and stewardship. Aligning these vectors may be a time consuming process but will yield results that are lasting and loved.
The four following spiritual reflections lie for us at the heart of all land use decision making:
- We are grateful for all that has been given.
- We are mindful that we are only temporary stewards of this land, holding it for those to come.
- We accept the mitzvah (commandment) to tikkun olam (repair the world).
- We believe it is idolatry to worship the things of our own creation.
By keeping these reflections in mind we harken back to that initial God-given charge to our ancestors, protect and guard the earth.
A camp professional in my adult life, I have always been a camper at heart. I have the deepest, most meaningful relationship with my camp experiences, memories and friends. So much so that five of my friends from my summers away at sleepaway camp and I took a weekend away from our lives—leaving behind significant others and children to escape to the place where time has no meaning. A place where six, 30-something year old women can play, dance, relax and, most of all, laugh like not a moment of time or space has kept us apart. It was a camp weekend away together in the traditional camp setting of sports, arts, waterfront activities, buffet meals and awkward encounters with perfect strangers that rejuvenated my love for why I do what I do.
Much of this year I have spent questioning myself as to why do I do what I do? If I told you this past summer was sunshine, rainbows and easy breeziness I wouldn’t just be lying to you but I’d be lying to myself. This past summer, like the previous in my camp professional career, was hard work. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t laugh uncontrollably or appreciate moments like I did in the days when I was a camper I pushed through, sometimes counting down portions of the day or week just to have time goals to achieve. Was it harder than usual? Maybe. Was it different? Possibly. Was I still doing something I love? Yes. But did I want to cry? If you know me then you know the answer is yes and some days I did (in the privacy of my own moment—although these are few and far between in a summer camp day). Do I want to go through this again? Absolutely… and the reason is because of the long lasting benefit of what this time (these times) can and will stimulate for my camp community. The community we create over the course of 3 weeks of a summer, twice a summer.
On my recent weekend away, one of my dear friends poetically captioned a posted photo “time is meaningless,” actually it was #timeismeaningless. I have spent days reflecting and reusing this simple yet completely complex statement. If you were to replace the word ‘time’ with any other word, this statement would carry a completely different feeling. Try it… Right? But when it comes to time, when it comes to the distance, the space, the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years…when it comes to your camp friends, time really is meaningless. You can pick up from the exact moment you are in and nothing has changed. Even if everything has changed, that friendship in that time has gone unscathed. The time between the two has no meaning but the friendship has all the meaning in the world.
It is times like these that I hope cultivate each camp season. It is this meaningless sense of time that acts as the gift I can provide to my camp community and in turn, the reward for me is the reminder how these times have shaped me. As hard as a day feels, as frustrating or difficult as a conversation can be, the times that we create at camp and the friendships that create those times are the definition to why I do what I do and why I will always remain the camper at heart.
In addition to beginning to plan for the upcoming 2014 camping season, Gilad and I find ourselves also busy preparing to become new parents in approximately three months. We recently started Jewish Baby University (JBU) classes through the JCC, which are not only helping us gain important knowledge about items related to delivery and infant care but perhaps more importantly, giving us an opportunity to discuss how we want to create and maintain a Jewish home.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, a community leader, Ranch Camp parent, and JBU instructor, led a session for the group that Gilad and I found to be very interesting and I want to share it with you here. In the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)*, there is a list of things that parents are obligated to do for their child after birth. Interestingly enough, basic necessities such as providing food, shelter, care, and love for a child are absent from the list. Perhaps the Talmudists felt that these were items likely not to be neglected by parents and therefore unnecessary to mention. Instead, “spiritual care” items are listed related to the obligation to provide a child with knowledge about values, morals, and a sense of shared history or collective memory (Torah). This is interesting in and of itself but then, there is something completely unexpected and even more interesting – included at the end of the list is the obligation to teach your child how to swim! Fascinating.
At first glance, teaching your child how to swim might seem very out of place. However, upon further reflection, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. Certainly, there is great value in literally teaching a child how to swim after all, humans have lived next to bodies of water for tens of thousands of years and certainly this is a matter of basic survival. However, I think the rabbis had a larger intent in mind when writing this. After all, learning how to stay afloat in inhabitable, dangerous, and/or difficult conditions is what life is all about really. And the teaching does not say, “hold your child afloat when swimming” or “make sure your child wears a flotation device at all times when in water,” no, it indicates that we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. And I think this principle is perhaps the essential function of effective parenting.
Gilad and I were really taken by this concept. I think it resonates so strongly with us because of what we feel camp provides to children each summer. There are so many “hard skills” that campers learn every day at camp such as swimming, archery, horseback riding, and mountain biking that will help them to survive, thrive, and be healthy, active adults. But within each activity and social interaction at camp, we are able to impart “soft skills” such as confidence, resilience, and cooperation that gives them a secondary set of competencies that are invaluable in leading a successful and independent life. As parents, I think this is what we all ultimately desire for our children and together, through skills we teach at home and in places like camp, we can successfully fulfill our obligation to teach our children how to swim.
*Kiddushin 29a: A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.
I learned recently that groups of animals have the most interesting names. Some are well known, like a school of fish or a colony of ants. Others, I found, were quite amazing and yet, somehow, not at all surprising: a stand of flamingos, a tower of giraffes, a prickle of porcupines. For these animals, what they are called in a group is based on their features – how they stand, how tall they are, or the covering of their skin. And some, like a crash of rhinoceroses, may seem to be based on something obvious when, in fact, it may be due to something much less well known (that rhinos have incredibly bad eyesight). Then there are the groups whose name evokes their connection to humans: a plague of locusts (how biblical!) or a shiver of sharks (“Jaws” comes to mind). And there are those, such as a convocation of eagles, with a name that almost personifies them.
In their daily lives, our kids are so often put in groups: a class of students, a team of soccer players, a minyan of Jews. In camp, it is much the same: a cabin of girls, an elective of artists, a unit of 10 year olds. Unlike what we use for animals, these group names lack creativity; they don’t give our kids (or us!) an opportunity to express anything about themselves in the group. What if we were to rethink how we classified ourselves? A learning of students, a goal of soccer players, a belonging of Jews, a strength of girls, a creative of artists, a decade of 10 year olds. If we were to change what we call our communities, perhaps we could change, too, how we see ourselves as part of them. Think of how empowering it could be for our kids if they knew that every group they belong to says something about who they are. We might be able to create a much stronger sense of connection and commitment to each of the groups – and to the community at large.
Perhaps my favorite grouping of animals is a murmuration of starlings. As a collective, starlings move as one, creating a sort of murmur across the skies – it’s truly awe-inspiring to watch! For these birds, being in a group means being part of a unified whole. If I could wish anything upon our campers each summer, it would be just that: an understanding that their individual participation in the Jewish community is essential to creating the whole. That’s worth a whole lot more than murmuring … we should scream it from the rooftops!
Campers and staff often state at the end of a camp session or summer that they wish camp could last all year long. The inherently temporary nature of a camp experience makes both the sweetness of its existence and the sadness of its conclusion all the more profound. As so many in this blog have pointed out so very eloquently, camp is an incredible place where people grow and develop in ways not possible anywhere else. For those of us who are lucky enough to work year-round for camp we know that “camp” is not just the experience that happens during your time in a cabin away from your family, but also how you live your life the other 49 or so weeks during the year.
Often in our staff training right before the start of a camp season we talk about how camp can be different from “the real world” as a way of illustrating how powerful the experiences will be that staff are about to create for children. A few years ago however, a staff member came to me somewhat upset and said, “Why do we keep distinguishing camp from the real world? Camp is as real as it gets. It is the real world and kids should know that.” Wow. What a great point this was! At camp, children are forced into an unfamiliar setting and are given the challenge to try new things, meet new people and form new communities, all without parental help or hand holding. Pretty real indeed.
When a camp experience is successful for a child (here, with Camp Tawonga’s mission in mind) they leave with higher self esteem, a sense of belonging in a new community, awe and appreciation for nature, and a deeper sense of their Judaism and spirituality. These are gifts that camp gives but they cannot be gifts that expire at the end of the camp program.
Instead, camp and the real world can become one and the same (or at least closer together) when everyone who has been given the gift of camp helps spread that out into the world around them. Whether it was a new skill, an improved self image or a more refined idea of what it means to create community and bring people together, deploying these “camp things” at school, youth group, theater, band or sports practice helps spread the good energy of camp even when you are a thousand miles or 49 more weeks away from the real thing. So host a Shabbat, go on a hike, have a sleepover and look in the mirror and smile back! In these ways we spread the gifts of the camp experience and make camp and the real world one and the same, so no distinction will be necessary.
Shanah Tova from the Ranch Camp! We wish your family a year full of happiness, health, and fulfillment.
The High Holiday season is a like a spa for the soul. Each year we are given the opportunity for rest, reflection, and renewal and if we seize this opportunity wholeheartedly, we can achieve a true sense of cleansing, empowerment, and renewed purpose.
In thinking about my past year and the year that awaits us, we are bombarded by imagery of both personal and professional triumphs and challenges. We think about all the wonderful relationships that we have been able to maintain over the year and all the new friendships that we’ve begun to cultivate with parents, campers, staff and alumni. Camp is really about Kehillah (community) and the many facets that this word embodies. Our role as directors of Ranch Camp, at its essence, is really about relationships and community. It is incredibly important to us not to serve to our constituents but to work together with them as partners. It is only through partnership that we feel like camp can truly have a meaningful and lasting impact, one built on trust and respect, which carries on from the summer into the rest of the year. We are grateful for the trust that our families have all placed in us in the last year that has enabled us to run a successful camping program and carry Ranch Camp through its 60th year of operation.
It’s hard to believe how close we were to losing our beloved camp this year to the Black Forest Fire. It was a humbling experience to have to evacuate our campers, staff, and animals from camp in June and not know if were going to be able to return. But sometimes it takes events like this to refocus on the big picture of what really matters in life. We know that it certainly did for us. Now that we’ve been faced with losing everything, we know with utmost certainty that the only things of value in life are the intangible things that you cannot take with you in a suitcase – memories, relationships, and love.
We think that these lessons learned will serve us well in the next year as we undertake perhaps the biggest adventure our lives – parenthood. We will welcome a baby girl to our family around the first of the calendar year; this is both an exciting and daunting prospect. But as with everything in life, we know that all highs and lows that await us will only help us in our on personal paths towards learning and enlightenment.
I can’t stop thinking about Jordana Horn’s recent post about her son who came home from camp early. I don’t know what camp he attended, what he did to make sure he was sent home, or any of the other circumstances, yet I feel that we failed him. We – the community of camps and the partnership of camps and parents – failed to give him the best possible experience. And that’s a shame.
Certainly, there are youngsters who are not “camp kids.” These are the ones who, for whatever reason, just can’t be in the 24/7 camp environment with its noise, lack of privacy, and outdoorsy living. And, of course, there are the “lifers” who would spend every minute in camp if given the opportunity. (A few parents asked this summer if we would open a camp boarding school, so their children could spend all year with us!)
Just like most things in life, however, most kids are in the middle. Especially in their first summer at camp, most kids enter with some trepidation and are able to soar once something “clicks.” That can happen through a friendship, a connection with a staff member, a particular activity, or locating a quiet place under a special tree. Sometimes it’s easy to find and, other times, it takes some help from the staff. And in some situations, we call the parents in for help. If we do our jobs right, we get everyone involved in the right way and at the right time, so we can help make the magic of camp come alive before it’s too late.
Where we so often go wrong – and by “we,” I mean both camp professionals and parents – is that we don’t really listen to the kids. Sometimes, we are so concerned with our own successes that we don’t hear the kid advocating for himself. And we forget that this advocacy is, in and of itself, a success. Finishing camp is not the be all and end all of life experience; it is possible to have a full and rich life without completing a summer of overnight camp. So if a kid goes home from camp, it doesn’t have to be a failure or a loss; in fact, it can be just the opposite – it can be an opportunity for learning and for growth. If we push too hard and wait too long, we set our kids up to do what Jordana’s son did – something that they know will get them sent home. And then we, as the adults, get angry. But at that point, whose fault is it? Can we blame a child who has been telling us what he really needs for doing something to make this clear when we just won’t listen? Wouldn’t we better off thanking him for knowing his limits and showing him that, sometimes, kids can know better than adults?
One of my favorite songs on the high holidays says: “Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul. Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn and reborn.” For tens of thousands of kids each summer, Jewish camp is the land of their soul – it is the place where they can most be themselves. With so many camps to choose from, I believe that there is the “right” camp for virtually every kid. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work to find it, but it’s there. And in the cases when a particular camp doesn’t fit – or camping in general just isn’t right – it’s up to us, as the adults, to help the child return home so he can return to himself, return to the strength and support of his family, and be reborn as (or, at least, reminded of!) the amazing person he is.
As the Semisonic song goes, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And as we wrap up our Ranch Camp summer and I reflect back on our season, this seems to ring especially true. It’s not simply the succession of the summer, where one session ends only to usher in the next. For me it is the sense that everything is connected and that everything happens for a reason; and that one thing always leads us to another.
With this philosophy in mind, you will understand and appreciate that August/September is my favorite time of year. Now is the time when we clean and pack-up camp, rummage through mounds of lost and found, and get feedback from our families and staff. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to hear from families about the wonderful experiences that their children have had over the summer with us at camp – learning new skills, meeting new friends, and asking important questions about themselves and the world. Of course, I would be amiss if I did not also recognize that some of this feedback is not always so positive or easy to hear. But I want to take this opportunity to state very clearly from a camp director’s perspective, so that everyone knows – as wonderful as it is to get compliments, it is critical to receive and accept criticism as well. After all, as James Joyce said, “Mistakes are portals of discovery.” It is truly rare in life that we improve as a result of success; we must struggle, and sometimes fail, in order to achieve greatness.
With our successes and failures, we become stronger as a camp, just as our campers become stronger from the opportunities and challenges that they face during their time with us. As your children’s camp season finishes for the summer, I encourage parents to fill out your camp’s end of the season survey and let them know how they have impacted your children this summer. Sifting through this information helps camp teams to pull together and start to plan for the next summer season. As I said at the start of this piece, this is a wonderful time of year. From where I stand now, I can see all of what we have accomplished over the course of the last 10 weeks since the start of camp, but I can also see all the potential of what is yet to come; all of the new beginnings that will emerge from closing and reflecting upon the end of this season.