Fireflies Over Kutz



It’s late in the evening on a muggy Saturday in July, long after the campers and even the other staffers have gone to sleep. There are three of us, two girls and one boy – two women and one man, really, because we are, after all, adults, although it is sometimes difficult to feel that way here, surrounded by youth and recounting our own lives.

Together, the three of us represent a broad swath of the Reform Jewish community: the always-engaged, the otherwise-engaged, the finally-engaged. She grew up at camp, the daughter of a rabbi, and went on to work there; this is only her second summer away from her summer home, and it’s evident that she misses it deeply. He is a professional musician who grew up in the Conservative Movement but has come to embrace the Reform community and vice versa. And me? Well, this is all foreign to me. It is my first time at camp, and I am subsisting solely on other people’s stories and reflections on life as engaged Jewish youth, suppressing retroactive jealousy at their involvement. “Are you even Jewish?” one of the campers asked me this morning. I laughed – would I be here if I weren’t? – but I was surprised at how much I let the question rankle me. As involved as I have become in this community, will I ever be Jewish enough? Maybe I can never really “get” it.

My two new friends and I are sitting in a small gazebo that overlooks Lake Rolyn, and all is silent except for the ducks and bullfrogs. We’re staring out over the lake reflecting in silence on our individual places in this camp, this community, when suddenly, he gasps and points into the vast darkness.

“A firefly!” he exclaims. “That’s the first one I’ve ever seen!”

Ever? We both laugh at such childlike wonder in a man of 35. “What a city thing to say,” she teases.

“What a perfectly summer camp thing to say,” I add.

He’s unphased, enamored of the little lighted bugs that flit and flicker by, can’t turn away from them.

“Should we say the Shehecheyanu?” she whispers, again with a hint of teasing. We laugh, and the moment passes – for them but not for me.

It is in this light-hearted exchange that I suddenly “get” it, that I recognize the gravity of this place, that I feel what the rest of them mean when they talk about Jewish summer camp. This is not just a place where summer memories live; this is a place where Judaism lives. It is a place so filled with faith that even in the ordinary, we still see holiness, that little bit extra.

This is a place where the everyday banal moments of life are also Jewish moments, where each experience, from the fantastic to the mundane and running the entire gamut in between, is framed in Judaism. In a small moment so full of big wonder – fireflies, of all the commonplace summer things! – we see Judaism, and it helps us fill the space with even more wonder than before.

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Kate Bigam

About Kate Bigam

Kate Bigam is the URJ's Social Media and Community Manager. Prior to this, she served as a Congregational Representative for the URJ's East District and at the Religious Action Center as Press Secretary and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Kate is a native of Cuyahoga Falls, OH, and currently resides in Red Bank, N.J.

16 Responses to “Fireflies Over Kutz”

  1. Miriam Chilton

    Thank you for capturing the essence of URJ Camping. I still have the goosebumps.

  2. avatar

    So-o-o neat to recognize the people about whom she is talking!

    • Kate Bigam

      That’s always fun, isn’t it? I didn’t ask them if I could write about them, so I didn’t name them here, but if you’re a Kutz person or a friend of either of them, their identities are certainly guessable! :)

      • avatar

        Kate, awesome post, captures the essence of Jewish camping! I do know both of them. Since we can’t mention names, one is my Rabbi’s daughter and the other is the Reform Jewish music world’s Golden Boy.

  3. avatar

    “As involved as I have become in this community, will I ever be Jewish enough?”

    The positive influence the summer camps can make on the Jewish commitment of youth is hardly debatable, but quotes like the one above betray that the camp movement over the past few decades has contributed to the lamentable phenomenon whereby the Reform Movement has begun to sell out to an external, “traditional” standard of Jewish authenticity. Everyone is paranoid about not being “Jewish enough”, whether you’re a Jew-by-choice or the descendant of generations of eminent rabbis. People need to chill out and take pride in their Jewish identity without worrying or trying too hard.

    As a side note, the wonder and awe at seeing a firefly for the first time or some other similar encounter with nature is a wondrous experience, and certainly has the potential to be an intensely spiritual one, but there is nothing inherently Jewish about it. I imagine the same thing could happen at a Christian camp, a hockey camp, a chess camp, a Broadway camp, or just about any other place. This is not to diminish the experience itself in any way, and a generically awesome experience could indeed be MADE Jewish by context and response to it (such as reciting a shehecheyanu), but it seems that many people who post glowing entries about the URJ camps are trying too hard to sell them to a constituency which is already sold! Why don’t we spend our energies on improving the camps rather than extolling them to people who already love them?

    • Kate Bigam

      @Jordan, respectfully, I submit that what made that moment one of realization for me was that someone mentioned the shehecheyanu, period – that in an otherwise all-American summer camp moment, this became a moment not just about nature or camp or even wonder, but of recognizing that as Jews, we owe these moments of wonder to a higher power. Could it happen at another camp? Well, sure, though it’s less likely that anyone’s going to bring up God’s works at a hockey camp. This is a place where we live our Judaism 24/7, at meals & in programs &, yes, even in our downtime watching fireflies, & that’s not something I am always reminded to do in my “real life.”

      With regards to “[spending] our energies on improving the camps rather than extolling them to people who already love them,” I would also submit that until this moment, I had not been sure I loved them – on a professional level, sure, but not yet on a personal one. This was my moment, & it felt appropriate to write about it; in doing so, I spent no one’s energies but my own. Written in a moment of personal reflection, I saw it fit to publish here in the hopes that others like me might find something in it that resonated with them.

      To your first point, that those of us who would dare mention aloud the feeling of being “not Jewish enough” should just chill out, I ask you to please be respectful of the fact that though you may be comfortable with your Jewish identity, others are not. While thoughts like mine expressed here may not always be rational or reasonable, we cannot necessarily control their sneaking up on us – & just because they’re unreasonable doesn’t mean they’re not worth addressing. I am now quite comfortable in my Jewish identity, but it has taken me quite awhile to reach this point, & many others are still finding their own way. What you might find silly, others find important, or at least worth exploring.

      • avatar

        I think we had a little misunderstanding and sort of “missed” each other–we actually agree on a lot.

        I am very comforted and re-assured by your assertion that “this became a moment not just about nature or camp or even wonder, but of recognizing that as Jews, we owe these moments of wonder to a higher power”. I was afraid that God was not sufficiently in the picture at the camps, even as rituals and norms become more and more “traditional”.

        To clarify my statement that people should “chill out”, I was referring to the people who are responsible for creating an environment in which people are being made to feel as though they are always defending or having to over-state their Jewish identity and authenticity. Peer pressure plays a role too–who wants to be that one kid without a kippah or who isn’t shuckling? I would ask who wants to be that one kid mixing meat and milk, but that isn’t even an option at the camps! I was not saying that people like YOU should “chill out”. If anything, I IMPLORE people who are made to feel defensive about being “Jewish enough” to report it immediately, so the people responsible can be given a stern talking to immediately!

        For those who are not comfortable, secure, or sure of their Jewish identity, then of course they can seek to strengthen it. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise, or to trivialize your feelings. I’m just emphatically expressing outrage at those instances in which people who ARE secure in their identity are made to question it because of the behaviors and attitudes of others. I am of the opinion that something beautiful was lost when there was a push towards “tradition” in Reform Judaism, suggesting that what came before was not inconsonance with the spirit of the Tradition, which it was, is, and can continue to be. I have seen people behave abominably towards committed fellow Jews just because their beliefs and practices don’t fit into a postmodern, “neo-traditionalist” mold. I have seen liberal Jews become more traditional simply because they were tired of defending themselves to others. That was what motivated my comment–I understand that your situation may be somewhat different from the one I’m decrying.

        • Kate Bigam

          Thanks for the clarification, Jordan. I should note, though, that I am bowled over by the differences I see in practice & tradition & belief at the camps. This is a place where, whatever version of Judaism feels right to you, it’s supported & lifted up. I’ve seen teens wearing tallit & teens without, teens wearing kippot & teens with bare heads; teens who stand for various parts of the service, teens who sit, teens who daven & teens who don’t, teens who prefer to meditate or practice yoga & teens who prefer to study Torah, teens who put cheese on their chicken sandwiches & teens who eat vegan meals. Indeed, this is a place where differences in practice are belief are encouraged, not stifled.

          • avatar
            Jordan Friedman July 10, 2012 at 11:04 pm

            Well, that’s all music to my ears, and it’s good that the diversity is affirmed and encouraged. My limited experience at OSRUI about a decade ago and that of a friend who was there much longer were nothing like that. I have also seen videos from worship services there more recently, and was horrified by what I saw. As long as what you describe is the norm, rather than the exception, I guess I should not be so alarmed.

            However, something tells me that teens who put cheese on their chicken sandwiches might be in some trouble, depending on the camp.

            I suspect that even if differences in practice are not “stifled” on an official basis by camp administration and staff, some may melt away due to peer pressure. When I was at OSRUI, I forced myself to shuckle even though it felt wrong, because EVERYONE else was doing it–and this was only a three-day-long winter retreat!

            In some ways, I LOVE the diversity that exists, but I also worry that it’s becoming a meta-value. For some people, the “power” of certain Jewish practices is diminished when everyone is doing something different. For example, I prefer to stand for the Shema, but I would rather have everyone do the same thing, even if it’s sitting, than have some people sitting and other standing. It’s powerful when the whole congregation does something together, as a cohesive group. I blame the camps for making it “cool” to have a more disjointed worship experience, which reminds me of Conservative and Orthodox services, where people literally aren’t always on the same page!

  4. avatar

    A beautiful post – made me homesick for Kutz, and grateful that you are there, having a no-doubt positive effect on the young people who spend their summer there…if only because of your self-reflective nature! Thank you for sharing.

  5. avatar

    Moments like this one reinforce the importance of Jewish camping as an access point to the Jewish community – for children and adults alike.

    Our community and its institutions can be incredibly off-putting and unwelcoming to newcomers, often requiring the equivalent of a user’s manual to understand even basic cultural norms and traditions. Camp, however, asks only that those who come through the gates be willing to try new things – in this case, specifically Jewish things – in a safe and accepting space. Don’t know the songs? We’ll give you the words and repeat them enough times that you’ll never get them out of your head. Never made challah? There’s likely to be a cooking chug. Live in an area with few other Jews? You’ll leave with a whole new Jewish community to keep in touch with via social media and Skype (or OoVoo or Facetime. Your choice.) Within the camp experience, everyone has the opportunity to grow, learn, and be treated as an important member of the community, with no strings attached.

    I do not believe that stories like the one Kate told are simply ‘preaching to the choir’ of Jewish camp fans. Yes, they remind those of us who no longer spend summers at camp about our own wonderful times there. But for those who haven’t previously experienced Jewish camp for themselves, it can be much easier to understand what all the fuss is about through the eyes of someone, like Kate, who also entered as a newcomer.

    We need more opportunities to reflect on what our community is doing correctly and incorrectly: to hear about how people actually feel when coming through the doors of our programs and to understand the full range of what they experience, which might include their questioning whether they truly belong.

    Thank you, Kate, for sharing an honest and touching insight into your own experience.

  6. avatar

    Kate,

    I enjoyed your blog post and could easily put myself in the Pagoda with you by the lake to envision the tiny green glow from the firefly, while listening to the bullfrogs, crickets and probably an annoying mosquito or two (but don’t want to ruin the moment).

    My one insight that I want to share is that while we often talk about Kutz as a magical place in a physical sense, landscape, Teyatron, the hill etc.. the magic and inspiration are rooted in the people and the legacy they have left through the years.

    It’s the people and the content that we pour into it renewed each and every year based on Reform values. We could have just as easily created a ‘Kutz’ experience in Uganda if we had the leadership and inspiration of people who have formed and shaped the camp through the years. Names like Smith, Mishkin, Cooper, Reichenbach, Geller, Arian, Roman (2 generations), Dreskin, Frank, Rudin, Nosanchuck, Tzur(Silverstein) and many, many more create year after year the Holy place that Kutz has become to all of us.

  7. avatar

    This is so, so, so beautiful. I want to be at summer camp and, not for the first time in my life, I wish I were Jewish. Something about it seems _right_ to me.

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