by Matthew Ghan, CIT ’15 & CIT Director ’20
This summer I had the honor and privilege to serve as URJ Camp Newman’s CIT Director. I strongly believe that Camp Newman’s CIT program is one of camp’s most integral programs that brings out the best in its participants.
In 2015, the summer before my senior year of high school, I was a CIT at Camp Newman and those 10 weeks were nothing short of transformative. During my CIT summer, I learned that camp challenges us to grow as individuals, deepens our relationships with others and encourages us to be Jewish leaders in the most organic way possible. I knew the lessons from my own CIT summer would outlive me and to have the opportunity to lead the program that shaped me was incredible.
When I was hired for this role in October, our world was very different. I was reading heartwarming applications describing the impact camp had on our CIT Class of 2020 and conducting interviews as if camp was going to be in-person, as it had been for the last 80 years. I was working on hiring an advisor team to serve as role models and inspire our teens to live a Jewish life. I was collaborating with my fellow director team to build on the two years of success we had on our rental site, Cal Maritime, since our Santa Rosa site burned down in 2017.
In March, our world changed and we had to completely rewire what we knew and rapidly pivot. At that time, I was also working for NFTY SOCAL when the URJ made the decision to cancel NFTY’s weekend events. At the time of this decision, I thought these cancellations were temporary and then quickly began to see this was the way our world was shifting. After helping run virtual programming for NFTY SOCAL,working on virtual community engagement for our camp families,virtually graduating from college, I heard the news that we never wanted to hear on April 30th– all of the URJ’s in person summer programs were cancelled for the first time ever in the history of our movement. As a URJ camp staff member and alum, I was, in the same moment, so proud of the URJ and yet, never felt so lost.
I remember instantly thinking of our CITs, our campers that my advisor team and I were going to get the chance to mold into our next Jewish leaders. We worked diligently to craft an email to the CIT community, but I knew it would take so much more than an email to reassure our CITs that they would get some semblance of a CIT summer.
For many CITs, this was the summer they counted down to for years. The moment when they would have campers of their own for the first time, welcome arrival buses, play in our coveted Staff vs. CIT frisbee game, learn how to do holy work and wear the letters CIT across their chest. They would join a program that has changed the lives of hundreds. And when I thought of these sweet camp milestones, I just started crying because of what would not be. Our teens had already lost so much; how could their CIT summer be the next thing they lose? I wasn’t sure how they would respond or how to even help them.
Once the news broke, many teens and staff members were not surprised after watching the news around them. They were sad, and still recognized the values based decision that the place they loved had made. On the town hall meeting for our CITs and Avodahniks (our 8 week work service program) there was a range of emotions and then one of our CITs asked, “Is there a way that we can still be with kids this summer?” Many others felt the same and from their the shift began, and they began to turn sadness and disappointment into action and problem solving and creative energy.
From there, we worked hard to build a program that would provide our CITs with meaning complete with their very own training week, participating in a thoughtful and intentional curriculum, engaging in one on one mentor meetings, and bond as a class community. Our CITs were able to play an essential role for Zoomin’ With Newman (our 2nd-8th grade virtual camp program). During that week, I witnessed pure camp magic as our CITs made their mark, building relationships with campers and leading activities that brought pure joy to our campers (and by extension, to their families at home). I watched as staff members and CITs partnered together to create magic as they wrote programs that reached the core of what it means to be a part of the Camp Newman family.
I could go on and on about the amazing work they did that week. Ultimately, they warmed hearts and shared a piece of themselves with every camper. A few of our CITs even sent friendship bracelets to their campers after the week of virtual camp. It was so apparent that our CITs wanted to give back to the place that meant so much to them. These campers will recognize and know these CITs for the rest of their lives, just like they would have if we were together in person this summer.
The Camp Newman CIT program is rooted in building relationships, and creating space for CITs to lead and to give back. We knew CIT 2020 was not going to be the same as it would have been in person. However, with those odds against us, we built community in so many beautiful ways. We gathered every single night for four weeks for our treasured nightly camp ritual of Siyum,we recorded our silly and loveable Shabbat “Lai Lai’s” for our campers, we created the infamous CIT Shtick, and virtually gathered nearly 200 CIT Alumni from Camps Newman, Swig and Saratoga, for our CIT Celebration.
So here is what I learned from CIT 2020 as we continue to pivot in our world:
- Show up to the places you love and care about, even if it is difficult and looks different.
- What matters today is being part of a community, bringing your whole self, and supporting our leaders.
- Our teens will teach us how to lead the way!
- Without our CITs, our magical summers would not be the same -whether behind the screen or in front of the whole camp in-person
Our CIT song this summer was a parody of Taylor Swift’s song “The Story of Us”. CIT Summer 2020 is and will always be:
The story of a program that no matter what or where or how, would keep impacting lives.
The story of teens that made the decision to care for camp when everything was against them.
The story of a dedicated CITeam that believed we must live our camp values no matter where we are and especially over Zoom. The story of a camp that knows the true definition of resilience.
The story of teen leaders changing the lives of others through a screen.
The story of what it means to think of others and stand up in the hardest moments.
The story of a summer that brings me both pride and joy, along with the sadness of what could have been.
I am so proud to be a part of the Camp Newman community. I believe that this Jewish moment AND our Jewish future are in great hands as our teens lead the way. Thank you Camp Newman and CIT 2020 for the most unexpected, unforgettable summer of magic.