A month ago, I announced the beginning of our local Jewish renaissance. Newly returned from my annual stint at Camp Newman, I am even more convinced, not only of the veracity of that statement, but of its rele-vance to North American Reform Jewry at large.
This year at camp I was assigned to the teen unit Hagigah, a month-long session devoted to the learning and production of visual and performing arts, interwoven (of course!) with Jewish values and inspiration. I had the opportunity to meet with four of their six cabin groups, one group at a time. At each opportunity, I asked campers what they liked best, and least, about being Jewish; what they liked best, and least, about camp; and what they liked best, and least, about tefilot (daily prayer services). I was blown away by the thoughtful-ness and passion of these rising eleventh-graders.
What our teens like least about being Jewish is the intolerance, ignorance, and anti-Semitism they experience in the world. What they like best about being Jewish is camp. And what they love most about camp is the sense of community, family and belonging that it engenders.
In other words, at camp, our children learn to value the power of Jewish community. Happily, several camp-ers articulated that they feel the same way about their home synagogues. These teens already understand that being a part of Jewish community is important to them. Alongside and above Jewish customs, traditions, music and food, they treasure their Jewish friendships. Some of them even find some comfort in the rituals of prayer.
This is why I return to camp year after year: not just to re-charge my rabbinic batteries in the wave of camp’s creative atmosphere, but to see and to get to know, firsthand, the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.
Something else magical happened at camp last Shabbat. My classmate and friend, Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, had the honor of leading our distinguished guests in a pre-wedding blessing for a couple who met ten years ago, when they were CITs, or Counselors in Training, at Camp Newman.
Later that evening, my friend reminded me that in the 1950s and 1960s, Reform Judaism seemed to be on a path toward Unitarianism. It was saved by the rabbis – including the late Herman Schaalman, and my own Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, both of them among the refugees saved from the Shoah by the Hebrew Union College – who founded the Reform movement’s summer camps for Jewish youth. Today, that network has expanded to include sixteen overnight camps across the United States (not counting several day camps, nor camps run by Reform congregations, such as Hilltop and Hess Kramer, both run by Wilshire Boulevard Temple).
I am grateful for the foresight and vision of those rabbis and innovators for the gift of Jewish camping. At camp, our children learn to move beyond their comfort zones. Amid the atmosphere of love and familiarity of their Jewish peers, they can strive to become the best versions of themselves, practicing to be the menschen they are meant to be. And not infrequently, they meet their bashert.
While we may lament the absence of such camps for grown-ups (or at least, our own remoteness from the adult retreats some of them host during the school year), we can and should take pride in our Temple, and in the strong sense of community and love it engenders in us and in our children. Share the love and invite your Jewish (and wanna-be-Jewish) friends and neighbors. May we grow from strength to strength.
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein