Our Jewish tradition is centered on our children. On the long journey from slavery to freedom, which we symbolically started at Passover culminating soon at Shavuot, it is amazing how many times in the narrative that Moses keeps returning to the subject of raising Jewish kids.
“When your children ask you this, you should answer them that.” “Teach your child on that day.” “Say to your child …” Four times Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, handing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own. Giving our kids the gift of identity. Knowing who they are. This is a central and recurring plank in our tradition.
How do we do this in this day and age? I believe the answer is Jewish camp, a fundamental necessity in the journey of our children to find out who they are.
Camp is unique. The world literally stops at camp’s gates. Each and every summer at camp our children get the chance to re-create their universe. Camp is “kidcentric” in a way that the outside world can never be. Camp is a community dedicated to ensuring that our children have the best time that they can. Camp is the antidote to the pressures that our kids are faced with at home. What do I mean by that? We live in the age of instant gratification, immediate convenience. Everything is there for us at the touch of a button and the flicker of a screen. We live in the “Me” age. Everything is there immediately. iPod, iPad, iPhone (in my family IPay…). Literally, we can’t turn off our phones, and our children are glued to the devices that we have made them hostage to. Even our friendships are instant, making friends at the click of a button and deleting them in the same way. We can’t seem to leave our kids to their own devices anymore. The pull of the tablet is too strong.
At camp our kids get the chance to switch off, and in doing so get switched on to the “We” as opposed to the “Me” world. The friendships made at camp are real not instant, based on sharing and living together. Time spent at camp is like doggy years. 2 weeks at camp is like 3 months in the outside world. And the lessons learned are life lessons. The opportunities for our children to discover their talents, to nurture their skills, to develop friendships and to see the world from a different perspective to the pressurized “Me” world at home. Camp is life changing. Camp is a gift.
The Jewish concept of tikun olam, or healing the world, runs through the Jewish camping experience. I spent over 20 summers at a Jewish camp in the Deep South, working first as a counselor, then as a song leader and then as teen camp leader. I was lucky. I was able to give my wife and kids the Jewish camp experience. It was at camp that the Jewish values of tikun olam, healing the world, were re-enforced for all of us.
Camp is a place where our children learn that their actions can make a difference. A place where we can “say to our children,” to borrow the words of Moses, “that you can make a difference.”
Camp is a place where we can “Teach our children well.”
January 28th was one such day.
I live and work in Atlanta during the school year. For months (MONTHS!) I’d been planning an Interfaith Social Action & Social Justice day, with Marist & Davis colleagues, for my 8th graders at the Davis Academy and our friends in the 8th grade at Marist School, a Catholic school just a few minutes away.
I hit roadblocks in planning. Locations, dates, times, school start times, Atlanta traffic concerns (Haha! Foreshadowing!) But then it came together, groups of 50 students each were scheduled to volunteer at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, MedShare, and Books for Africa. They were to be tasked with sorting and packing tons, literally tons, of: food for Atlanta’s hungry; books sorted into class sets for Africa schoolchildren; perfectly usable medical supplies, saved from landfills, and repackaged to be sent around the developing world. 120 kids were scheduled to participate in VolunteerStock at Davis, making turkey sandwiches for donation in midtown Atlanta, decorating a Prayer Canvas for the Boston Marathon, and making cards for Atlanta’s sick, elderly, and those who visit our local food pantries.
In the afternoon, everyone would meet at the MLK Center in Downtown Atlanta for lunch and a program that included the extraordinary speaker Stephon Ferguson.
The night before the program, we heard that we may have to cancel the second half of the program because of a snow storm. I stayed up late, calling and emailing faculty, staff, volunteer locations, and speakers. The plan for the morning? The show must go on! The afternoon? We will play it by ear.
The morning went off without a hitch. Then we said bye to Marist, hugged, and set up for our afternoon at Davis. Beautiful. I could stop there, the blog post would be done, everyone would smile and know that 220 students and many dedicated faculty and volunteer chaperone adults did good all around Atlanta.
Then, the afternoon arrived. Snow started falling. Carpool started early. Mr. Ferguson couldn’t meet us at Davis because of traffic. Atlanta was coated in dreamy white.
700+ sandwiches sat in my car. Google told me that because of the traffic caused by the storm, it would take two hours to get to the food bank, 24 miles away. My colleagues encouraged me to set out – “you should at least try to get there” even while the transit map was beyond foreboding. I was barely driving. I moved two miles in one hour, and this was better than most. I know many people who took upwards of 10 hours to get home. There were over 700 accidents A baby was born in a car on the highway.
285 minutes, an average of 11 mph, innumerable reroutes, countless others nearly skidding into my car, a giant headache, one stop for gas/bathroom/candy/medicine, and one guy who parked in front of me for a good 20 minutes, trying to turn left, transpired. Close to home, I FINALLY maneuvered my trusty all-wheel drive Subaru Outback into the driveway of the organization that was awaiting our sandwich delivery, hours after their usual closing time. Someone pointed out to me that I could’ve given those sandwiches out to my compatriots stranded on highways, but I’m stubborn and focused. I was a woman on a mission.
How’d I pass the time? I rolled down my window to thank emergency workers, and tried to add levity to the gridlock by making faces at my fellow stranded. I Tweeted and Facebooked while I was in park (which I was, most of the time). One of my colleagues, who took three hours to drive the three blocks between Davis and home, took this picture of two of our 8th graders, serving hot coffee to those stuck in traffic outside of their homes.
The day of service didn’t end at noon, 1:30, 2:30, or even 7:30. It marched into the night. I’m warm now, but every time I look at that picture of our 8th graders serving coffee, my heart melts yet again, as they lived out what it said on our Prayer Canvas “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”
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.
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!
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!”