In this edition of Around the Campfire, we’re sharing a reflection from Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik who wrote about her time on faculty for a series called “Letters from Camp” >> published by HUC-JIR spotlighting alumni who are spending their summers on faculty at URJ Camps around North America. 

July 14, 2023
by Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

This summer I had a chance to return to URJ Camp Newman for my 16th summer on faculty. I had not been back to Camp Newman since Summer 2019 and I was excited to see all the changes and new growth since the devastating fire of 2017.

I love going to Camp Newman. As a rabbi it gives me a chance to stretch my skills by working in a different environment. This summer I had a chance to work with Gibborim, the largest eidah (group) at Newman during my time there: 65 fifth and sixth graders. We worked together to create tefillah (prayer service) centered around starting the day with gratitude and the intention to live up to our Gibborim name; to be heroes by using our power just like God does in the prayer Gevurot; to lift up others, to support each other and to help each other feel better.

Rabbi Shawna and Isaac have served on camp faculty for years, guiding campers and staff in connecting with Judaism through a variety of art media including mosaics and paper-cutting.

At Newman, each eidah has a night away at “the overnight site,” a hill overlooking the hills of Santa Rosa. While there, we heard from the teva (nature) staff, who they explained the importance of creating a holy community in this special space. We discussed how our Jewish values teach us to care for the earth and coexist with the creatures in it. Everything was framed within a Jewish context, so that sleeping under the stars and making homemade pita s’mores became an authentically Jewish activity.

The rhythm of the camp week leads to Shabbat, another highlight. On Friday morning everything begins to change; you can feel Shabbat in the air. By the time everyone comes streaming out of their cabins in white clothes to join together, there is a palpable joy. Shabbat’s sweetness is celebrated with a festive meal, including challah and brownies, followed by high-energy singing and dancing that continues all the way up to lights out.

Camp is also an opportunity to connect with my colleagues; there are so many of us who are HUC-JIR alumni that it feels like a mini-reunion. It’s a time to reconnect with old friends and to meet new ones, and share ideas with them. Those same deep and lasting connections that the campers make with each other happen in the adult community as well, and camp is a chance for me to nurture those friendships.

My favorite thing about camp is that you can see the Jewish future around you. Camp is filled with kids whose families have chosen to make Jewish camp a priority; many of them are second-generation campers, continuing in their family tradition of spending part of the summer at Jewish camp — and they are joined by so many first-time campers who are looking for a Jewish experience. But it’s not just the campers that are the future — there are also the counselors, many of them college students and young adults who have chosen to spend their summer working with Jewish youth because they know they have something to contribute to the Jewish community.

Camp is a time to connect to the past, to celebrate the present, and to look toward the future. And as we say, “camp is life — the rest is just details.”

Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard Bialik ’02, is an alum of HUC-JIR’s Rabbinical School. She is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation Or Ami.

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