Tikkun Olam: “Doing Stuff”

I’ll start with a confession. After writing these monthly blogs about summer camp for almost two years now, I still occasionally feel like a creature from outer space who’s landed on earth and has to have baseball or the Kardashians explained to him. You see, my parents never sent me to camp and, frankly, I never wanted to be sent. As a result, the experience is, indeed, alien to me. All to say that everything I know about camp I’ve been learning, vicariously, through my son Jonah.

jyHe’s been attending CBB (Camp B’nai Brith) for the last three summers. And when my wife, Cynthia, and I picked him up a few weeks ago from his record 23 days and 22 nights away in The Laurentians, a picturesque setting about 90 minutes north of Montreal, I found it easier than ever to put myself in his shoes. Sure, I felt the predictable paternal mix of relief and joy at seeing him again, but I also noticed something in his expression that revealed how much camp had meant to him. He looked, in other words, a little lost, fawned over by his mother and me. It was as if he was thinking: should I be here or with my bunkmates in the woods? Even, the rash of fierce bug bites around his ankles and calves were quickly acknowledged and then dismissed as if they were a kind of team insignia, a badge of honour. His disorientation faded, though, as we prompted him to say good-bye to his counselors and more important, as his fellow campers sought him out for a hug or a high-five.

This is, as I’ve said before in this blog, a big deal for Jonah. He has autism and making and maintaining friendships remains his greatest challenge. I can only guess at what he was feeling when he heard his name shouted out by a peer in that crowded parking lot, but I can tell you what I felt: proud and hopeful.

For this feeling Cynthia and I have CBB, their entire staff, and especially their executive director Josh Pepin to thank for taking a chance on Jonah three summers ago (when he stayed a week with a shadow) and for continuing to increase their hopes for and expectations of him. CBB has always seen meeting my son’s special needs as an opportunity. In this respect, the camp has, in my mind, lived up to the best sense of the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam or “repairing the world.”

I also confess to having to be reminded repeatedly that as daunting as that imperative may sound, it is invariably accomplished when we recognize those needs we are best able to address and then act. In short, when we do what we can to help. The Sam Lazarus Fund is an inspiring example of just such an approach to repairing the world. It started, tragically, when Sam Lazarus, a 25-year-old Montrealer working with children in an orphanage in Ghana, died of cerebral malaria in 2004. His mother Janet Torge, a Montreal broadcaster and writer, and his older brother Riel Lazarus, an archivist and researcher for film and TV, also based in Montreal, wanted “to do something” to commemorate Sam’s life. The result was a fund that would give kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to camp the opportunity to spend their summer at the YMCA’s Camp Kanawana, also located in The Laurentians.

It was a perfect fit since Sam loved working with kids – he was a camper and a staff member at Camp Kanawana for most of his childhood. The fit became even more perfect when a family friend suggested they also have an annual fundraiser every August, featuring a street hockey tournament. Sam was, according to his brother, a legendary street hockey goalie, albeit with a penchant for letting the occasional goal slip between his legs, the space otherwise known in hockey parlance as the five-hole.” Nine months after Sam Lazarus’s death, The Five-Hole Sam Street Hockey Jamboree or Sam Jam was born. Now in its 11th year, Sam Jam has raised around $230,000 and sent more than fifty kids to camp. The kids’ sponsorship or “campership” is kept anonymous so they are not singled out at camp. There is also a special effort made to send recipients back who want to go. “If they’ve had a great experience there, we don’t want to leave them out the next year for financial reasons,” Riel Lazarus said.

The street hockey tournament, which started with two teams, now has eight and the event has expanded every year. “We didn’t start all this with much of a motive. We were in a bit of a haze in that time after Sam’s death. We were just doing stuff,” Riel added.

Which is, come to think of it, a pretty good definition of tikkun olam: “doing stuff” that recognizes and addresses a need in the world.

For more information about the latest hockey tournament and the Sam Lazarus Fund you can go to the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ysamjam. Or visit the Camp Kanawana website at: http://www.ymcakanawana.com.

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