Sports, games, art and science projects. Swimming, hiking, climbing. Laughing, learning, sharing. It’s these activities, and more, that transform summer camp into one of the strongest links in the Reform Movement’s chain of connections. In fact, summertime for the URJ is like one huge game of connect-the-dots. Connecting current campers with alumni. Connecting clergy with worshippers. Connecting songleaders with singers. Connecting students with teachers. Connecting our Jewish past to our Jewish present and future.
In the last few weeks, I’ve spent time at several of our overnight camps – URJ Kutz Camp, URJ Greene Family Camp, and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy – and I’m headed to GUCI this weekend and to URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in early August. Being at camp is a joy. It’s a reminder of what was most special to me as a camper – feeling for the first time a brand new excitement about Shabbat, the Birkat HaMazon, and standing up for social justice. Kabbalat Shabbat in the woods is enchanting. We wear white, yet the energetic dancing, enthusiastic singing, and feeling of being carried away brings Shabbat into vivid Technicolor. It’s a wholly different experience than Shabbat back home. Indeed, the flames of camp’s Shabbat candles ignited a spark in me.
And when I visit camp now, I see thousands of young Jewish people in whom sparks are being kindled. Camp is a precious doorway into a lifelong love of Reform Judaism. As a place of nexus, camp is uniquely rich. The ways camp connects to our children are obvious – by inspiring the next generations of our Movement, and our future leaders. Although some of the ways our camps connect others may be less apparent, they are no less powerful – even for Reform Jews who never spend one minute in a bunk.
Camp Connects to Congregations Camp activities and staff reach beyond the boundaries of camp, delivering the joys of Jewish life year-round. Rabbis, cantors, educators, youth professionals, and local congregational leaders active in youth programming at camp also share ideas for teaching and guiding their entire congregations. NFTY leaders meet to discuss ways to bring ideas back to their youth groups. Teen Collective initiatives bring tikkun olam and teen leadership to the forefront at a crucial time for participants, stressing that healing the world is both a Jewish imperative and a lifelong pursuit. The URJ’s Service Corps Fellowships place veteran camp staff in congregations year-round to lead innovative camp-inspired programs that engage every congregational cohort.
Camp Connects to Israel Israel engagement is symbiotic at camp. We introduce our youth to sabras who provide a personal connection to the Jewish state. Simultaneously, we implant in those Israelis an incredible love of Reform Judaism that they excitedly bring back home. We are enriching our Movement’s commitment to, understanding of, and love for Israel just as surely as our camps’ nature counselors are tending to the bounty of their community gardens. Also, many of our camps lead straight to a summer experience in Israel for teens and their camp friends, which for most is a first, and transformative trip.
Camp Connects to Families The magic of summer camp is invoked often. There is magic, too, when parents and children are reunited after a summer, having had time apart to recharge and to grow by pursuing their own passions. Kids return home steeped in Reform Judaism as part of daily life, sure of their place in the world, which helps tether each families’ bonds. Lifelong friendships are formed between campers’ families that weave Reform Jews together, strengthening our communities, and enriching our entire Movement.
Camp Connects to “What’s Next” in Jewish Life So much of what prompts change within the spiritual life of our Movement starts at camp. The biggest influence to Reform Jewish music, in the name of Debbie Friedman, z’l, was nurtured at our camps. Anyone who is moved by our songs has been touched by camp. The URJ invests in immersive experiences – overnight camp as well as Israel programs, trips to Washington, DC for advocacy training, and volunteer travel opportunities – not only because they work.
These experiences connect individuals to each other, to the congregational community, and to their personal Jewish identity. Even if you have no obvious connection to our camps, perhaps in thinking about these ideas, you can seek out ways to connect yourself to camp. And please comment below to let me know about the connections you make.