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Nourishing the Jewish Spirit at Summer Camp

As I reflect on my two weeks as rabbinic faculty for the 6-7th grade session Shomrim, I am truly moved by the experience. I think I am one of the vatikim, having spent some 13 years growing up and serving on staff at Camp Swig, and nine summers on rabbinic faculty at Camp Newman.   With all of those experiences, this summer I felt the magic of Camp Newman in some new ways that I’d like to share with you all.

Quality of Staff:

There was a quality among the staff that showcased new levels to the Newman experience. From the morning shtick when Hebrew man appeared along with the presentation of a middah/value for the day, through the programming and how staff treated campers, deep Jewish soul instruction was present in a very engaging and delightful way. The songleaders were a team – no one stood out as the “ego” or super star. Everyone worked seamlessly together. What came through was incredible support and collaboration.

Having been at Camp Newman for some years, I felt as well the very high quality of the staff. The staff always love the campers, however in addition, I experienced a very high level of programming where the value of the day integrated into whatever program we were doing. Simple blackberry picking became an experience in cooperation as they picked for each other. Kindness for campers frequently moved me to tears. There was something set into the very fabric of the session so that children with various challenges were not only tolerated by the other campers, but loved. I witnessed again and again how a particular child, who would otherwise be ignored or teased in the non-camp world, was joyfully accepted.

DSC_6678-300x200As a former songleader at Camp Swig, I always pay close attention to the musical repetoire and how songs are taught. I saw that there was some experimentation with teaching songs in the Chadar Ochel with a powerpoint system allowing for both learning new songs, even more complex songs, but still making space for the current custom of dancing around. I also was thrilled with the sound system on the basketball courts for Shabbat. The quality of singing, the gentleness of the older campers toward the younger campers, and the method of leading dance from the small stage in the middle, made for a safe and exhilerating Shabbat.

This is a Reform Jewish summer camp and the campers really know their prayers. They exhuberantly bless the ritual washing of their hands, they are pretty ecstatic about the blessing before eating and even more joyful singing Birkat Hamazon with its inclusive prayer for our cousins, the children of Ishmael. There is some shtick, but it is precious shtick and kept at a respectful pace by the blessing leaders.

In the 6-7th grade session I worked with, the campers really knew the basic meaning of each prayer and were eager to lead, to write their interpretations and to participate in story telling.  We would pray at the Creek on Shabbat Morning till the end of Amidah and then walk up to another place for Torah reading. There was a trust among the counselors and the campers about respecting the beautiful space and participating in prayer there. The way I saw it, gently tossing pebbles into the water and watching the rippling out of circles was like the impact of Camp Newman and the broader affect it has on their lives.

Perhaps more than any other summer, I feel a calm intentionality from the senior staff. Rabbi Erin is a grounded presence. She always knows what is going on and what needed to go on – aware of both a specific child in need, as well as the perspective of how the camp is running and how the staff is collaborating. You feel here calm, grounded, aware presence directly when she speaks at Shabbat services and you sense it by how she speaks with all of us. Ruben creates a stable and vibrant energy from the first loving chorus of “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” at the start of camp that only builds till the last night when campers shout with everything they’ve got, “I love being Jewish.”

At the start of my two weeks here, Rabbi Paul Kipnes spoke to the faculty about how we fold into an already working system. It was a very meaningful talk – reminding the faculty that we are here not for our own ego gratification nor to make things how we think they should be, but to respect what has been going on and flow into that stream. Putting egos at the door and seeing ourselves more as open vessels created within me even greater appreciation for all the work that had been put in place.

Before even arriving at camp, I was sent, along with all faculty, the names and email information of the leaders, the Rashim, of the session I’d work with along with the invitation to contact them. What a great thing! It took no time at all to email them just to check in and say how happy I was thinking of being at the session with them. In addition, we were invited to collect some texts on a particular value or “middah.” This too made me feel that I could be part of the collaboration with such talented young leaders.

As I near my 25th year of Rabbinic Ordination, I know, hands down, that Jewish summer camp is the very best way to nourish the Jewish spirit. As rabbis, we can preach our best sermons, we can sing our songs, we can shmooze at onegs and do all the things that we are supposed to do to feed our congregants’ Jewish identity. However, I am convinced that it is the high quality of Jewish learning at Camp Newman, the loving counselors and specialists and the grounded, organized and deeply committed leaders who are the ones who make the magic happen.

Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, CA.  


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