by Dawn Bernstein
Cantorial Soloist, Temple Kol Ami, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada
As strange as it might sound, many of my earliest and most intensely personal Jewish experiences are closely associated with sweat. No, I don’t have a glandular issue that might cause me to break out in perspiration at the first words of the Shema. I am one of the multitude of the most fortunate who attended Goldman Union Camp in Zionsville Indiana. Anybody who has ever spent a summer in the midwest knows full well from where I speak. And yet, in spite of the three-a-day showers, the moisture running into my eyes and blinding me during song leading sessions, the constant water breaks needed during shiur/shicha to ensure that campers and staff wouldn’t drift into dehydrated lethargy, and mosquitos large enough to saddle, this place is where the bulk of my Jewish identity was nurtured and formed. I do what I do today in large part because of Rabbi Ron Klotz and the experiences that I had as both a camper and a staff member at GUCI.
I have been an animated poster child for Union Camps ever since. Whenever I am asked where I received my training, my first answer is “camp.” I put my oldest son on a plane to GUCI at the tender age of eight and a half. When I tell that to people they stare at me with dumbfounded looks that suggest perhaps calling social services, but I simply reply he was going to camp. (It should be noted that GUCI was our area camp here in Toronto until Camp George opened.) One or both of my children attended as campers and staff for the next fifteen summers. They became active youth groupers, both of them serving as TYG president and my younger son on the NEL regional board. They both were teachers in our synagogue religious school with the younger one still acting as our lead music teacher. My older son travelled with NFTY and the younger attended Kutz camp for leadership and song leading training. I’d like to think that my husband and I had a hand in all of that, but frankly it was the influences that they received at camp that pushed them harder than we ever could.
Years later, I am still one of the biggest cheerleaders for Reform Jewish camping. My synagogue, Temple Kol Ami here in Thornhill Ontario has been at the forefront of encouraging and sending our kids to Camp George since its inception. We are a fairly small congregation, but we regularly see several dozen of our young people attend camp each summer. Many go on to staff positions and some have attended other Union Camps throughout North America. We have been so successful at encouraging our families to make Reform Jewish camping their priority, that some of our adults have volunteered their summer vacations to act as camp doctors, nurses, and other faculty positions.
Several years ago, our rabbi at the time was looking for a way to tangibly demonstrate Temple Kol Ami’s commitment to Reform Jewish camping. He invited Jeff Rose, the new director of Camp George, to attend our second day Rosh Hashanah services and honoured him with the first aliyah to the Torah. Almost on the spur of the moment, the rabbi decided to invite every single person in the congregation- young and young at heart- who had ever attended a Union Camp in any capacity to join Jeff on the bimah for the aliyah. More than fifty people, adults and kids, gathered around as Jeff chanted the blessings. There were many in the congregation who were quite taken by the number of adults in temple leadership positions who were alumni of Reform Jewish camps. It was so overwhelming and emotional that we have continued the practice annually. This past Rosh Hashanah another fifty or so individuals, including some as young as eight and a half, made their way to the bimah to join Jeff for his aliyah. The excitement on their faces was easily visible and the physical demonstration of our community’s commitment was on display for all to see and hopefully there to convince the next family to consider Reform Jewish camping for their kids’ summer plans.
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with friends and their daughters who had just returned from their rookie sessions at Camp George. Their mother complained bitterly that she had barely heard from the girls all summer. The girls of course ignored their mother, were deliriously happy, and were already making plans to return next year. Theirs were the faces that I first noticed with me on the bimah this past Rosh Hashanah, along with those of my husband and my grown sons. The sweat equity from GUCI has certainly paid off.