As youth educators, one of the main goals that we seek to accomplish is to create opportunities for our teens to form strong connections with one another and with the greater Jewish community. These connections are fostered throughout the year during events, classes, and retreats…our teens come back from these experiences excited, energized and wanting more.
For the last two summers, the participants at NFTY-Northeast’s Summer Institute have had the unique opportunity of forming these strong relationships not only with one another, but with the campers at Camp Chazak, a one week program for children with social and emotional disabilities that is run concurrently with summer institute. Running these two events simultaneously and in the same location allows for the teens and the campers to interact with each other on multiple occasions, providing opportunity for bonds to form and for barriers to be broken.
It is amazing to watch the compassion and patience among the NFTYites as they interact with the Chazak campers. When asked about her experience working with Camp Chazak this summer, one 11th grader spoke beautifully about becoming friends with the campers and learning from them as they created awesome art projects and even had the opportunity to go swimming together! Our campers reveled in the time that they spent with the teens, looking forward to the moments at meals and during chugim when they would see their “NFTY friends” and frequently requesting more time with their new role models.
The NFTYites embraced the Camp Chazak campers and welcomed them into their community with open arms. About half way through institute, when some of the regional board members got up on the stage to lead the birkat hamazon, one of the Camp Chazak campers surprisingly ran up and joined them. The teens took this opportunity and encouraged the camper to lead with them, allowing for other campers to join as well. This inclusive environment continued throughout the week, as the Camp Chazak campers and NFTYites joined together for services, song sessions, a campfire, and several other activities.
As both a youth worker in the Northeast region and part of the senior staff of Camp Chazak, watching these two communities come together is an unbelievable experience that is hard to put into words. One of the greatest moments for me occurred just this past week, as I had the opportunity to sit with several of the teens who worked with the Camp Chazak campers and talk with them about their experiences. Hearing them share their thoughts about the moments that were most significant to them and the impact that our campers had on their lives was so moving, and even more inspiring, is their desire and investment in continued involvement with Camp Chazak, not only during the summer, but throughout the year.
Camp Chazak provides a life changing opportunity for these campers, and their experience is highly enriched by the presence, the maturity, and the inclusivity of the teens in NFTY-NE. I look forward to watching these connections continue to grow as the communities come together in the years ahead
written by Rachel Schein, PsyD, co-director of Camp Chazak