Being in a Caring Community Like at Camp, After the Summer is Over… A Youth Campaign Objective



I remember once when a youngster who was a bunkmate at my child’s URJ summer camp was sent home for several weeks for not complying with an important camp rule. The kids had all been together for many years and had ties of friendship that were very strong. They recognized the seriousness of the infraction. Without thinking, I asked my child which child had been sent home. My child answered, “I am not going to tell you that! We all understand that our friend had to go home because the rules are fair but it is a private matter. My friend will be back at camp next session. We have all agreed not to show anyone photos from this session because we don’t want others to figure out who got sent home. Our friend made a mistake…our friend is accepting the consequences…that’s teshuvah. We’re here to welcome our friend back and make sure no one embarrasses him!”

My response was simply, “Wow.” No shaming, no vilifying, no vindictiveness and minimal gossiping. This was like when Moses’s sister Miriam was placed outside the camp after erupting in a skin infection brought about by having gossiped. That was not a summer camp, it was a desert camp but the same rules operated. Miriam lingered outside the camp, but there was an end to her isolation and she was welcomed back.  Like at our Jewish summer camp, outside the desert camp the offender was isolated for a while but remained an integral part of the group and no one moved on without him or her. There was no sense that she or he was now seen as a bad person from whom others needed permanent protection.  Both the Israelites in the desert and our kids at camp learned that if they did something wrong there were consequences but also that they were still loved and there would be a way back for them too.

No wonder so many of our kids feel that the Judaism they learn at camp is naturally integrated into helping them to create unique communities of belonging, caring, justice and devotion. No wonder these kids long for camp all year and weep (boys and girls alike) and embrace when they say good-bye at the end of the camp season.

Our children (and yes their parents and even grandparents) are craving just this sort of community at home. The kids know it is possible because they have experienced it. Our URJ summer camps and successful youth groups are very much the models for the kind of compelling youth communities that we can create for our kids. Read the blog posts that have appeared this month from camp staff and campers, youth group leaders and youth group members, from parents, clergy and educators.  They speak of integrating and really welcoming kids with disabilities, of supporting kids who are coping with difficult times, of helping each young person to have fun while figuring out rules to live by.  We can help our kids to deal with bullying, with resisting temptation and with recovering our reputations and dignity when we haven’t resisted, with knowing what really matters and knowing they really matter by creating “camp” communities in our congregations.  Not easy, perhaps, but we are up to the challenge; it is our obligation, the need is great and the rewards are without measure.

Make no mistake—the absence of kids from many congregations post bar and bat mitzvah is not because they have found a community like camp somewhere else. They are longing and they are sometimes lost. We need to make sure they are not struggling outside of the camp, alone, uncertain and without a place of powerful belonging and guidance.  Borrowing another metaphor—if we build it, they will come.  This is not conjecture—we have ample experience to prove this is so. Our task now is to find ways together to build the kinds of youth communities that are such havens of safety, such shapers of character that our young people will be able to lead us. They will be the ones to remind us, “Of course we aren’t sharing the name of the one who did something wrong. He is our friend, we are going to help him to do right. “  It is possible, it is imperative, and we are all going to work on creating these communities together.

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Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

About Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW is the Specialist for Caring Community and Jewish Family Concerns (Congregational Consulting Group) for the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Mencher was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (New York) in 1999. She received certification from the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in 1989 and currently serves on the faculty of the Training Institute. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from Hunter College School of Social Work. Rabbi Mencher is the major author of Resilience of the Soul -- Developing Spiritual and Emotional Resilience in Adolescents and their Families, a program guide focusing upon how Jewish communities and tradition can help adolescents and their families develop positive ways of managing stress and difficult emotions.

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