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by Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur
It was truly a “standing at Sinai” moment.
Despite geographical challenges, limited financial resources, and a national holiday, more than 650 Reform Jews came from around the world last weekend to reconnect with URJ Kutz Camp, the sacred place so many of us have called home over the years. We numbered 350 alumni from the last 50 years of Kutz’s existence, plus 200 current high school participants and 100 dynamic, dedicated staff members.
It was a gathering of the generations unlike any other in our history.
In planning this milestone event, we made a deliberate and perhaps bold decision to hold our celebration during the regular camping season. Although this decision meant we might be limited in our ability to program – the expected attendance would double the camp’s population for the weekend – we felt it was crucial to bring Kutz’s past and present generations together.
As a result of this sacred mifgash (interaction), today’s Kutz participants came to understand that the precious days that they spend at camp will profoundly affect them for years – decades, even – to come. Equally important, our alumni witnessed the extraordinary caliber of today’s participants, and they understand that the impact of Kutz is as strong as it was for them in their day.
Together, we heard the inspiring words of former director Rabbi Allan Smith, who reminded us to “be outrageous” and not afraid to make a significant impact on the world.
We honored the steady work and strong vision of Paul Reichenbach, the URJ’s director of camp and Israel programs, who has been a mentor and friend to so many of us and who continues to play a crucial role in supporting and advising today’s Kutz leaders.
In partnership with the Campaign for Youth Engagement and NFTY, we participated in a think tank, the results of which will be models to engage NFTY and Kutz alumni in significant social activism and prayer.
We played the holy game of Shabbat softball, a Kutz tradition that links generation to generation.
We took an intentional hour to share with each other the impact this place had on us, how it continues to affect its current participants, and how our vision for its future will ensure a similar experience for generations to come.
We sat in pagodas and we studied Torah. We sang. We reconnected and forged new connections. Each of these activities is central to our collective Kutz experience.
And we listened intently as our innovative, creative director, Melissa Frey, talked about what an extraordinarily beautiful place Kutz is. From late fall into the spring thaw, she said, the camp’s gorgeous autumn leaves, white snow-capped trees, and sparkly, frozen lake make for a breathtaking view – but without those who love it walking the grounds and caring for its facilities, Kutz is simply a place.
Only in the spring and early summer, when staff and participants return through the gates, is camp’s neshama (soul) breathed back into her, and she once again becomes a home.
As someone who has been involved with camp for the last four decades, it was only after this weekend that I truly began to understand that every person who steps through the gates of the property leaves an indelible mark on the institution. Without each and every one of us, Kutz would be an ordinary piece of real estate. Instead, we have made it a holy space, and when we enter its gates – physically or spiritually – we maintain that holiness for the generations yet to come.
As a believer in the philosophy of Martin Buber, I contend that when people are in relationships filled with kindness, compassion, understanding, mutual respect, and love, God is surely present. This philosophy holds all the more true when a place is filled with such overwhelmingly positive emotions. I have no doubt, indeed, that last weekend, God came home to Kutz.
For another dimension of the Kutz@50 weekend, listen to this song, Open the Gates, written by Jacob "Spike" Kraus, a Kutz songleader and assistant director of youth engagement at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, in honor of the anniversary weekend.