Shabbat Shalom from Aaron Selkow – 8/20/2011

[This week’s “Shabbat Shalom from Aaron” was originally a wrap-up of our final week, looking at what “The End” really meant to the season.  But last night – during one of the seminal programming moments of the session – natural forces brought about a more powerful thing to reflect on.  Enjoy…]


Dear Families:

I am the new Director and – based on what 1,100 campers have been saying to me throughout the summer – I am the person that “canceled Maccabiah” at Camp Harlam.

Maccabiah, our traditional Color War program that has been a major favorite for decades, divides the campers and staff members into four teams and challenges them to participate in a few days of organized team activities.  In sports, arts, music,ruach (spirit) and other areas, the teams push each other to accomplish a wide variety of tasks while healthily competing for coveted points.  It’s absolutely not about who wins; it’s a community-developing experience that features some of the best stuff that we do at Camp Harlam.  Last night was an extraordinary example of this.

But let’s get back to the “cancelation” of Maccabiah by the New Guy.  Even before I arrived for my first summer here, I was asked by dozens and dozens of campers whether we would have Maccabiah this year.  I wasn’t sure why they kept asking me since I knew that the program had existed for such a long time (and was awesome).  But I eventually learned that we have a minhag (custom) here that is built around the creation of anticipation and surprise with Maccabiah – will it happen, when will it happen, how will it be “broken” (announced)?  And with a new director in place, it seemed natural to just blame me for deciding to cancel it completely.  How better to make the kids really believe that it might not be taking place than to chalk it up to the insane, disconnected, “outside” that wears Harry Potter glasses, picks up trash with a Sanitation Stick that has a basketball on the end of it, drives a golf cart more than Jack Nicklaus, and wears nothing but URJ Camp Harlam gear every day?  They call this a “No-Brainer”.

Needless to say, I had no intention of canceling the program.  In fact, I’ve relished the chance to see how we run such an enormous series of activities and look forward to helping it become even better.  So just like during First Session when the Red, Green, Blue and Gold teams enjoyed a “Pixar”-themed three days, we broke this session’s “US Cities” Maccabiah earlier this week and hit the ground running.

The weather was glorious for most of the time (unlike last session), and the Captains, Generals and Lieutenants (another reminder of how the field of camping has deep roots in the military!) led the teams through some fabulous activities.  The three nighttime programs are always particular highlights, with a crazy Tug-of-War competition followed the next two nights by theRikudiah (Dance Festival) and Zimriah (Song Festival), respectively. I was in awe, again, watching the dances by campers that combined various styles on Wednesday.  But it was last night, as we prepared for the closing event of the Maccabiah, that things got very interesting.

The clouds rolled-in quickly (and earlier than predicted) as we wrapped up dinner last night.  The campers left the Chadar Ochel for pre-ceremony meetings, and then the thunder began to clap and even some lightning could be spotted nearby.  While the loud noises got louder and the flashes of light felt as if they were creeping closer, our staff began to move the campers to the Beit (Rec Hall) for an early-start to the festivities.

The mood was great and the program started smoothly with our entire camp seated together.  After the presentation of beautiful plaques from each team, they began to do their first songs (the Hebrew songs lead-off). And then, while the Blue team’s voices carried throughout the room, the lights went out.

I’ve spent 30 summers at camp and am not unfamiliar with such an event.  I’m accustomed to the suddenness of the moment, the fear that some of us understandably have (whether we’re 8 year-old children or 41 year-old adults), the almost-certain yelling and joking from some, the difficulty in getting everyone’s attention (without a microphone and sound system to facilitate) and the anticipation that people have for the instructions that will need to follow.  For a camp as well-prepared as Camp Harlam, with emergency procedures and a secure facility, it’s not necessarily a big deal to work through the loss of power.  But with so much momentum poured into the last stage of a three-day extravaganza of activity, we didn’t want to risk even a slight change in enthusiasm.

The emergency system gave us some ambient light in the room, but otherwise, the entire camp was pitch-black.  A call to our power company confirmed that it was a local outage, but their estimate for repairs was a few hours at best.  Aside from the darkness, the rain was coming down in sheets.  But as I gathered the Supervisors at the edge of the stage to discuss our next steps, there was no voice that said “let’s bail out”.  With everyone’s support, we moved forward and let the show go on.

Flashlights and cell phones were gathered and sent to the Blue team’s area so that they could read the lyric sheets in their hands.  And even when the emergency lights dimmed, the campers and staff sang.  They sang passionately, and more so than when the lights were on, their voices were unchallenged by a single distraction.  All eyes and ears were trained on them, and then on the next team, and then on the next, and then on the next.

For me – and for the Professional Staff that were quarterbacking the efforts to plan our next steps – the sound was like a soundtrack.  As in a suspenseful movie when the characters are engaging in riveting dialogue, we were pressing ahead with arrangements while music leaked from the Beit into the Staff Game Room where we worked on the logistics.  We needed to deal with how to move our campers back to the cabins at the close of the program, we had medications to distribute (but a Health Center without power), we would soon begin to experience water shortages because well pumps would cease to pump more water into the system, toilets and sinks would (at some point) back-up, our refrigeration in the kitchens would become insufficient (especially when the back-up generator dedicated to that building failed due to a suspected lightening strike), and we would be reliant on the back-up communication systems that are designed to carry us thorough only a limited outage.  We created the needed lists, made phone calls from cell phones, pulled the needed staff, and kept all the balls in the air behind-the-scenes while, at the same time, the Fight Songs and Alma Maters rang-out.  Campers laughed at the great jokes in those Fight Songs, and they cried when their heart strings were played during those Alma Maters.  Maybe more than usual, they participated with such tremendous dedication to the moment and with such support for one another.

At the close of the last song, the scores started to be tabulated while the campers and staff waited for the final announcements of the winners.  At that moment, we brought each Supervisor into the Game Room which was serving as our crisis response center, and I began my talk with them about what we had to do next.  I began with a brief introduction to what was going on.  Then I said, “…and now here’s what we’re going to do right now…”, and with that, all of the lights came back on.

We smiled at each other and raced back inside to make sure not to miss a beat.  We listened as the Generals and Lieutenants of each team thanked each other and those in the crowd for a wonderful Maccabiah program.  We watched as the skit performed by Supervisors to announce the Maccabiah winner was enacted on stage.  And we regaled when the teams all clapped and screamed and hugged after the program was completed.  We sang – with abundant spirit – the Shema andHashkiveinu as a community during our evening ritual.  And then we closed our evening and sent the campers and staff back to their cabins.

I’ve been proud often this summer, and I’ve been honored on many occasions to be from Camp Harlam.  I cannot count the times that I’ve been impressed by what our staff do to make this a truly remarkable Jewish place.  And I’m fortunate each and every day to be able to watch our kids interact and learn and grow while they’re here.  But it was at the end of this adventure – with order totally restored and in the aftermath of a truly successful program – that I felt the most connected to what we’re all about here.  We celebrate Jewish life.  We take great care of kids.  We create cool programs.  We teach new things.  But we also show and tell how to lead.

From afar, this night would have seemed like a normal example of the special nature of our camp.  But in the dark…it was more.  I’m thankful for the chance to be part of this moment in our summer, and appreciative for the support and leadership that I received and witnessed during the ordeal.

It is, indeed, the end of the summer in two days.  We will all pack-up and move home so that we can restart our lives in the “real world”.  But in situations like we had last night, we can be reminded that the real experiences and benefits of camp will not be stopped simply because the bunks will empty and the Dining Hall will sit idle.  The “end” of this is what we learn and take with us into the next challenge or place or community or relationship.  The “end” of the summer is when we stop appreciating the special times that formed during the season that we’re still within right now.  Last night was such a great example of how unique and resolute our community is, and I (for one) will be enjoying having seen and heard it all for a long time to come.

I will not be sad to say L’hitraot (goodbye) to our campers when they leave on Sunday, because I will be excited to watch them carry the lessons and feelings and memories of this summer back into the lives that they put on hold when they came.  They will remember Maccabiah Second Session 2011.  And they will remember the lights going out.  And to be honest, they may not even remember when the lights came back on.

I hope that your weekend is restful, and I wish you all Shabbat Shalom.

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19 Responses to Shabbat Shalom from Aaron Selkow – 8/20/2011

  1. Laurie Levine August 19, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    I had chills reading this. I can not wait for that bus to pull up to the synagogue in Northern VA this Sunday to give my kids a big hug, but I know that every moment of every day that they had at camp was the best and I know that they would do anything to stay there and keep on doing it.
    Thank you for all that you do.

    • Aaron Selkow August 19, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

      Thanks Laurie!

  2. Joselyn Postar August 19, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    I was deeply moved by this article. As a camp nurse for several seasons at Harlam, I fully appreciate the emotional ending to the camp sessions. This one was exceptional. I know those campers learned very valuable life lessons, not just from this highly unusual event, but from the nature of this wonderful place.

  3. Michael Richards August 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    You may want to put a soundbed on this one — I think, a rousing rendition of Debbie Friedman’s Neis Gadol Haya Sham!–182938809

  4. Len Siegel August 19, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    I’m convinced those of us who attended Camp Harlam hold dear a few special moments that stay with us forever. Some come with deep meaning, and others come by happenstance. I just always wanted my daughter to experience it, and take a few of those moments with her for the rest of her life. It sounds like she just got hers. Nothing could make me happier. Thanks you.

  5. Lynn Richards August 19, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    Fabulous! We have been given such a gift in Camp Harlam and in your leadership! Thank you!

  6. Sheldon August 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    It is kind of ironic that the lights went out during the Maccabiah games. I recall the Chanukiah shining brightly to bring the light in at times of darkness as a lesson I learned from Sunday school and they still teach at our temple. In this case, the darkness provided an opportunity for our campers to shine the light on their voices and spirit as a Jewish community once again. How fitting an end to their camp experience.

    My wife and I are just reflecting this evening if they even want to come home after this exciting session!!? It went by too fast….thanks to you and your staff for all your hard work.

  7. Mindy Dahan August 20, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    I have to say that the tears were running down my face as I read this last Shabbat entry! Tears of appreciation and joy to the staff and counselors for taking such great care of my daughters and for my daughters who are having the most marvelous and touching camp experience. Thank you again Camp Harlam for another spectacular summer and even though I miss my daughters terribly I know that the family extension of camp warms their hearts. See you next summer!

  8. erica taxin bleznak August 20, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    BEST SUMMER EVER! The girls could not have asked for a more fantastic time–thank you Aaron! This blog made me feel like I was right with them experiencing it all.

  9. Karen Staller August 20, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    I, too, got very emotional reading this. It’s our fourteen-year-old son’s fourth summer and our nine-year-old daughter’s first. We missed them terribly, but can’t wait to hear about all their friends and adventures, especially this one. They will take these summers (G-d willing, many more to come) with them the rest of their lives and will always “love being Jewish”, thanks to Camp Harlam. Thanks for everything!

  10. Aaron Selkow August 20, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    These responses are so cool! I was proud to read my blog entry to the entire staff last night as we celebrated our final Oneg Shabbat together, and they snapped their appreciation for the recognition of this event. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Kunkletown” will not be the only great memory from this summer, but I suspect that people will talk about it for a long time.

    But it’s really the little things – the friendships forged, the lessons learned, the questions asked (and answered), the songs sung, the skills developed and the identities formed – that we truly hope stay with our campers forever.

    Thanks for the feedback…keep it coming…Shabbat Shalom.

  11. Michele Trichter August 20, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    This was Madison’s first full summer at Harlam and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have had her experience the summer with you as the director! Every experience and Jewish lessons instilled upon the campers is truly a
    gift! Camp Harlam is Madison’s home for every summer to come! Toda raba for all you do! Looking forward to carrying on Jewish traditions in our home this coming year before arriving through the great gates for summer 2012!
    Best, Michele Trichter

  12. Howard Camerik August 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    I suppose it was apropos that the lights went out due to a storm before awarding the crown to New Orleans. As a former Gold Team general (1983, First Session, Charlie Brown), I will fly the flag proudly outside the house this weekend. G-O Let’s Go L-D to victory.

    Hey, how about initiating a military pension for former generals?

  13. Ruth Smith August 20, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Aaron, what a wonderful, moving blog post, and what a fitting one to end your first season as Director! It truly gave me chills to read your recounting of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Kunkletown”. As much as I miss my son, (also an Aaron), a part of me is sad that the camp session has come to an end. He looks forward to camp all year long, and I know that he feels “more at home in his skin” there than he does in most other places. Spending several weeks each summer living, learning, celebrating, and just plain having such a great time with other Jewish kids is always an incredible experience for him, and one that will surely shape his life for years to come.

    It’s fitting that Aaron (the camper) will celebrate his 15th birthday on the final day of camp tomorrow – he’ll celebrate first with his camp friends tomorrow morning, and then later in the day with his family and “home crew”; what a special way for him to end the season and ease back into “home mode”. (Of course, he’ll be back up there again two days later for the four-day NFTY SLK conference … just can’t keep ’em away!)

    We’d like to thank Aaron Selkow and the rest of the camp staff for helping to shape yet another – as our son, Aaron, described it in his note home – “AMAZING summer”. The lights in the rec hall may have temporarily gone out earlier this week, but the fire that all of you help ignite in in the hearts of all of these kids can’t be so easily extinguished! Yasher Koach, and have a healthy, peaceful, and “AMAZING” year!

  14. Aaron Selkow August 21, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    What an inspirational response…thank you. I just said goodbye to all of our Carmel girls (youngest campers) after a Milk & Cookies visit to my house this morning, and I turned to one of the counselors and said, “You know, one of these girls might be our next Camp Director?”. It just might happen!

    Our staff have worked hard, and the camp has continued to shine…and we’ve got lots and lots of opportunity to grow and improve. Imagine that.

  15. Faith Leifman August 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed your blog all during second session, while my kids have thoroughly enjoyed Camp Harlam! My daughter (a first time camper) was one of those Carmel girls, and one of her stories on our drive home was about just this…having milk and cookies at your house BEFORE BREAKFAST (capital letters not intended to be shouting, but to describe my 9 year old’s enthusiasm for such a scandalous snack)!! She made a point to mention that you’d baked the cookies yourself – chocolate chip!

    While I missed her and her Arava brother (it was his second summer), I was happy to hear that she wasn’t really homesick at all. I can hope that part of the reason is that I prepared her well, but I’m sure it was more of your caring staff that kept her engaged and having fun. It’s really wonderful for me as a parent (and former sleepaway camper myself, though not a Harlam alum) knowing that they can look forward to being away from home, have a great time, and share all about it now that camp is over. A perfect example: on our walk in our neighborhood tonight after dinner, we sang the Birkat Hamazon, complete with hand motions! No, we had no tables to bang on, but we improvised with our legs and nearby tree trunks. :)

  16. Adam Rosenberg August 23, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    Aaron, what can i say, but yashir koach! you’ve done a great job taking the reins at an institution very near and dear to all of us. you have kept tradition alive and had your own indelible memorable camp moments. welcome to the harlam family.

    Thank you and the amazing staff at Harlam for keeping the spirit alive and well for another season and for making our girls feel right at home. i just found Abby this morning on the videos from the zim and she was proudly singing with her team. that makes a former color war general proud.

    we too have that camp ruach alive and well here at home: singing the birkat at every meal and the shma hashkivenu before bed. but moreso, alive in that our girls have that harlam connection with each other and with the harlam world.

    enjoy the well deserved end of summer vacation – i look forward to seeing what’s next.


  17. Aaron Selkow August 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    I’ll tell you what’s next…a full night’s sleep (knowing that all the kids are home, safe and sound) and regaining my voice!

    After that, we’ll see what kind of magic we can make happen here!

  18. Susan Golboro August 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Just returned last night from visiting our son Peter and his girlfriend Jana (they met at camp Harlam the summer of 1996) in Seoul, South Korea and read your blog about song session- It brought tears to my eyes and I smiled as I thought of everyone scrambling to make the evening a success- those song sessions are amazing! I cannot believe it is only 3 weeks since I was at camp this summer and I miss everyone and everything at Camp! Kunkletown summers change the lives of everyone who experiences them! What a great team you have there!

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