Camp Chazak, Where Miracles Are All Around Us
by Stephen Weitzman
Traditionally, the month of Elul is a period of self reflection for Jews who attempt to get closer to God. The tradition dates back to the time when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai for the second time after breaking the tablets because he believed the Israelites had violated their sacred relationship with God by worshiping a golden calf. Once on the mountain Moses was allowed to see God’s back, but not his face,” with at least one sage commenting that Moses was permitted to perceive God’s existence but not God’s essence.
Those of us who worked at Camp Chazak, the URJ’s special needs camp that is held at Eisner and Crane Lake camps, often felt that we, like Moses, were able to perceive God’s existence. Unlike Moses we also felt we were able to perceive God’s spirit.
From the moment the Camp Chazak campers, all of whom had social development issues that make it difficult for them to function in a conventional camp environment, arrived until they departed the following Sunday there was an exceptional degree of ongoing caring, nurturing, and holiness.
Some of us even thought we were in the presence of a few of Judaism’s legendary Lamed Vavniks. According to legend there exist in every generation 36 righteous people without whose presence the world would cease to be. Others view Lamed Vavniks as anyone who performs mitzvot with traits of kavanah, helping, humility and purpose; all of which are terms that describe the compassionate and sensitive staff led by Marissa Frankel, Eisner Camp’s Assistant Director and Dr. Rachel Schein, a Post Doctoral Fellow in Clinical Psychology and the counselors who provided almost 1:1 coverage of the Camp Chazak campers each day (and night) camp was in session.
Upon hearing cries of delight as the Camp Chazak campers scaled new heights on the high swing at Eisner Camp, or overcame their fears and climbed to the high platform and zipped down the zip line at Crane Lake Camp, or watching them spend hours in the pool, or hours boating, rafting, kayaking, tubing, swimming and playing in the water at Crane Lake, or using different mediums in the art shack, or sitting with them around a campfire making s’mores, or praying with them and the members of NFTY Northeast Region, or enjoying a Shabbat dinner after a spiritual waterside Kabbalat Shabbat, or participating in a Havdalah service led by Greg Kellner, Crane Lake’s Senior Assistant Camp Director, one knew one was in a holy and sacred place.
Camp Chazak, as it has done for each year it has been in existence, has focused on providing special needs campers with the opportunity to actively participate in Reform Jewish camping regardless of the challenges or obstacles. Whether they were on the autistic spectrum, had difficulty with personal hygiene, or had social adjustment issues with their peers the Camp Chazak campers learned to accept each other for what they were and began to be concerned about each other while beginning to form traditional camp friendships.
Day-to-day life at Camp Chazak was no different than that at other URJ camps. Each camper, staff and faculty member lived in a bunk, ate camp food (food allergies excepted), participated in tefilah, menucha and nikayon, sang and danced and experienced the joy of a URJ camp.
This was the second summer I have been privileged to serve as faculty at Camp Chazak. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Camp Chazak was truly a mystical place to be.
More, however, needs to be done if we are to truly make Reform Judaism a reality for all of the children of our congregation’s members. As I wrote in a blog last year, the Reform Movement needs to begin to explore options for the construction and continued maintenance of handicap accessible camp buildings and cabins that will not limit the full participation of youth who are physically challenged (whether in wheelchairs, blind, with prosthetic devices, etc.) and need to make a commitment to explore fund raising options that will make this wish list a reality.
Let’s remember that inclusion coordinators at every URJ camp was once considered a dream. It is now a reality.
I would like to end with a story I first heard from Rabbi Marc Gellman, the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, NY.
The sages were perplexed by the actions of the Israelites in the desert immediately after the Exodus from Egypt. Here were the Israelites, having witnessed firsthand the plagues sent against the Egyptians by God, having participated in the crossing of the Red Sea, having been the recipients of water and quail sent to them by God in the desert, having personally observed the thunder and lightning at Mt. Sinai, having heard the voice of God and yet what did they do when Moses was delayed coming down the mountain? They built a golden calf. The rabbis asked, “How is this possible?”
Their conclusion was that the Israelites after years of slavery were so intent on crossing the Red Sea that they concentrated on the mud that was left behind when the sea divided and not on the miracle of the walls of water that was around them. At Camp Chazak we were able to focus on the miracle that is the magic of URJ camping and were able to focus on the miracles of the campers that surrounded and blessed each of us with their actions and achievements.
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazayk!
Stephen Weitzman served as president of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY, on three separate occasions, served as president of the URJ Greater New York Council, is currently a member of the URJ North American Board, serves as Chair of the URJ Special Needs Camping Committee, and is already counting down the days until next summer, when he can again serve on the faculty at Camp Chazak.