Not Your Everyday Camp Stuff

by Rabbi Bill Tepper, Mizpah Congregation in Chattanooga, TN and Summer 2013 Faculty Member at Coleman

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Tepper read during Shabbat morning services last week at Mizpah Congregation:

I am here at the Temple most days of the week –preparing for the resumption of our Religious and Hebrew schools, getting ready for the High Holy Days and immersing myself in the vast array of tasks that pertain to congregational life.  But somehow I have still found myself up to my eyebrows in the summer camp life.  A week ago I returned to Chattanooga from seven immensely-rewarding days spent as a rabbinic faculty member at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Coleman in Northeast Georgia.  And then this past week I have undertaken several engaging hours among the young participants of the Tikkun and Philanthropy camps – both operating in partnership between our Chattanooga Jewish Federation and the Church of Nazarene.   So just when I think it’s safe to tuck away my collection of t-shirts and shorts… well, you get the idea.

What was impressed upon me most by my camp experiences this summer of 2013/5773 is the idea that camp need not only be about athletics, swimming, frisbee, drama, arts and crafts and nature hikes.  It need not only be about mealtimes wherein five hundred young people are all speaking enthusiastically at the same time. It need not only be about bug spray, sunscreen and wet, muddy runners.

Rather, it has been affirmed for me that summer camp experiences are – above all else – about relationships: the relationships that are renewed and reinvigorated each year when campers return to greet and spend time with friends living elsewhere in the country; and relationships that are created when children and youth meet each other at camp for the first time.  And there is a third kind of relationship: the one flows from the best of summer camp experiences: it is the relationship we have with those who are NOT at camp with us:  those whose lives are beset by economic hardship or deprivation; those who are struggling with emotional, intellectual, physical or spiritual challenges; and those who are the victims of emotional or physical abuse.

Last week at Camp Coleman, an entire day was devoted to programming that focused on that terrible affliction known as bullying.  Campers and staff engaged in serious conversations – among themselves and with specially-invited guests – including victims of bullying.  There was discussion about the ways with which we must respond to bullying; namely, the difference between the bystander and upstander.  And for those of us of a certain age there was the crucial reminder that the monopoly on bullying is not held by children or adolescents.  Adults too can be the worse of bullies. Over the course of this remarkable camp day, few of us, youth and adults were not affected by these discussions.  Several of us, without any feeling of embarrassment, were moved to tears.

Upon returning to Chattanooga, I was immediately thrust into the role of guide and participant at our community’s wonderful Tikkun Olam – the Hebrew for repairing of the world – and Philanthropy camps.  In the company of Tikkun Olam campers I continued the discourse and shared what I continue to learn regarding the plague that is bullying.  We reminded one another that – though the best of tools – screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, duct tape and wrenches – can be acquired as easily as traveling to the nearest hardware store – it is another, more sacred tool – the chesed that flows from the open heart – that will best ensure the ongoing repair and healing of our perpetually-fractured world.   Meanwhile, the Philanthropy campers too, as the name of their camp informs us, are present not only for the experience of enjoying pleasurable time with their peers but, more importantly, to learn about responsibility and what is incumbent on all of us regarding the care and nurturing of our natural environment and everyone with whom we share membership in the human family.

Our Torah portion for this week, Re’eh, teaches:

7 If,  there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the LORD your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. [Deut. 15:7-11]

Whether the reasons are financial, emotional or spiritual, there will always be those who will call upon our support and compassion.  There will always be those impoverished to the point that they are dependent upon the open hearts of others. There will always be the victims of bullying who will necessitate our need to be upstanders; the elderly and ill who are need of our company and caring; and the more-fragile and vulnerable members of our community for whom we are obligated to fulfill acts of tikkun, chesed, tzedakah and philanthropy.

This is not your everyday camp stuff. Yes – we need time to toss the frisbee, hit the pool or lake and simply unwind in our bunks among our loving friends. But there is always more to learn, always more we can give, always more we can share among all with whom we share God’s beautiful earth.           Ken Y’hi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.

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