The Many Blessings of Jewish Summer Camp
Last Friday afternoon, I arrived at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, just as camp was ushering in Shabbat. The staff member who greeted me at the gate showed me where to park and explained that I would be able to find services on my own – that I would hear them. Sure enough, I got out of my car and followed the beautiful music up a path and discovered one of Newman’s many prayer locations nestled in the woods. The entire camp was gathered in an outdoor sanctuary surrounded by trees and a setting sun – singing and praying as they were treasuring their final Shabbat of the summer.
Over the course of Shabbat at Newman, I kept encountering moving examples of the powerful, close-knit Jewish community that had been built at camp. I witnessed older campers helping younger campers at meals, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and I had the chance to speak with the Hevrah Unit who had recently completed four weeks of activism connected to immigration issues, and we saw senior counselors mentoring junior staff as they made final preparations to wrap up the summer. The moment that took my breath away though was witnessing each member of the camp staff blessing their campers during Kabbalat Shabbat services.
I watched as the staff and the campers so eagerly sought each other out and got into the right position extending prayer shawls to bestow the blessings that traditionally parents bestow on their children. These staff deeply understood their roles as guardians, as teachers and as mentors to these young people. At the same time it was abundantly clear that these campers so dearly appreciated this ritual moment to receive one more blessing from their madrichim (the Hebrew that means, “one who shows the way”). It was a moment full of investment from every single person in that outdoor sanctuary. It was a moment overflowing with meaning.
Everyone in that sanctuary understood how blessed they are. Blessed to be able to bestow gifts of Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish love, and equally blessed to be able to be receiving those gifts. We know that many of those campers were also dreaming of the day when they would get to hold the prayer shawls aloft above their campers. Camp Newman, like all of our camps, is creating a living, breathing Jewish community in which adults and youth together are realizing how our traditions and texts are sacred vessels to bring meaning into their lives, to help them build sacred community and to improve the world.
So many blessings.