Shhh… Don’t Tell… Camp’s My Favorite Part of My Job!
by Hope Chernak
With all of the exciting and wonderful opportunities I have as a Jewish educator, it might be hard to believe that going to camp is my favorite one. No, I don’t want to be Peter Pan—I’m quite happy to be an adult—but I am blessed to be an adult who has camp as a central part of her life (and hope that it will always be that way). For 11 months each year, not unlike campers, I find myself thinking about the two weeks I get to spend away from New York City at a URJ camp!
For the last few summers, I have served on the faculty at URJ Crane Lake Camp, where I work with students of all ages—teaching daily in the various camper units, tutoring b’nai mitzvah students and assisting with Shabbat services. Needless to say, my time at camp is exceedingly rewarding to me as an educator.
Among my students at Crane Lake are some of the same ones I teach at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Through their Jewish camp experiences, these young people are blessed with opportunities to create lifelong Jewish memories, strengthen the Jewish values introduced at home and in their congregation, and return home more connected to the Shaaray Tefila community where they can sustain their Jewish living and learning throughout the year (even as they count the days until they return to camp!).
I’m blessed, too, that both Crane Lake and Eisner camps have become such a large part of Shaaray Tefila’s camp identity. This summer, we are thrilled that 34 students will attend URJ Camps and Israel programs. Included in this figure are three CITs, six students (three from Crane Lake Camp) on a NFTY in Israel trip, one participating in NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps, and one—the first in many years—at URJ’s Kutz Camp. We are proud of this figure, which is a significant increase from the 11 students who attend URJ Camps and Israel programs five years ago.
Thanks to supportive clergy, educators, and lay leaders, as well as generous camp grants, the Shaaray Tefila community has embraced camp and Israel programs in many facets of synagogue life. For example, this past May, we hosted Temple Shaaray Tefila’s first-ever “pre-camp pizza party” so campers and their parents could meet new friends and reconnect with old ones. In addition, we honor and celebrate camp through music, prayer, and readings during services throughout the year. In June we hold a “send-off” for our campers that features t’filat ha’derech (the traveler’s prayer), and special camp “swag,” and during the fall, the congregation hosts a Shabbat dinner to reunite and welcome back the Shaaray Tefila campers after their exhilarating and meaningful summer experiences.
Next fall, we plan to find ways to incorporate camp style methodology and education into both our congregation’s formal and informal programs. Helping us in this endeavor will be our new Nadiv educator, Sarah Lauing. Nadiv, meaning “generous” or “noble” in Hebrew, is a ground-breaking initiative designed to create exciting connections between camps and schools by leveraging unique skill sets and best practices for the benefit of both. Funded by the Jim Joseph and the AVI CHAI foundations, the pilot program created six senior experiential Jewish educator positions to be shared by overnight camps and Jewish day/synagogue schools. We are honored that Shaaray Tefila was selected as a pilot congregation and look forward to welcoming Sarah, who has already begun her work at URJ Crane Lake Camp, to the congregation this fall. Through her efforts, Reform Judaism’s camp culture, spirit and values will be present at Shaaray Tefila all year-round! For our students, camp won’t last just eight weeks—it will exist daily!
In the meantime, my faculty term begins on August 5th and I’m counting the days until I get to teach campers, see old friends, and spend Shabbat in the Berkshires! Yes, it’s hard to hide the fact that camp is my favorite part of my job! Lucky for me, camp doesn’t end when the summer does. At Shaaray Tefila, it’s an integral part of our community!
Hope Chernak, RJE, is the director of Youth and Informal Education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.