Gather ‘Round the Flagpole
June, 1963. Freshman year finals were over and, on a typical early summer Philadelphia day (humid), I packed my car and headed to someplace called Camp Harlam. I had been hired to be a cabin counselor and no idea the impact that summer would have. Fast forward years later (OK, decades) and I still, in some Pavlovian way, get a twinge to pack the car and head up the turnpike every year about this time.
It is difficult to speak of the impact my association with URJ camps in general, and Camp Harlam in particular, have had on my life. In my various capacities in my work as a rabbi, I have now logged more than 40 years at Harlam. Some of the people I met in that summer of 1963 are still close friends, and many of the people I met at Harlam remain part of my life, as do their children. There are too many memories to recount, but one fact remained true: It is impossible to speak of the full effect that the camp has had on generations of young Jewish men and women. The bonds formed during these summers really do last a lifetime. Relationships, both personal and professional, that were begun at camp, have been maintained and flourished. The children and grandchildren of previous generation Harlamites are now getting ready for their experiences.
The success of these programs can be seen not only in the growth of numbers, but in the growth of Jewish identity. For many young people, their “synagogue” community is really their camp community. They feel more at home Jewishly at Harlam, OSRUI, Greene, or Eisner (to name a few) than at their own congregation. I do not think this is a bad thing. The intensity of living 24 hours a day with peers in a Jewish environment during pivotal years of life cannot be matched by any religious school experience, and it is that camp experience that, I feel, propels those young people to remain affiliated as they grow older and have their own children. The feeling of a Shabbat at the Chapel on the Hill at Harlam cannot be replicated in any synagogue, and that is as it should be. These moments belong to the special province of the camp Shabbat experience; if they were easily duplicated, the camp experience would be devalued.
One of the gifts of URJ camps is also the experience of being able to see Judaism as a daily part if life. It is not assigned to a day or afternoon, as it is during the year, but is a daily part of the way we live. From blessings at meals to educational experiences to announcements in what we used to call “camp Hebrew,” there is a seamless intersection of Judaism and daily life. This interface of Judaism and daily life is a powerful lesson, yet it is not the key reason our camp experiences are so powerful. That reality rests within the relationships forged in these camp years. Talk to enough former campers, and you will find that it is the people they met and still keep up with that are the real lasting bonds.
Our camps are also places where memories of those relationships find new meaning. At Alumni Days and camp reunions, former campers take their children or grandchildren around “their” camp, pointing out places and bringing back memories help forge our contemporary Jewish DNA. Part of that DNA is contained in the collective contributions of all who have helped create these life transforming summer experiences. My own memories of my first years at Harlam are tied with our first director, Menchy Goldblatt, a no-nonsense teacher from Philadelphia who guided the growth of Camp Harlam in its formative years. He turned the directorship to Arie Gluck, part of a cadre of influential and dedicated camp directors who have guided URJ camps into a position where they remain a model for Jewish camping around the world.
So it is summer time. It is time to renew old friendships and pave the way for new ones; it is also a time to remember. In early July, a group will gather at URJ Greene Family Camp, where Director Loui Dobin will preside over the dedication of a lake in memory of its first director, Rabbi Jake Jackofsky. Jake went on to a distinguished career as Regional Director of the Southwest Council of the URJ. His impact, both at camp and the region, is still felt in the relationships that he helped create. A great part of his Jewish soul was formed at Greene, and it is appropriate that his memory and name will be linked to one of his spiritual homes. Many of the young people who will have fun on Lake Jake will never have known him personally, yet because of what he did many years ago, generations of youth will have an opportunity to mold their own Jewish souls and create relationships and memories that will last a lifetime.