As I think back on the past 20-some-odd summers at camp, there are probably about a dozen programs that I remember—really remember. I think back on them not only in that I can remember what we did or what we created, but I remember how they felt: the moment of insight, the powerful conversation, the unique energy that was created through the experience.
Tuesday night was one of those programs. Except instead of being at camp, this program happened at a convention of rabbis. But I think that it’s no coincidence that nearly all of the rabbis that participated in this particular program were camp rabbis. Experiential education is so much a part of our thinking that we can’t help but create these moments for ourselves—and use those moments to live out the values that are inherent in the Jewish camp experience.
Tuesday night, I was one of about 53 rabbis who shaved my head. On stage. In front of the rest of the convention. And on livestream.
And like the programs from various summers that I remember, it was a night that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was an experience that really changed me—more than just my hair.
Not only that, it was an experience that enabled me—and the other participants, as well as everyone who supported us—the chance to change the world, and to use the values that we preach and teach.
It was a little over 4 months ago that we became the 36 Rabbis Who Shave for the Brave. But the story really started in June of 2012, when Superman Sam Sommer, son of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, was first diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. While Sam’s life ended with his death in December, Sam’s story has continued (and will continue) for a whole lot longer than the 8 years during which he lived.
Through sharing and reading about the experience of Sam and his family, so many of us have realized so much. Seeing their pain, struggle, and grief, we have understood reality in a different way. Seeing that reality, we’ve learned about the devastating facts about pediatric cancer: Only 4% of federal funds for cancer research goes to childhood cancers; 13,500 children each year are diagnosed with cancer; 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year — treatments that, because of the need for more research for childhood cancer, are out of date and dangerous; and every day, in America, 7 children die of cancer.
Because of what we’ve come to understand, we realized we needed to take action. And so, we joined Sam’s parents in a campaign for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that provides funding for childhood cancer research. We started with the goal of raising $180,000—the week of Sam’s funeral we surpassed that; we’ve increased our goal a few times now and have raised (as of this writing) $574,724. Our current goal is $613,000—I’m not the only one who hopes (and believes) we will surpass that goal…and the next.
Which brings us to Tuesday night, when we shaved our heads as the culmination of this experience. And really, it was a lot like camp. We even made t-shirts. First, we took a ton of pictures. Next, we had a service of healing—praying and singing through tears, as a community. Then, we had an intense, transformative experience—as we took action on an issue we feel is important, and stood in solidarity with our friends—with more tears and much laughter. Then, we put our arms around each other and sang Shehecheyanu.Then, we took more pictures. Finally, we stayed up way too late, talking about the experience we had just shared.
At camp, we talk about Jewish teachable moments. This experience has been a Jewish teachable couple of months. We’ve used our experience and our actions in order to teach others—raising awareness and inspiring others towards action. At camp, we learn that every individual makes a difference. Looking at the donations, most of the shavers and volunteers have raised small amounts; more people participated in this project by donating money—at least according to my own experience, most of those donations are small donations; even more people participated by telling our story, and telling Sam’s story, and helping inspire others—and inspire us.
I am a camp rabbi for many reasons. One of those reasons is that camp gives me experiences like this one. Another is that the things I learn at camp translate to the rest of my year. Another is that I know how much of a difference a really good program can make.
And so, if your rabbi has a new—and much shorter—haircut this summer. Ask them about it—they have a story to tell.
Rabbi Elisa Koppel is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, TX. Her experience with Jewish camp started at age 10 at her first summer at Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, PA and continues each summer (currently as visiting faculty at Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX). To support her effort on 36 Rabbis, click here. Follow her on twitter at @rabbiisa and check out her personal blog, Off the REKord.
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.
Our friends over at JTA are compiling amusing camp anecdotes for an upcoming special package on Jewish camping. From the strangest thing you ever received in a care package to the most unusual color break out, they want to hear your camp stories.
So head over to JTA and share some camp memories, or just email email@example.com a few detailed, complete sentences. Include your name, the name of the camp and when the anecdote took place. If you have any good photos, e-mail those as well, by Monday, Feb. 10 by 9:30 a.m.
Jewish camp is everywhere, Terry Gross confirmed on NPR the other day. While interviewing filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, she noted that she’d recently discovered that the Coen Brothers had attended the same Jewish camp – Herzl Camp, in Wisconsin – as folk icon Bob Dylan, albeit not at the same time. An excerpt from the interview follows:
GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?
GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of [Dylan] as singing those songs.
COEN: No, you sang – it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.
Those of us who attended similar camps recall similar activities. Personally, I can’t even read these lines of the interview without involuntarily breaking into ‘Mi anachnu? Anachnu tziirim! Sharim doo wa diddy diddy dum diddy doo!’ Sad, but true.
That overnight camp comes with a form of indoctrination shouldn’t surprise anyone – but in my experience, both as a Jewish camp camper and a Jewish camp parent, I’ve found that it’s less “indoctrination” and more “immersion.”
Camp is a time for children to be separated from their parents – let’s call them the Indoctrinators-in-Chief – and to be submerged in a world unto themselves for the first time. This is an inherently heady experience. For many children, it’s their first substantial time away from ‘home’ in a place that is not a family member’s home. Campers find themselves in a new place, where things are done differently. And without their parents at hand, they look to other sources – counselors, fellow campers, and the camp itself – as guideposts of authority, and as compasses to provide direction.
The world of each camp is carefully curated in order to convey a particular message and meaning. Some sports camps are known as fostering a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork; others are notorious for being intensely competitive. Performing arts camps fairly vibrate with the sense that there is nowhere more worthwhile than the stage. More general arts camps convey the worthiness of aggressive individuality with their free-to-be-you-and-me, anything-goes wild sense of creativity.
And yes, Jewish camps focus on being Jewish. And whether that is being Jewish as manifested by davening (praying) three times a day, by performing “Ata Ish Tov, Charlie Brown” in Hebrew or by learning about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish camp has as its baseline assumption the validity and continuation of the Jewish people.
So yes, Jewish camps are Zionistic and pro-Israel. Jewish camp teaches different ways of seeing the world – but those ways are through Jewish lenses and perspectives. I attended camps which made me reevaluate who I was in relation to the Jewish people. Questions, whether about kashrut or Israel, were not only tolerated, but welcomed.
Yes, I learned from camp that I was fundamentally, unalterably pro-Israel. But I also learned that ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle.’ Immersion in a Jewish environment fundamentally differs from indoctrination: Jewish camp, whether through teaching text or history, teaches kids that being Jewish is a struggle, and one to which they should devote their entire lives.
Every summer “my camp” posts their Top 10 song session songs. And each year I look at it in great anticipation and then amazement that eight out of 10 are on my list of ultimate camps songs. The others, I have come to know and love from my camp visits every summer.
Each song – whether it by written by Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Debbie Friedman, or long forgotten color war generals – has a special spot on the soundtrack of my youth. It never fails to bring me back to a dining hall song session, standing on a bench, or a campfire belting it out, arms around my besties.
At 9, 10, 11 years old I didn’t understand the politics behind “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” or “If I Had a Hammer.” All I knew, was I just couldn’t get enough of them. Well, Pete Seeger, thanks for the memories for me, my bunkmates, and Jewish campers wishing everyday ended with a campfire, a guitar, and s’mores.
To everything there is a season – except maybe for the soundtrack of my youth, I’ll keep that in heavy rotation all year round.
SHIRA & NOAH MENCOW HICHENBERG
When/how/where at camp did you meet? I arrived at staff training at Camp Ramah in New England my junior counselor summer two days late, having just come back home from a trip to Israel. Shira had recently returned home from a year spent studying in Israel. After a training session, I was showing my Israel pictures to a friend and Shira asked to see. We initially bonded over our recent Israel experiences. Though we had been at camp at the same time as campers, we are a year apart so never got to know each other. Luckily that summer we did! Shira was a counselor for the edah (age group) that my younger brother was in, and my parents were in camp that summer, which made for some interesting social situations. Shira likes to point out that she knew my family members before she even knew me!
What happened between you when camp ended that summer? Sadness. I was leaving for Israel for the year on Nativ and Shira was headed to her freshman year at U Maryland. We split up briefly facing the daunting distance, only to stay in close touch over the phone and shortly decided that we wanted to continue our relationship despite the distance. After that I went to college in NYC, so we visited each other a couple times a month. Each summer we got to spend time together as we went “home” to camp. We wound up spending the same semester abroad together in Israel finally. After Shira graduated college she moved to NYC and we were finally living in the same city. Shortly afterwards, we were married.
Will you send your kids to your camp? Yes! Shira’s parents, and aunt and uncle both met at different Ramah camps also so we know it is in the blood.
Shira & Noah Mencow Hichenberg were married in November 2009. They currently live in Manhattan and are expecting their first child next month! Shira is a Clinical Research Coordinator at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Noah is the Director of the Nursery School at the JCC in Manhattan.
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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Growing up in Odessa, Ukraine until I was 15 years old I knew about two dozen Jews personally. Of those, only about five of them were under the age of 50 and did not open every story with: “When I was your age we shared one pair of shoes between five siblings and could only wear them to stand in line for food.” Until I was 15, what I knew of being Jewish was limited to my grandmother’s cooking, some Yiddish curses, matza babka for Passover, occasional stories about family members who perished at the hands of Nazis and random outbursts of antisemitism at school or on the bus. And then there was summer that changed my life forever. Three unforgettable weeks at a Jewish Agency for Israel summer camp by the Black Sea that blew my mind. It was a summer of firsts: meeting an Israeli for the first time, learning “Hatikvah” with 300 other Jews my age, and most importantly –finding out Jews could be significantly taller than my family’s average 5’3”!
My Jewish camp story began on the coast of the Black Sea and continued to the other side of Atlantic when my family immigrated to the United States. It turned into a life-long mission of making sure thousands of others like me have similar experiences. Why? Because while we make up at least 15% of the North American Jewish population (20% in some larger metropolitan Jewish areas) most Russian-speaking Jews have not spent time at Jewish camp.
There are many historical and social reasons why Russian-speaking Jews are not coming to camp. Though the Soviet Jewry Movement made it possible for nearly a million Russian-speaking Jews to successfully resettle in North America, almost eight decades of living a very different kind of Jewish life – life that led to a very individual, intellectual and cultural Jewish identity with no ties to Jewish religion, community or traditions – left Russian-speaking Jews on the sidelines of organized Jewish life. Therefore, over twenty years later Jewish camps that could be providing transformative Jewish experiences to tens of thousands more children are not even on the radar for Russian-speaking families.
Last week, Sarah Benenson, a 17 year old from New Jersey born to a Russian-speaking family, shared her Jewish camp story with a group of major philanthropists who came together at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Funders Summit: Engaging Russian Speaking Jews in Jewish Camp. Her story, not unlike mine, began with very little interaction with the organized Jewish life until she followed her friends to spend a summer at Havurah, a Jewish camp program for Russian-speaking teens at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, NY. The experience led to three amazing summers as a camper, a summer as staff at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and an upcoming year course in Israel. Sarah’s camp story is a success – a success that could be achieved for thousands of children and teens from Russian-speaking families. But such success can only be achieved when approaching engagement of this significant part of the Jewish community with intention and understanding of their unique interests and challenges; when hiring and training staff; and building programs that can address their interests.
I consider myself lucky. I found Jewish camp and strong ties to the Jewish community as a result. I spend every day at work making sure more great Jewish camp stories are written and shared. It is my hope that mine or Sarah’s stories are not unique and by sharing them we can engage families in Jewish life and build a stronger Jewish community.
When I was a kid, I stunk at sports. I did. I don’t like to think I did, but I know the truth. My basketball shot looked like Bill Cartwright’s on a bad day. My baseball career? Let’s just say I was a defensive replacement. My soccer game? Oh, is that a dandelion?!
But I went to Jewish summer camps (Beber, Ramah Wisconsin) that were multi-purpose camps instead of specialty camps. These are camps that let kids do theater AND sports. Where campers might spend a period of the day learning about Jewish holidays, then playing basketball, then swimming in the lake before going to play practice! Camp was heaven for a kid like me, who liked to do lots of different things – some of them well, some not as well.
Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly something to be said about the value of specializing. And had the fantastic specialty camps that exist now been around when I was a kid, I’d no doubt be the first one to sign up to spend all summer doing theater. In some ways, I regret that I never had that opportunity. For kids who participate in one main activity during the school year, summers are a chance to hone skills that can be put to immediate use, furthering kids’ natural talents and abilities. But part of me is also okay with the fact that I never had the chance to attend a Jewish specialty theater camp because I learned a ton about myself by being pushed in other directions. I learned that summers can also be a chance for kids who are narrowly focused during the year to try something new with lower stakes. Archery? Horseback riding? Reading Torah? These might not be activities that are as readily available to kids during the year as they might be at summer camp. And I am grateful that my parents sent me to places that would expose me to lots of different activities.
To be clear, outside of camp I was that kid. I started acting professionally when I was 12. I chose a conservatory instead of a regular general education college experience. I have only worked in theater since I graduated over 10 years ago. And that is why I value even more the time I got as a kid to play softball, to ride horses, swim in a lake, and learn Torah. No, playing tennis at camp never got me into Wimbledon. Like I’ve said, I wasn’t an athlete, I was a performer. But thanks (in a great deal) to camp, I loved sports. And so, in high school, when I wanted to spend more time around the athletic teams, I contributed in the only way I knew how: I became the mascot.
He was bubbling over with excitement. He had heard so much about this place. This was his first time away from home. And somehow he knew that his life was going to be different after coming here. While he knew that he was going to miss his family, he was excited to make new friends, and yes he was excited to possibly meet a special someone. As they arrived he could not stay in his seat.
I am sure that this story rings true for you if you remember going to camp for the first time. All of the excitement, all of those expectations of what that summer has in store. As the bus lurched forward you felt yourself opening up to the people on the bus. You were hardly able to sit in your seat as the bus pulled off the main road and you saw that first sign for your camp. You had never been there before, but as you pulled in you knew that you were home.
While this is my story of going to camp for the first time, this definitely echoes what I heard from my eldest son after his first summer at camp, or at least what I got out of him. Similarly, the story of Rebecca that we read in last week’s Torah portion says:
Then Rebecca and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. Now Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell off the camel. (Genesis 24:61- 64)
Rebecca was that first happy camper coming “home.” She fell in love at first sight. Just as I fell in love as a camper. It was not with a person – those crushes and relationships came and went. It was not with that place, even though it will endure in my memory as a place filled with kiddusha, holiness. I fell in love with who I was at camp.
Many years ago my camp supervisor mailed me the following story:
Once there was a Rebbe who had a Yeshiva. His son studied in the Yeshiva. One day the son took off the afternoon to go walking in the forest. The father said nothing. But over time the son took to taking off every afternoon to walk in the forest. At this point the father realized that he needed to confront his son. The Rebbe said to his son, “I hear that you are walking in the forest every afternoon. Why are you doing this?” The son replied that he was looking for God. The Rebbe was puzzled and asked, “Did I not teach you that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Abba, I know that God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”
When and where in my life was I more open to being all of whom I aspired to become? It was when I got off that bus for the first time, and it was at camp.
While I love the place and I love that time in my life, I realize that I owe a lot to my counselors. More than what I saw in them as role models, it was what my role models saw in me when I tumbled off that bus. They shared with me a glimpse of the person that I am still working on becoming. And that is why I fell in love with camp.