So, I’m in the middle of my Pesach preparations, as I’m sure many of you are. I’m figuring out which Haggadah to use this year, finalizing the menu that my sister and I will prepare for our guests, and cleaning up the living room and dining room. The kitchen is about to be the eye of the storm, and brand-new bottles of Manichewitz wine are already forming what looks like a small army on the counter.
Yet, in the middle of the hametz hullabaloo, there was a four hour meeting up in the Berkshires that I had to attend. What in the world would be so important that I and my colleagues would drive three and a half hours up and three and half hours back for such a short meeting?
Ah, well, my friends, that’s the best part – we were going up for a Faculty orientation at Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp, located in beautiful Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators from all over the Northeast converged on the campsite for a meeting to discuss curriculum, holidays, and plans for the coming summer.
I will be visiting Eisner’s sister camp, Crane Lake Camp, for two weeks this summer, and it will be my second time on faculty. The opportunity to spend this time at camp is a very precious part of my rabbinate. As I reflect on the areas of my life that have always brought me the most happiness, some of the best experiences took place during my adolescent years at camp.
In junior high and high school, I spent a number of years at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), a Reform Jewish overnight camp in Oconomowoc, WI.
These years were both formative and transformative – I truly became myself there. I was surrounded by incredible, warm, and positive staff and campers. The days were filled with arts, learning, Hebrew, services, sports, and music. Nights were filled with games, programs, campfires, and song sessions.
Perhaps most importantly, we experienced what it was like to be Jewish all day long, and to look at the world around us with a Jewish lens. For most Reform Jewish kids, this is a new, exciting concept. Judaism was something fun at camp, it was something that tied us all together, and it was the source of wonderful teachings and traditions.
Every two weeks, a different set of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators spent time with us – we got to see them in much less formal settings (Rabbis wear shorts? Rabbis sing along at the campfire? Rabbis hang out on the beach?), and see what wonderful, approachable human beings they were. Many of our counselors even went on to become clergy in subsequent years. Thus, as you might imagine, I credit my years at OSRUI with much of my ultimate decision to become a rabbi.
One of my priorities in my rabbinate was to return to camp as a faculty member. I feel very fortunate that my congregation, Temple B’nai Torah, has supported my wish to spend two weeks each summer at Crane Lake Camp. It is truly an honor to now be one of those camp rabbis who can influence the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Recent studies from the Foundation for Jewish Camp have found fascinating connections between families that send their children to camp and their involvement in Jewish life. They discovered: 1) parents of camp kids remained temple members longer, 2) kids who went to camp were more likely to stay in religious school post-B’nai Mitzvah, and 3) the entire family was more likely to be involved in temple life and leadership. The Jewish Week covered these important findings in its article, "Summer Camp Impact Seen High in New Study."
If there were eight days in a week, I would want to spend that extra day up at camp. Just as our ancestors were liberated from Egypt and, in their freedom, first began to learn who they were as Jews, I solidified my Jewish identity when I began attending camp.
If I may continue the analogy, many of the "plagues" of childhood and adolescence – overwork, social awkwardness, academic pressure, feeling like an outsider, effects of bullying – can be cured by attending camp and meeting other kids who wind up becoming part of your family.
Thanks to Facebook, I’m still in touch with many of my camp friends from over twenty years ago. We’re still family today, despite the years and miles between us. As James Taylor would sing, "You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am, I’ll come running to see you again… you’ve got a friend."
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004