By Faculty Rabbi Larry Milder, Congregation Beth Emek

Give campers ownership of their experience, and they become transformed.

I arrived at Camp Newman for my two-week stint as a faculty member, working with 10th and 11th graders in their arts program, called Hagigah (“Festival”). Since my turn at camp was the second half of their four-week session, they were already in full swing, and I had to get on board a moving ship.

It’s an apt metaphor. Camp Newman has relocated to Cal Maritime, a Cal State campus in Vallejo. It is a temporary home, prompted by this past year’s fires at the camp property in Santa Rosa. We are on the Bay, which sparkles in the sunlight and offers a beautiful backdrop to what is otherwise a summer like any other, filled with camp activities, fun, and friendships old and new.

I sat in with the Songleading major, as they tackled a new challenge: Plan that evening’s unit Tefilah, (worship) and lead it themselves.

These campers are Jewishly literate, but that doesn’t mean that they have done a lot of service leading. And yet, they understood that, for that evening, the spiritual experience of their unit rested on their shoulders.

And it was good, really good. Their fellow campers wanted to be led by their own peers. They were willing to go on the prayer journey that these songleaders had fashioned for them.

They reached into their own memories of camp for a moment that moved them, a moment that happened a couple of years ago, and brought that moment back to life to begin their service:

We are hollow bamboo
Open up your hearts and let the light shine through.

It’s a song by Billy Jonas, a great Jewish songwriter/performer.

They opened up, let the light shine through, and sang with everything they had. And that authenticity made a connection.

Not that everything went exactly as they had hoped or planned. It was challenging to be the leaders. The next day, they processed their experience, under the gentle guidance of the camp’s head songleader. What struck me was not only their enthusiasm for planning the service, but their maturity and thoughtfulness in assessing what worked and what didn’t work.

This is camp at its best: opportunities for growth, challenges that are meaningful, moments that are about connecting with others, and not just doing stuff by oneself.

I would like all of our children to have similar experiences, because Jewish summer camp is where the most profound moments of Jewish growth take place.

Just sharing this postcard from camp: Having a magically Jewish time, wish you were here.