This is What Real Engagement Looks Like

Last week, I entered into the foundational part of our week at Camp Harlam – the chance to turn-off, tune-down, and take a little time during Shabbat – feeling a great sense of joy and accomplishment for what had happened in the last seven days. We saw successful trips out of camp to hike and play, awesome camp-outs, truly creative experiential Jewish learning activities, special services led by our Cornerstone Fellows, and so much more.

But for me – and for other members of our professional staff – the real challenge doesn’t come in overseeing and helping to support the rest of the staff in the facilitation of all this awesomeness. It does take a lot of hours, much effort, and thoughtful strategy to execute the myriad programs that take place here, and there’s also all of the problem-solving and camper development and staff education and leadership to consider. Last week, though, in particular, there was a special project that took shape and offered me a chance to add another cool thing to my plate (and camp’s plate).

On July 11th, 40 congregational youth professionals, clergy members, educators, URJ leaders, camp folks, and others descended upon Harlam’s campus in Kunkletown, PA, to talk about youth engagement. Some background: Seven months ago at the URJ Biennial Convention, our newly appointed Reform Movement leadership announced the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE) as one of the principal targets and priorities of the Reform community across North America. Under the presidential leadership of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, this is a landmark commitment to the development of a stronger, more connected and more effective youth community. With camp, NFTY and Israel experiences at the core of this effort, the campaign was put before us as a means of designing, supporting, creating, trying, risking, and integrating new means of youth connections to young peoples’ Jewish souls, the Jewish community around them, and the Reform Movement as a whole.

In April, Rabbi Peter Rigler (a member of our Camp Council, an alumnus of Camp Harlam, and the parent of a current Harlam camper) sat with members of our lay leadership and professionals as the topic of the CYE came up. This was also in the context of many discussions about the ways we were going to be trying to get people in touch with camp and the exciting changes and growth here, as well as some cool new initiatives we were moving forward that could help us become a more successful camp. That idea from Peter was followed by support from others in the room, which resulted in my call to the URJ to see whether they might be supportive of a CYE event at Harlam.

With this month’s meeting, Harlam became the first camp to host a gathering of stakeholders and constituents to put youth engagement under the microscope in order to assess what may be working – and more importantly, what we could be doing that would make us even more effective. Our willingness to stake a claim to this campaign showed our many followers in attendance that we were serious about looking forward and trying new things. It showed us that we could challenge the status quo and use the support and insight from partners in our congregations and at the URJ to integrate some of the new ideas and the big ideas into our strategic plans.

We were honored to have Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Senior Vice President of the URJ, here at camp to share his unique and visionary experience as a leader in the Reform Movement and a driver of this effort to change the paradigm of Jewish youth connection in North America. Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, the incoming Director of Youth Engagement of the URJ, helped to lead us through observation at camp and subsequent discussions to generate insight and innovation. The many others in attendance participated freely and enthusiastically, surrounded by the pulsing environment of real engagement happening at Camp Harlam.

Our biggest stars of the day were the volunteers from our Machon (CIT) Program, who acted as guides and hosts, and for whom the concept of “engagement” in the Jewish community is not just happenstance or coincidence but an intentional effort they have made to develop their relationship with each other and with Reform Jewish life.

Those here at camp each and every day – the kids and adults that have the special opportunity to live in this totally immersive community – already know that what happens here is making a real difference in peoples’ lives today and will impact the lives of many in the future. Through all of the inspirational and fun and cool and new and traditional and crazy things that take place here, we all get to feel the sense of identity development and pride; we all feel at ease screaming “I love being Jewish!” at the top of our lungs. But last week, we brought more people under our tent. More people now know how extraordinary this place is, and more people are now prepared to help us become even more incredible.

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Aaron Selkow

About Aaron Selkow

Aaron Selkow is the director of URJ Camp Harlam.

4 Responses to “This is What Real Engagement Looks Like”

  1. avatar

    Great idea and process. Thrilled you included the mahonikim. What were some of the ideas/outcomes?

  2. avatar

    Great idea and there was no better place to have this take place than Camp Harlam.

  3. Miriam Chilton

    There were a few breakout groups. The one I participated in shared the following ideas:
    1. During the off-season offer progammatic weekends like Father/Son and Mother/Daugher to deepen the connections to camp and Judaism.
    2. Host a sibling weekend at camp during the summer to get the whole family excited about coming to camp.
    3. Arrange for a group from your Temple to visit camp during the summer to introduce them to camp.
    4. Reach out to camp to see if there are staff who can work in your congregations and religious schools during the year.
    5. Encourage your clergy and others from Temple to send letters to your campers.
    6. Introduce the younger members of your religious school to camp and get them excited about the idea of Jewish camp and youth group.
    7. Share pictures of your campers in your newsletters, facebook pages and your websites. Celebrate the families and the campers who attend Jewish camp.
    8. Offer scholarship funds to help families in need.
    9. Educate ourselves about the value and benefits of Jewish camp so we can be strong ambassadors.
    10. Learn what funding sources are available from your local community federations and other foundations as well as the first-time camper incentives (

    These are just a few of the ideas shared in a short period of time. If you have others, please share.

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