By Alaina Yoakum, URJ Camp Newmann Director of Marketing & Communications
From a camper’s perspective, summer camp is pure magic. But who is making that magic happen? If you peek behind the curtain at camp, you’ll see a dedicated team of faculty – rabbis, educators, counselors and skilled adults – who work tirelessly each summer in collaboration with our staff to make the magic happen for everyone.
These faculty are our feet on the ground, working one-on-one with campers every day. That means that when something truly magical happens at camp, they also have a front row seat. I took a few minutes to ask a few of our faculty what special moments they observed at camp. Here’s what they saw!
#1 – When all that’s left is love…
For Rabbi Greg Wolfe, of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, his camp highlight came during a t’floption, a t’fillah option on Saturday morning. Called “Paper Midrash,” campers picked from a pile of prayers typed on slips of paper and then explored its meaning using only construction paper and glue.
“For one girl, it was all about browns. It didn’t mean much to me,” Rabbi Wolfe described. “But then she spoke about the prayer she chose, the Kiddush. It’s about when we die and go back to the earth – ‘when all that’s left of me is love, give me away.’”
“Suddenly, I noticed that if you looked closer at her piece, you could see this tiny word – ‘love’ – emerging from the brown earth. It just totally knocked me out!” Wolfe exclaimed. “It’s so powerful to hear these children talk – and to see how their feelings came out through art.”
#2 – Watching our campers realize – “I can make a difference”
For Rabbi Jim Kaufman of Temple Beth Hillel, his magical moment is the same each year: Project Day, the day Hevrah campers go to our state capital in Sacramento to legislate for change. As the rabbinical advisor for this social action session, Rabbi Kaufman says he gets a thrill watching kids realize how important it is to get involved in social issues – and that they can have an effect in government and make a difference.
“They spend three weeks, nervous, planning the speeches they will give to our representatives,” Rabbi Kaufman said. “And then finally, they’ll sit at the state capital … across from our legislature and give their speech. And when it’s all done, the legislator will say, “Wow. You did your research!” Watching the sense of empowerment and pride that rushes over them at that moment is pure magic, Rabbi Kaufman says.
#3 & #4 – T’fillah – standing on one foot
Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a teacher at Brandeis Marin and author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality, saw a magical moment at a yoga t’fillah. Led by Michelle Aaron, a yoga instructor and the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Aaron at Temple Emanuel, Aaron challenged the campers to say the entire v’ahavta prayer in the tree pose. In this pose, you stand on one foot, with your other foot resting on your knee in the shape of a triangle. It’s not easy – it takes balance and concentration.
“The v’ahavta prayer is about loving God. And love is all about being constant, steady, stable.” Rabbi Kohn remarked that by doing the v’ahavta standing on one leg the entire time, it really made that truth hit home.
“We know campers aren’t here to pray,” said Rabbi Chuck Briskin of Temple Beth El. “So as faculty we have the opportunity to do something really different with services.” Rabbi Briskin recalled how at one creative prayer session, campers could either choreograph a dance, do a body sculpture, or “dress to express” their t’fillah. “I was totally led – and inspired – by them,” Rabbi Briskin said.
#5 – A new camper feels like an outsider until….
“I was sitting next to a boy who didn’t know the words to siyum” recalled Lisa Langer, Associate Director of the URJ’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. Siyum is the closing evening prayer each cabin and session sing ever evening while standing arm and arm in a circle. It’s a bonding moment – unless you don’t know the words, of course.
“I noticed he wasn’t singing, so I leaned over and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it,” Langer recounted. “I was with the group again five or six days later … scanning the room looking for him. And then I saw him – singing all the words, smiling and fully engaged.”
#6 – A special cabin time gives a camper a sense of belonging
The most magical moment for Deborah Burg-Schnirman came from observing a counselor. “I had a child who was having difficulty with her peers,” said Burg-Schnirman, an educator and social worker who works with Nefesh, our team devoted solely to working on camper care. “The counselor was able to plan a cabin activity that gave her a full sense of belonging and the feeling that she mattered to the group. Before, things didn’t look so good. But after, her attitude flipped.”
Over the next few weeks, she watched the girl flourish at camp. “It was exciting to see counselors get that each of their campers are b’tzelem elohim (each one an individual, made in God’s image) – and to see how they’re able to pull out their camper’s unique gifts,” she said. “Even when there are challenges, they remember to ask ‘what’s special about this camper?’ and have the care and capacity to bring that out within them.