Every Tradition Begins with a New Idea: How Camp Coleman “Made” Me a Rabbi

by Rabbi Eric Linder, Rabbi at Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, GA and URJ Camp Coleman alum

rabbi linder camp reunion photo

Rabbi Eric Linder (second from the left) leading Shabbat services at Camp Coleman’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

One month ago I was installed as the rabbi of Congregation Children of Israel, a reform congregation in Athens, GA. 21 years ago I entered the welcoming gates of Camp Coleman for the first time.

Coleman helped me to learn many things: I learned how to lead services, how to teach, how to be a friend, how to clean a cabin (confession: not my strongest trait), and how to rhyme announcements during meal times. Most importantly, though, I learned how to be a better version of myself.

During the first seven years of my rabbinate, I have used my experiences and lessons at camp as a template for the Jewish community that I want to help build. I want to replicate the joy of Jewish life, the ruach (spirit) of meaningful prayer and song, the comfort of true friendship and acceptance. Partially because of Camp, working with our youth is very important to me. Just as Camp Coleman makes Judaism a living, joyous activity, I try to facilitate a sense of joy and creativity into the programs and events that go on at Congregation Children of Israel (CCI).

I often tell the story of my first day at Camp Coleman in 1992. It was the first time that I was not living at home, and I was very nervous to be a camp counselor for the first time, especially along with so many people that seemed to know everyone, those “Old Colemanites” as we called them. Bobby got all of us together and said, “every tradition begins with a new idea.” This teaching continues to guide me, as a Jew and as a rabbi. Judaism is a 4000 year old tradition filled with a wondrous history that must be respected and honored. At the same time, we need to connect Judaism to each individual member of the congregation, members who will bring their own new ideas to us.

There’s no question that the past summers at Camp Coleman continues to influence the present moments here at Congregation Children of Israel. I remain grateful for those 9 summers of incredible experiences, and I’m excited to serve on the Coleman faculty, further expanding the circle that was started as my parents dropped me off at Camp Coleman’s misrad, 21 years ago.

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