Saturday, July 7, 2012

Why I Love Jewish Summer Camp

When I was in high school a lot of my friends spent time with their families over the summer. I went to camp. In college my friends took extra classes, went on long vacations, or got jobs over the summer. I went to camp. In graduate school my classmates got internships or researched their thesis material over the summer. I went to camp. Even now a lot of my colleagues go to Israel over the summer, while I am perfectly happy going to camp. I just got back from my 15th summer at camp. This year it was two weeks at URJ’s Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA. It is a gorgeous camp situated in the rolling hills that further north and west develop into the Smoky Mountains. The surrounding area is dotted with small towns and other summer camps, and even a few vineyards. And yes, I brought back a bottle for the boss. The camp is built around a lake that they call Lake Shalom, and most of our days are spent walking from one side of the lake to the other just to get from activity to activity. This year there are, I believe 350 kids at Camp Coleman ranging in age from 7 to 17. There is activity going on from 6 in the morning to after midnight, and no shortage of incredible programming. It’s a great place to be a kid, either physically or mentally. On my drive home I was thinking about what makes camp so great. Kids can swim, play sports, hike, and eat terrible food at camp, but they don’t have to be at camp to do those things. Sure, it’s fun and beautiful, but so is the beach. It’s educational but so is school. It’s spiritual but so is the synagogue. And yet something about camp has staying power. The current camp director has been there for 20 years. There are staff members who have gone from youngest camper to veteran staff member, including a woman named Lauren for whom this is her 37th summer. And this year is only the camp’s 50th year! What makes camp special isn’t about the activities or the location. It has to do with the community. Camp Coleman has built up an amazing community of Jewish people mainly from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. They give the children an incredible sense of what I call guided independence. They have no parents but they are watched by counselors. They are children being watched by older children, essentially, who in turn are being counselored by their unit heads, who are usually in or just out of college. Every summer they build an incredible community of like-minded Jews who are there to have a good time together. They go back for the community. Camp Coleman, and every camp I have ever been to, is like a small town. The director is like the mayor, and the cabins are like the town homes. The camp has its set of rules and regulations, and each cabin has its set of rules as well that either reinforce or occasionally subvert the meta-rules of camp. It is a system that runs on little sleep and lots of coffee for 8 weeks a year. In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis teach us, al tifrosh min hatzibur, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” They knew how important it is to be a part of something bigger. A collective of people who stays close for safety, for comfort, and for support. The Jewish community is together when babies are born, when Bat Mitzvahs are called up to the bimah, when couples join in marriage, and when loved ones die. The Jewish community prays together every day, shares meals together, and even has its rules that are followed by the larger system and then interpreted in the particular homes or sub-communities. Being a community is such an important aspect of Jeiwsh life that we have a blessing that declares our communal responsibility to praise God as one. It even ends with the hope that we will come to a day when all people will be one and praise God as one--bayom hayu yiyeh Adonai echad.... That is the lesson we can take from camp. When we gather for a singular, peaceful purpose, we feel it. We know that we are one, holy community, and that we are agents of a higher purpose.

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