By Alex Rogers, Assistant Director, Year-Round Programs, at URJ Camp Newman
With contributions from Jory Gwasdoff of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette & Becky DePalma of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills
What might it look like to transform a summer camp into a year-round center for youth engagement?
That was the question on all of our minds when I joined URJ Camp Newman last July. Our team began to explore this idea through tons of community conversations and experimentation. A year later, we’ve uncovered the key (and probably obvious) component to achieving this transformation: Partnerships.
While working closely with congregations is nothing new to us, we learned that to launch new, successful teen programs, we need to build a strong core of congregational partners who share a common goal. That goal is to provide meaningful ways for teens across our regions to build relationships that foster a love of Judaism and an enthusiasm for connecting to their home–and larger Jewish–communities.
This spring, these ideas coalesced beautifully between Camp Newman, several of our congregational partners and a group of 8th graders at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. You can catch some of the spirit of the weekend with this video:
And here, in their own words, two youth leaders share their reflections on what the Boardwalk meant to them – and their teens:
Jory Gwasdoff, Youth Director, Temple Isaiah, Lafayette, CA
It’s amazing how you can start off your day as total strangers and within five short hours be singing together with arms around each other as if you have known each other for years. This is part of the magic of being Jewish. Being part of a small community around the world allows for instant bonds to be made with each other simply because we come from the same “tribe.” And of course we have this phrase from a catchy tune, “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish,” yet living the in the Bay Area, we don’t need to look very far to find each other.
A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of joining my 8th graders from Temple Isaiah on an incredible youth retreat at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with other Reform synagogues across Northern California. We built incredible bonds with team-building activities, ate delicious food, sang Havdallah on the sandy beach as the waves crashed to the shore nearby, and spent a whole day enjoying the attractions of the Boardwalk!
As awesome as this experience was for our 8th graders, the immediate effect it had on our Temple community was powerful. Our 8th graders generated a lot of buzz about their wonderful experience which quickly translated into a very large turnout of teens attending the last NFTY event of the year, which 8th graders are invited to join for the first time. It is my belief that 8th graders need to continue having events like these to welcome them into the high school community and create excitement about becoming friends with other Jewish teens in our communities in Northern California.
Becky DePalma, Director of Teen Engagement, Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, CA
Judaism can travel anywhere. That is one of the truths that I treasure about our religion. My family can celebrate Shabbat wherever we go.
Last weekend, I got to share this treasure with 8th graders from all over Northern California. We went together to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with Camp Newman and did Havdallah on the beach there. It was so special to hear the crashing of the waves, to look up and the stars overhead, while teen leaders played guitar and lead the service. These teens who met each other earlier in the day, wrapped their arms around each other, sang the brachot, smelled the spices and basked in the light of the twisted candle together. They created a holy community on that beach in Santa Cruz, just outside the reach of the lights of the Beach Boardwalk.
Now wherever their journeys take them, they know that their Judaism can travel with them and they have new friends to walk beside them as well.
As I reflect back on this incredible year, I feel blessed to work in a community with so many dedicated partners–clergy, youth professionals, educators, thought-leaders, volunteers, parents, and so many more. We share a vision of allowing more young people to live vibrant Jewish lives 365 days a year. Yet while we may each achieve some success on our own, we are coming to realize that this success can be magnified exponentially through our partnerships.
When thinking about growth in your own community, I would encourage you to look outside your walls to the partners that may be just around the corner. Implementing a new idea can be a challenge when our individual resources are spread thin. By working with those around you and capitalizing on the resources and strengths of those involved, we can bring new programming to more teens with little strain on any one party. By joining together to offer more opportunities in our communities throughout the year, we are seeing visible results across the board–elevating the meaning of Judaism in the lives of thousands of children and teens each year and strengthening congregations.