When It Comes to Camp, What Goes Around Comes Around

by Rabbi Stephen Karol

This summer, Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, N.Y., has 45 members involved in URJ summer activities, including the NFTY in Israel trip and Eisner and Crane Lake camps. The camp total of 43 includes campers, staff, a doctor, and a faculty member. With just about 375 families in our congregation, the number is amazingly large – the third highest for the URJ Northeast camps. How did this happen? There are six reasons.

  1. Temple Isaiah has always been disproportionately represented at camp. I am told that there was a bus to take the kids to Eisner 20-30 years ago. Being a rabbi at a synagogue with a “positive camp culture” makes a difference.
  1. I have served three congregations in 35 years and have promoted camp both privately and from the bimah. That personal and professional commitment can be traced to Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe at Temple B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, who convinced me that I should attend Torah Corps at Kutz Camp when I was a teenager – and it can be traced to the Guardian Society providing a full scholarship for me to go to Torah Corps in 1966 (when it cost $400) and in 1967 (when it cost $450) for seven weeks.
  1. When I became a rabbi, I decided I would do whatever I could to provide scholarships for students who, like me, needed assistance to go to camp. In my current congregation, our camp scholarship fund – named in memory of my late father, Joseph Karol – is sustained by small and large contributions by individuals, anonymous donors, and our Sisterhood and Brotherhood.
  1. Just as my parents encouraged me to go to camp, so do many parents in my congregation do the same. They are among the best ambassadors to spread the good news about camp to their peers, and they do a wonderful job. My having been the parent of a camper is also crucial. When my wife and I tried to convince our daughter, Samantha, to go to Eisner, she said to me: “I’ll go, Dad, if you go, too.” That started seven summers of being on the faculty for the first two weeks of camp, and with each summer, it got easier and easier to go and for us to part ways when I headed home and she didn’t. I can also tell parents that camp is where my daughter met some of her best friends – and, most importantly, her husband, Rob.
  1. The kids themselves are probably the best ambassadors of all. While there are children who don’t enjoy camp, the vast majority of them do, calling it “the best summer of my life” – and they keep getting better and better. They stay in touch with their camp friends via Facebook and email, they go to each other’s b’nai mitzvah services, they have reunions in a central location, and they talk to each other on the phone. Some of them feel they fit in better at camp than at home and, in particular, at the temple, and that’s something we need to work on. Most of our campers are also youth groupers – some before they go to camp and some after they have gone.
  1. When the leadership of the temple promotes camp, it makes a difference. We have a service in September welcoming our students back and one in May giving them a send-off blessing. Our Camp Ambassador and I provide a breakfast in June for the kids and their families and provide a gift from me that they can use at camp (this year, it’s a solar-powered flashlight!). Our Director of Education and one of our teachers (who is on the faculty each summer and was involved in the creation of Camp Chazak) talk about camp to students and parents informally throughout the year. I go to visit both Crane Lake and Eisner during the first and second sessions, and they join me for at least one of those visits. When I was on faculty at Eisner, my previous congregation didn’t count the two weeks as vacation. When I go to visit now, it is considered to be a day “at work.”

What do I mean by “what goes around comes around”?  I mean that the two summers I spent at Kutz were the best summers of my life, and some of my camp friends from more than 40 years ago are still among my best friends. I am grateful to Rabbi Jaffe, to the Guardian Society, and to my parents for making it possible for me to go to camp. As a rabbi and a Jew, as a father and a former faculty member, I must give back because I know it is so worth it.

Rabbi Stephen Karol serves Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, N.Y.

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