by Rabbi Joshua Strom
While I don’t remember the exact numbers, I believe there were 35 counselors-in-training at URJ Camp Harlam the summer of 1997. Though we had just turned 17, we were somehow a little older, a little wiser, a little more worldly, perhaps, than most of our friends at home. When we went back to school in September, the changes were obvious, if only to us, and we wondered what else a young person could do over a summer that could possibly be as meaningful, as powerful, as transformative. Whatever that seed of difference was, however one might attempt to qualify it, I have no doubt in my mind that it was planted and flourished on the beautiful sprawling lawns of Kunkletown, PA – some of us when we were just 8 years old, having never been away from home four days, let alone four weeks.
And now five of us are rabbis. I was first, followed by Kevin Kleinman, Judy Bacharach Kempler, Matthew Soffer, and Jessica Gross. Honorable mention goes to Karen Perolman, a good friend just a couple of years behind us at camp, who I’m proud to call a rabbinic colleague as well.
Was it something in the Mahoning Valley water? Something in the Pocono Mountain air? The pierogies? I don’t think so. The answer, I believe, lies in the camp’s full name: URJ Camp Harlam Institute for Living Judaism. To me, this expression means two things.
The first is that URJ camps are where Judaism lives: when we think about the uplifting, meaningful worship taking place amidst the wonders of God’s creation; where we learn Jewish values and tradition in shiur/limmud; where we hear inspirational divrei Torah from our clergy and educators. But living Judaism is so much more than that. From the Hebrew names of places and activities, to the blessings before and after meals, to making mezuzot and playing softball and basketball with our friends, rabbis, cantors, and educators – Judaism permeates every aspect of camp life.
All of that leads us to the second meaning: Because Judaism lives at URJ camps, they are, as a result, places where children learn to live Jewishly. Beyond all of the formal and informal education mentioned above, what we learned – and what kids continue to learn today – is that it’s a wonderful thing to be Jewish. When that is not only taught to you, but practiced and exemplified before your eyes and ears every day and night of the summer, it’s something you internalize in the best of ways. Jewish tradition becomes the sturdy foundation on which to build the person you want to become, even from the earliest ages, so that Jewish identity and pride becomes more than something you believe. It becomes something you just know.
Whether or not you go on to become an educator or member of the clergy, it is that core knowledge, that pride in and love for being Jewish, that transforms, strengthens, and enriches every single day of our lives.
Rabbi Joshua Strom is the associate rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.