Living Judaism

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.

Rabbi Strom, right, with his friend and fellow Harlamite, Rabbi Matthew Soffer

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.

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5 Responses to “Living Judaism”

  1. avatar

    Nice article Josh. I was also a ’97 CIT, part of the first summer of URJ Camp Newman in California. Out of many summers at Camps Swig and Newman, I eventually made my way to HUC-LA, along with fellow CIT (now also Rabbi) Joel Simonds (who married my CIT bunkmate, Ariella Thal). We continue to be part of a large, close group of friends interconnected between Camp Swig/Newman and NFTY CWR and So-Cal. In our early 30’s, many of us are active in Jewish life and continue to live the values we learned at camp as we build careers and families. Notably, ONLY A FEW OF US BECAME ‘PROFESSIONAL JEWS’, which I think is very important. In my continuing work with NFTY, NFTY Israel and URJ Camps, I often feel that the message to kids is “like this? You should be a rabbi/cantor/educator” as opposed to encouraging a rich, complicated, Jewishly-literate life as a “Jew in the pew”. Our congregations and HUC graduating classes would both be stronger if we put energy behind this more nuanced message.

  2. avatar

    What is reform judaism?

  3. avatar

    Rabbi Oleon raises a very important point about stressing the importance of engaged and educated Jews in the pews. While the URJ camps are a terrific breeding ground for future rabbis, it molds the future membership of the entire Movement.

  4. avatar

    It is interesting that I should read your blog today. I too went to Camp Harlam but was among the first campers in 1957. I can tell you that everything you say is true for all generations who were touched by Camp Harlam. Matt Soffer’s parents were campers with me for many years as were so many others. I even returned as Camp Nurse when I finished school! Many of the kids we grew up with remain very involved in their Judaism and many became Rabbis. What is interesting to me about reading this today is that my father passed away last week at 92. We have requested that all donations go to Harlam. My dad was friends with Joe and Betty Harlam through business dealings. Joe asked him to build the camp and so he did with others in the 50’s. He supplied steel for it and continued to work over the years as chair of the camp committee and then vice chair of the UAHC (Now URJ) national committee to build our camps. Your blog is a tribute to us all, and a tribute to my dad, David Orkin, as well. They will be saying Kaddish for him at camp this Friday night.

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