Originally posted on http://rabbigropper.blogspot.com/
I recently returned from serving on faculty at our URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. It is something I choose to do for two weeks each summer. I see my time at camp as a privilege. Why? Because at camp, I get to do what I love best: teach, inspire, and help others grow and deepen their connection to Judaism. As I rabbi, I see it as my mission to help make Judaism relevant, accessible, compelling, challenging, joyous, stimulating, meaningful and fun. There are perhaps no better places than to make this come true than at our URJ camps. Here, in supportive and nurturing environments, campers are encouraged to make Judaism their own. At camp, questions are welcomed. And perhaps, the best part of attending a Jewish summer camp is that Judaism never comes in second, as it so often does at home. Instead, Judaism is incorporated into all that happens: sports, art, drama, music… you name it. At our URJ camps, Judaism always comes in first.
As a member of the faculty (made up of rabbis, cantors and educators who serve URJ congregations) I teach… all day. The faculty teaches a set curriculum three hours each morning to the units in lower camp (entering 4th-7th grades) and following lunch, teach another two hours of electives to the campers in upper camp (entering 8th-10th grade). This does not include time spent working with campers create their own worship services, tutoring b’nei mitzvah students or helping a cabin settle down at the end of the day with stories, songs and cabin prayers. Serving on faculty is hardly a vacation! Yet I would never trade it for anything. To know that you can touch the Jewish future this way is the greatest reward.
Of all that I do, it is the afternoon electives that I enjoy the most. I get to reach into my creative kit bag and come up with something that I would not be able to do at home. If our URJ camps are living laboratories for what Judaism can be, then these electives become the places where the experiments are carried out.
This year at Eisner we changed things and created Kesher (connection). Back in March, we asked campers to choose from a variety of subject areas. Based on their interests, we created four session courses that were designed to appeal to them. The areas that received the most camper votes were interpersonal relationships, the environment and… are you ready for this… Hebrew!
Taking inspiration from the Shevet Achim (Brotherhood) curriculum created by Moving Traditions that we are teaching at my congregation in Rye, NY, I created a program called “Man Up! – The Secrets of Being a Jewish Man.”
For four days, I gathered with two groups of teenage boys. The first group were entering 8th & 9th grade. There were 24 of them. The second group was entering 10th grade. There were 16 of them. During our time we explored stereotypes of what larger society says about what it means to be a man and what Judaism says. We looked at texts written by Hillel and from the Psalms. We looked closely at the character of David, viewing him as inspiration for what a Jewish man could be: poet, warrior, lover, father. Of course, there was lots of discussion about the challenges, pressures, wonders and questions associated with being an emerging man in 21st century America. Understanding the needs of adolescent males, we moved around… a lot.
One activity asked the participants to stand on an imaginary line. After I read a statement, those it applied to were asked to step forward. The statements started innocently enough and then grew increasingly personal. The response to two statements shocked and confirmed what I already knew. To the statement, “I have been bullied,” everyone stepped forward. To the statement, “I have bullied someone else,” everyone stepped forward. We know that bullying is a problem in our schools and our society. Thank goodness our URJ camps make each camper sign an anti-bullying pledge and work to educate our campers on how to recognize, confront and deal with bullying if it arises. It was enlightening to all these boys to see they are not alone, that they are all victims. At the same time, because they are all perpetrators gives one hope; for it is the admission of certain behaviors that holds the potential for t’shuvah, healing and repair.
On the last day of our time together I taped envelopes around the room. Each envelope had a different camper’s name on it. Each camper was given a pencil and a stack of index cards. They were to write what they appreciated about others. So for the last 15 minutes of our time together they wrote. Knowing that they slept, ate and played with their fellow campers meant that they would likely have more to say than if they only saw each other on a weekly basis. You should have seen how seriously they took it.
One student said to me, “Rabbi, aren’t you going to have an envelope?” So taking his invitation, I wrote my name on an envelope and taped it to the wall.
What they wrote was affirming and encouraging. “Fun course, thank you.” “You are an amazing teacher.” “Coolest rabbi I know, comes up with awesome activities.” But it was one card that I will keep for a long time. One card that will remind me why I do what I do and why I choose to go to camp every year. This camper wrote, “Thank you so much for running the first class in Kesher/Limud that I found interesting, fun and safe to participate in.” It was those final words that did it, “safe to participate in.” I don’t know what this camper’s life is outside of camp. I do know that camp is the place where we want our kids to feel safe, valued and welcome. If, for four hours, out of a four week session, two of which I was privileged to touch these campers lives, then all my time at camp was completely worth it. And that is why I serve on faculty each summer.
Rabbi Gropper is the Rabbi at Community Synagogue in Rye, NY. Rabbi Gropper is an active member of the URJ Eisner Camp Faculty.