[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…]
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.