All My Bags Are Packed: Cantors Go To Camp



by Cantor Bradley Hyman

Are you ready? Are you excited? It’s June and many of our colleagues are busy determining what will make it into their cars, SUVs and (yes, even a few travel by) motorcycles to camp. The choice to get to camp was easy for most, but for others who are still thinking about it, I ask you to read the rest of this article as a motivator for next summer, and join us at one of the 13 camps or other URJ camping experiences around North America.

You will find that spending two weeks at camp will give you a new respect for what magically happens over the duration of a whole summer at our camps. Being a presence at camp is vital if there are to be future cantors who possess the kind of skills that are gained though informal settings and education. Between the dedicated staff of people, the visiting staff of people and the kids who both need and deserve these experiences, the broader understanding of what it means to be Jewish is both preserved and shaped. Not every kid is going to be inspired to sing Birnbaum’s V’shamru upon returning from camp, but they might want to begin a lifelong process of learning all about the Jewish musical heroes and musicians they are exposed to. That could certainly lead them to sing that V’shamru one day, but not before coming to grasp the fundamental lesson of camp (and life): everything is possible in its correct time and space. An informal version of Hashkiveinu might not be appropriate every week in your home congregations, but under the right conditions it will work for a few weeks out of the year in a youth-run service or as a sermon in song about different music.

Before traveling to camp, take the time to learn about the camp’s music minhagim, so you can start learning music of that community. When you get to camp, you are going to be eager to fit in, and knowing the minhagim there is one of the easiest things you can do. When you get to camp, you may be pleasantly surprised to find out that often the correct, weekday nusach is being used. The presence of cantors, who in the past applied a gentle but direct hand, made a firm impact on the way many of the song leaders have been focused. Not every camp has taken on this directive in the same way or at the same pace. Please do not be discouraged, and what ever you do, do not make it your personal goal to “change the world” through nusach or with the correct Hebrew. The more you know about the specifics of camp customs before your arrival, the less of a shock it will be, pleasant or not. Singularly, you have the power to move camp forward in great ways or to seriously damage the image of cantors for a long time after you are gone. Be aware and have respect for this power.

In order to ensure your success, you will have to think of a few ways you will be able to add to camp and you will need to show up prepared. Have one or two short, engaging learning opportunities you can offer. You might already be involved in helping prepare the curricula for the summer, working well with your fellow faculty. They might help you formulate things that work better, or at the very least do not overlap too closely things that might have already been offered recently. Think of ways you can operate, without electricity and minimal handouts. Have a few songs, well prepared by you and easy to pass on, readily accessible or “in your back pocket.” Sometimes, the forgotten songs- the gems of camp days long past are the ones which just need a reason for a revival. Maybe it will be a rainy, indoor day that you are called into service with these songs or lessons. Be prepared. Your moment may come sooner than you had anticipated, but there are few things more awesome than watching the look of relief come over a counselor or unit leader when they hear that you are ready and willing to help them with a quick, fun lesson.

Pack as many books as you think you might need in a pinch. Story books or books on Jewish folklore are always a great late night treat for a bunk story time session. Carry as much electronic toys as you think you might need, including a lap top, smart phone, external hard drive and the like. Consider bringing a flash drive or thumb drive, so you can carry and transfer information quickly to another device, for printing or sharing. Your rooms are safe places, and you will be able to lock up all of these things securely. Also consider bringing a CD or two of Jewish music to give to the Israeli staff in trade. They often come into our country with great music, and it’s nice to be able to both inspire and reward each other with legitimately purchased music. No MP3 swapping, please, unless you created the MP3 of yourself!

When it comes to basic information, such as what kind of clothing or bedding to bring, always keep in mind that while you may feel like you are ‘always staying at the Ritz,’ camp is ‘always camp.’ You will walk away smelling like camp, as will your things. Therefore, pack clothing and items you will not mind washing a few times upon returning home. Even though many camps provide basic bedding, come with sheets to fit a full sized bed. If they give you a twin bed, you can always tuck the excess under but it’s hard to stretch a sheet to fit a full mattress if it wasn’t cut that way. Remember your own shampoo and soap. We are spoiled when we travel to a hotel, and they already have it in the shower for us. If you’re spending two weeks at a camp, you’ll appreciate your own bar of soap and shampoo from home.

Fresh air and activity will affect you in lots of ways and you will get hungry in the middle of the day or late at night. Bring your favorite snacks or drinks. Many of us seasoned veterans have a ‘camp coffee pot.’ It’s a lot cheaper than visiting the national chains for your daily morning dosage.

I look forward to seeing as many of you at camps as possible. I also look forward to reading your personal stories upon returning, so please remember to write down a few notes about your daily experiences to share in a blog or an email. If you need anything before or after, I know there are many colleagues prepared to help. Send a request to our listserv or contact me and I will direct you towards the best person to help you. Good luck and have amazing, rewarding and productive summers at camp.

Cantor Bradley Hyman is the cantor at Temple Chaverim in Plainview, N.Y.

Originally posted at the American Conference of Cantors Blog

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