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
Recently, my daughter was asked to write about a small moment for school. Not just any small moment – one that she realized later was important. She came home at a loss. What was she going to write about? She was not just confused, she was actually annoyed. She said: “What if I don’t want to share a small moment? What if I want to keep it to myself?” I laughed … not just for the simplicity of her question, but because if you know me at all you know there has never been a thought I have chosen to keep to myself. The notion that she revels so much in her own privacy is like a foreign language to me.
I often look at my daughter and think: “We (my husband and I) have done a pretty decent job at this parenting thing so far!” She does well in school, mostly listens, respects people, is great at sports, feels safe in the planet, and has self-esteem that I marvel at. Listening to her tell me all the moments from the past summer that seemed small but meant so much to her and her friends was bittersweet. I love that she has funny personal jokes with other nine year old girls, she sings Hebrew songs as though Katy Perry wrote them, and I am thrilled when she says: “my counselor said…” or “at camp we learned about….”As we were talking about ideas for her small moments project, it became VERY apparent that most of the moments in her life that she found so pivotal, I was not there for. So many of them happened at camp when she was being herself with her friends and role models and I was not engineering her growth and development.
Well, mostly I am thrilled. Sometimes I am sad. I can’t believe how much effect this experience is having on her becoming the person she will eventually be. I am so blessed that this place exists. A place where my daughter is learning to love herself, her traditions, her version of Jewish life; truly she is becoming a young person with strong ideals and opinions. That part I was ready for. I wasn’t ready for the other stuff. You know, her realizing who is “cool” and who is not as “cool,” her understanding of her own body image, being able to comprehend where she fits into a social structure. Understanding relationships that will one day lead to marriages of all sorts. Learning about her connection to the earth, what she is willing to give up and not give up for the sake of others. Figuring out when to give in and when to stand up. I mean all the small moment stuff; the stuff that DEFINES who you will be.
What I realize is that residential camp gives her a secure place to learn this without me (and her father) being there. That alone may be why it is so incredible to her. She gets to be her own version of herself – what she wants to present and share. I am not sure people who have not experienced residential camp can truly comprehend the value of this. I am sure that if this one summer is any indication of the future, I am going to be in for an interesting ride. One where my daughter is in a roller coaster cart on her own and at times lets me in to see the small moment but, overall, creates her own reality, learns her own lessons, and celebrates her own triumphs.
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.
This third in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here. To read part two click here.
Part 3: Tikkun Olam- a partnership with nature
It is fitting that Earth Day was recently celebrated since a huge part of a camper’s experience of going to camp is being outside, going on adventures with friends in the outdoors and learning to love the natural world with all the benefits it provides.
At Camp Tawonga and countless other camps, simply being there is a literal breath of fresh air. Campers leave the city and suburbs, where they spend 90% of their time, far behind and arrive at a bucolic, peaceful oasis where many of the other goals this blog series has highlighted are allowed to blossom and flourish. Removed from the constant pull of technology and returned to a comfortably rustic style of living, children can connect to more timeless truths. They can appreciate a refreshing dunk in a natural body of water and marvel at the beauty of a sunset, produced not by special effects but simply by the gentle brushstroke of the creator.
Beyond simply enjoying being outdoors, an experience at camp can help campers connect to the deep and ancient Jewish traditions of shomrei adamah (guarding the earth) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). When campers go with their bunks on backpacking trips in the incomparable backcountry of Yosemite National Park, they not only forge deeper bonds with each other but also learn from our staff about the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace” as a way to take care of all places they visit.
Campers also learn that nature is not something that can be taken for granted. More than twenty years ago, Tawonga led a fight in the national forest that surrounds our camp to hold off aggressive logging companies and preserve the land for generations to come. Campers help our maintenance staff with forestry and fire suppression work to learn about responsible management methods.
Campers will come home unconcerned with a grass stain on their shirt and some dirt under their nails. Campers will tell their parents about their most spiritual moment at camp, often not at a formal prayer program, but rather on a solo sit at sunset, spread across a ridge overlooking a valley side by side with their bunkmates, silently staring in awe at the majesty of creation laid out before them, and contemplating their place in it.
What a camp experience can help a child realize is that we are not apart from nature, but rather a part of nature and that there is so much to be gained from engaging in outdoor experiences.
As the Foundation for Jewish Camp shared with the community earlier this year, “Think Outside, No Box Necessary!”