Tu B’Shvat – The Jewish New Year for… Summer Camp?

TBshvat Treeby Rabbi Steve Weisman

At first I thought it was because I have been planning visits from Shane Carr and representatives of our other URJ camps to our congregation.  Or maybe because of the 6 Points reunion I was able to attend in Rockville last weekend.  Or maybe even because of the way our Jewish calendar falls on the secular calendar right now – until the leap year kicks in next month, and pushes Purim back closer to where we are used to finding it.  Or even because, one week after the coldest weather in the DC area in 20 years, I have my windows open today, enjoying a surprising thaw.

Whatever it is, here I am, less than 48 hours before the start of Tu B’Shvat, thinking about 6 Points!  And the more I do, the more sense it makes!

Let me take a step back.  For us as North American Jews in particular, Tu B’Shvat – the “New Year of the Trees” – is already challenging.  Mid-January, even early February (the latest time that Tu B’Shvat falls on the secular calendar) is NOT the time when the trees start to show their growth in most of the parts of the country where Jews live (apologies to those of you in the southern reaches of the US!).  Most of our children and young adults should be more focused on exams for the end of their first semester of the school year than letting their minds wander to moving our lives back outdoors.

But in Israel, where there are basically 2 seasons – the rainy season that starts at Sukkot and is done by Purim, and the almost completely dry summer – this is the moment, as the rains begin to slow, that the farmers DO see the start of the growing cycle for all but the winter growth.  It IS the time that they prepare for the main growing season – because they have to.  Since most of the growing season requires the rains that are now ending, they must be sure that there will be enough water for full growth, and act if there is not.  They must plant and tend and prepare the soil.

For those of us involved in Jewish summer camping, this time of the year is similar.  Unless you are in the business, the appearance is that the summer is a time of great effort and work and growth and success, while the rest of the year is a large question mark.  As a Rabbi, I often hear a similar question from my religious school students (and occasionally from their parents) “I know what you do on Friday night and Sunday and Wednesday (when religious school meets), and on holidays, but what does the Rabbi do the rest of the time?”

That answer is obvious to me – I study, and teach, and work behind the scenes, and prepare for all the “public” stuff.  And that “public” success of our summer camps is similarly the result of the incredible work of the talented and amazing full time staff – traveling to recruit campers and staff, interviewing potential staff members, hiring the team that will create that success, making the decisions about program and facilities.  The stuff that does NOT happen during the summer, but now.

In a real sense they are planting the seeds for the summer’s success right now – seeds that will be harvested this summer.  Because summer camp is no more a seasonal phenomenon than the fall harvest is unique to the fall.  Both are the result of year-round effort, preparation, and care.  And, just as the fruits of the farmer’s fall harvest feed the family throughout the year, the fruits of the 6 Points team’s efforts spiritually feed our campers and staff all year as well.

One closing thought – the Rabbis of 2000 years ago taught that there were 4 “New Year’s” observances on the Jewish calendar.  Two of those dealt with the sacrificial system that no longer existed.  None of them were Simchat Torah — the Rabbi’s own celebration of the ending and restarting of the annual cycle of Torah reading.

I would say that, as North American Jews, we, too, have four different New Year’s.  Three of them are pretty obvious.  Our religious year starts with Rosh Hashanah, and with it, our school year.  The secular New Year changes the year we write on our checks (eventually!), and for tax purposes.  Our annual readings of Torah begin with Simchat Torah.

As a sports camp family, our favorite sports’ seasons could easily regulate our 4th New Year’s.  And we would likely think that New Year’s Day would be our favorite team’s opening day.  But what about the pre-season and training camp?  Or the draft?  Or the “off-season” trades and free agent signings that shape the season?  These turn “seasons” into full years, do they not?  And doesn’t a “season’s” success start long before Opening Day?

I think our 4th North American Jewish New Year’s celebration should be the “New Year of the camps.”  There are 3 seasons to this year, which most of us think starts on “Opening Day” as well – whether of orientation for staff, or arrival for campers.  But, as Tu B’Shvat teaches, the REAL camp year begins when the administrative staff shifts from recovering from last summer, and evaluating what worked and what did not, into the planning for the upcoming summer.  Preparation, performance, evaluation.  That is the cycle of OUR year.  And that year really begins long before any of us arrive in Greensboro in summer!

For Alan and Shane and Elinor and others of us, it has already begun.  For the rest of us, if it hasn’t begun yet, it should start right now!  And I, for one, cannot wait to see the fruits of this year’s planting out on the fields at AHA in July!

 

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