Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to talk about what makes Jewish camp so valuable to campers, staff and families. Whether as a camp director or a consultant, a researcher or even a product of Jewish camp myself, I’ve enjoyed many occasions to express the power of places like Camp Harlam. Having visited over 100 camps, worked with and learned from dozens and dozens of the top professionals and educators in our field, and even having had the chance to celebrate Shabbat in so many wonderful Jewish camp communities, I consider myself a proud member of the Cult of Jewish Camp. And I mean that in the most sincere way.
As the final Shabbat arrives at Camp Harlam for the 2012 season, it’s another chance to preach about the power of what goes on here.
Sixty days ago, 1,000 Jewish kids began to arrive for their summer experiences in this special place in Kunkletown, PA. 15 days before that, 250 staff members started to train for their roles as leaders of those campers. Approximately 290 days before that, our Professional Staff began preparing for an exceptional summer of Reform Jewish life, learning and fun at Camp Harlam. And about 54 years before that day, through the generosity of the Reform Movement, Joseph and Betty Harlam and the visionaries that established our camp, we started something big here. Right here, in this uniquely familial and intimate environment; here, amongst the tall pines and nestled in the Mahoning Valley; here, with the endless flow of smiles and the sounds of guitars, voices and ruach (spirit) echoing through each and every day of vibrant activity. The evidence of what works about Jewish camp is right here, and I suspect that it’s as clear today as it was so often during those previous years.
This summer has been so enlightening and inspiring. With only a few days left together, this group of campers, staff, faculty and friends will pack and depart from our home in the Poconos. Of course, there will be joy in returning to our home lives; plenty of favorite meals, lots of reconnection with phones and computers and television, and the sharing of stories and special moments with family and friends that have been missed will begin to take over. But the events of this summer, for me and for so many of my fellow Harlamites, have made this transition back into the “Real World” tough. There are some things that I have seen and been a part of in the last week here at Camp Harlam that simply cannot be duplicated at home.
I will not be able to witness the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of a young adult caring for someone else’s child like I got to appreciate this week. Many of our counselors – those that have grown up here over many years and also those that have made Harlam their new home this summer – have extended themselves as the season ends to make sure their campers leave Harlam enriched, connected and as positive about their time here as possible. There were so many scenes this week with an embrace, a pat on the back, a helpful hand and many kids and staff arm-in-arm to show the essence of what so many of our leaders and role models do every day here at camp. The relationship between the young and younger is one of the things that Jewish camp uses to teach and learn in this totally immersive environment, and that cannot be duplicated at home.
I will not get to see 750 people running and laughing as they are doused with paint as part of Maccabiah (Color War). This was the continuation of a traditional camp program with the introduction of a new twist. The relentless screams of joy as the “Color Run” and all-camp Dance Party at the back of the Chadar Ochel ensued were able to capture how much fun and innovation goes on at Harlam. Jewish camp is a place where we can make fun of ourselves, where we can compete with compassion, and where we can let ourselves make an incredible mess and then clean-up afterwards because we care about how we take care of this place and each other.
When I return home, I will miss the opportunity to work with so many amazing emerging leaders. To have been able to spend so much time with our CITs over the last two weeks as they grew and challenged themselves to take on the enhancement of their own program and to leave a legacy for the future was especially gratifying. Nowhere but here, at Jewish camp, could cultural change happen that looks through a Jewish lens like this. With the change of our CIT program’s name from Machon (“Institute”) to Gesher (“Bridge”), our future staff members made a decision that showed their dedication to the community and their willingness to take responsibility for improving our camp. With the greatest respect for the past participants in the program as well as the hope to inspire the future leaders that will someday join them, they stood before the entire camp and taught us all a valuable lesson. Prior to the announcement, the group spoke to our camp’s Council of volunteer leaders to gain feedback and support. It was Rosanne Selfon, our Council’s Chair, who said that the teens “demonstrated their ability to be thorough in their research, organized in their presentation, convincing in their idea…giving proof that future Reform Jewish leadership will reside in very competent hands. How proud we adults were to listen to these young leaders and witness their strong, proud Jewish identities at Camp Harlam”. This process does not get replicated in the “real world”; nowhere but here can change happen at once with such process and such promptness.
While the Perlmeter family does live “at home” (in New Jersey), their importance and impact on the community is extraordinary here, where Rabbis Rex and Rachel and their children have spent so many summers. When their son, Mitch, passed away 18 months ago, the grief was felt by hundreds of Mitch’s friends, bunkmates, fellow CITs, counselors and others from the Camp Harlam family. The camp’s outreach and support was enhanced by the Perlmeter family’s decisions to honor Mitch’s memory in various ways at Harlam, including through the creation of the “Mitch Perlmeter Scholarship Fund” and the establishment of the “Mitch Perlmeter Leadership Award”. The fund has grown to nearly $100,000 and will help to bring more kids to camp, and on Monday we announced the winner of the Leadership Award for 2012, Jason Flatt. Joined by his family, last year’s winner (Laney Mann, a Cabin Counselor this summer), and members of the Perlmeter family, our community was able to celebrate and be inspired by Mitch’s memory and the development of leaders in our CIT program. We also acknowledged a tremendous gesture by Kim Scott, another of our CITs, who raised over $1,400 for donation to the Scholarship Fund through faculty and staff members’ contributions (in honor of seeing Kim cut his beloved dreadlocks!). It was a touching ceremony and a special night; one that could not be as meaningful if it was held away from Camp Harlam and Jewish camp.
Like most of us here, I will leave in the coming days to restart my life at home. My family will reconnect for the first time in a few months, and I’ll lose touch with some of what happened here this summer. But I know that I, like each person that was here at Harlam in 2012, will take the experiences and stories of this particular summer in this particular place and incorporate them into the diary of camp memories that we all carry.
It’s been a summer of new experiences, of changes, and also of refinement at Harlam. We’ve protected the foundation that was laid here by Arie Gluck and so many others and have started to build scaffolding around it to be sure that our development will be sound. And at the core of that foundation, beneath the concrete, are the Reform Jewish values and mission that comprise this one-of-kind Jewish camp. Only here, at Camp Harlam, can this exist.
I will continue to relish the opportunity to share my passion for Jewish camp, and as the director of one of North America’s truly great Jewish institutions, I will do all that I can to help make sure that Camp Harlam continues to thrive.
Shabbat Shalom and thank you for your support this summer,