It was 1982. I was spending another summer at my Jewish summer camp, and I never coveted anything as much I did the pair of high-top Converse Weapon basketball sneakers that my counselor, Todd Aaron Firestone Shein, used to wear. Todd was more the tennis player than basketball star, and I probably had more than a few pairs of sneakers of my own already. But what I wanted more than anything else was to actually BE Todd, and the Converse kicks that he wore seemed to be the easiest way to make that transformation happen.
Todd was from Maryland, many miles from where I grew up in Philadelphia. Todd was gregarious and super intelligent; qualities that I couldn’t claim to have as my own. Todd was seven years older than me and knew stuff that I didn’t; he loved the Grateful Dead and I didn’t know who Jerry Garcia was, he had travelled to Europe and I had not been further than Canada. Todd went to Emory University, and I was about to enter the 7th grade. We were not very similar, but all I knew was that I wanted to be just like him. And why did I feel this way? Because Todd was my camp counselor. For the previous 6 summers at camp, I had occasionally enjoyed the counselors I was assigned. They were sometimes cool, they were sometimes boring. Some were from nearby places and some had come from overseas. A number of them had done a good job, I’m sure; but no other counselor was like Todd.
The qualities I’ve already shared were not really why I felt so enamored with Todd. The real connection I had to him was drawn from the way that he spoke to me and the way that he treated me. He shared his passion for various things in a way that was enthralling; he was an incredible Storyteller. He would share tales from American history, from Judaism, from his travels across the country and around the world, and he taught me about the morals and ethics that were present therein. Todd kept much of his personal life and family life totally private – I don’t think I ever knew if he had a brother or sister – but he learned everything I was willing to share about me. He advised me when I struggled with things; he gave me a shoulder to cry on when Heather Newman told me that she wouldn’t go to the dance with me. Todd protected me from Charlie French when he came towards me after a basketball game, and Todd let me know of his displeasure when a few of us stepped outside the lines and got caught sneaking out to another cabin in camp.
The sneakers were really not so remarkable. But they were something that I thought represented Todd’s essence of coolness. Todd knew that I liked them, and for the big game against Camp Akiba he even let me wear them (I had to put on a couple of extra pairs of socks to make that work). And then camp ended in that abrupt way that it always seemed to, as if you had just gotten there and were certainly not yet ready to say goodbye. We streamed out of the cabin to high five and say “Shalom” to each other, without so much as a hug because we were 12 year-old boys and we didn’t do that. I was the last one in the area when it came time to leave with my parents. Todd came over to me and gave me a hug; and he comforted me after letting go as he saw the tears welling up in my eyes. He told me that he’d see me next summer and he reminded me of some of the things I learned, how I had done a great job, and that he was proud of the leadership I showed over the previous weeks. I left sad for the sake of losing a big brother, but full of strength for the teaching and guidance he had provided.
Todd is not any different than the counselors, staff, Machonakim (CITs) and other role models that are seated with us tonight for T’fillah (Shabbat Services). Todd could be any of the folks that are at Camp Harlam to take care of campers in this particular summer. In fact, there are people at Harlam that are even more incredible and more talented and more dedicated than he was. As one looks around this community, you see people that are hired to take care of each other because they chose to be in that position. No person at Camp Harlam just ended up there; like Todd, they have made a conscious decision to work really hard, day and night, in order to help each of our campers feel a sense of connection and belonging and community just like I did many years ago. Hundreds of campers left camp a week ago and can attest to how wonderful many of the staff members here truly are; hundreds more arrived on Wednesday to discover that the men and women that comprise our staff are able to make that indelible impression on us all.
In the first few days of camp, we’ve had lots of programs and fun, and we’ve met lots of people. Friendships have been started and grown over time, and already we can feel a sense of ruach (spirit) that will permeate the camp for three more weeks to make sure that this is an unforgettable summer.
But the most critical asset that we have here to make that all happen are those young adults and older adults who have committed themselves to lead us. They won’t always be perfect or ideal; and they won’t always say stuff that campers want them to say. Sometimes they’ll tell kids to do things that they don’t feel like doing; and often they’ll be the ones to remind campers of the rules at camp. But when they’re “on their game” and trying their very best, they are an unmatched and unbeaten team of fabulous human beings. They are great teachers, and they are eager learners. They have boundless energy and they are deeply spiritual. And like Todd, they could become the person who, by the end of the camp season, makes all the difference to assure that a camper’s summer is the best it can be.
And maybe, if they’re like Todd, they’ll find a secret moment to slip their pair of white and red Converse sneakers into a camper’s duffel bag before they leave, so that a lucky camper can find an extra-special gift when they get home (just like I did).