Lessons Learned at Camp

By: Aaron Selkow, Camp Director

Dear Camp Families & Camp Friends:

I don’t like the end of the camp session. Nope. Not one bit. Sure, the conclusion of a jam-packed, fun and meaningful experience for our campers is something we should all be proud of, and I don’t take for granted all of the impact that has happened here in the last 3½ weeks with respect to the building of relationships, the learning of new skills, the development of our Reform Jewish souls and so much more. But the end can be sad, and the end can be so busy, and the end can be…well…the end.

So how do we turn our frowns upside-down as most of our campers prepare to leave on Sunday? How can we still feel the high-energy of so many days of cool activities and funny moments even after so many families have come through our gates for the last time until at least June of 2014?

The answer to this may be found in a story from this past week.

Our K’far Noar unit (entering 9th-graders) has 85 teens living in a uniquely independent and community-oriented environment. As the first Senior Camp program here, K’far kids are in the early stage of transition from their lives as Junior Camp campers. No longer in standard bunks with 3-5 Cabin and Specialty Counselors, the kids move to a village that is more “dormitory-style” and self-contained. All boys and girls and their staff live together in two gender-separated buildings, they engage in activities in less traditional groups and on a somewhat different schedule, and they are able to enjoy opportunities to live apart from the rest of camp with nearby assets of a campsite, pagoda and even their own Ulam (Rec Hall). This building has multi-purpose space and an eating area where they enjoy breakfast on most days of the session. The program is led by a Unit Head (Jon Schulman) and an Assistant Unit Head (Ronit Zemel) that live amongst the kids and staff, and there is an undeniable closeness and pride that has been formed throughout this summer.

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K’Far Noar campers enjoying their time on their canoe trip.

A few nights ago, I was called by Jon to come to the Ulam. Inside of the building a few of the staff were cleaning up debris and trash. Immediately I noticed why Jon had called: on two walls of the interior were small holes that were made by a broom stick. I know this because I’ve been at camp for over 30 years and can tell the difference between a hole made by a broomstick, a fist, a foot, a football and a head (yes that happened once). Along with noticing a broken plastic chair, my immediate feeling was one of frustration and some anger. It was actually more of a parental-type reaction at first, where you’re mad and let down and want to immediately solve the issue in the most expedient way possible. And then I shifted back into being a camp director and an educator (taking care of other people’s teenagers) and started working through our options.

I called all of the K’far campers and staff into the Ulam. I asked them to look around the room and take note of the damage. I asked everyone who was uninvolved and unaware of the cause to stand and leave. That left some campers seated behind. I spoke with those kids and knew right away they had no intention of destroying or disrespecting our camp. I believed them completely when they explained how they came to decide to mess around in this way, and though I challenged their “it would be funny” reasoning, I also knew that this was a great chance to teach and learn together.

We talked in our small group about our values at camp. I asked the kids to think about where we may have missed a step; where was there an opportunity for camp’s leaders to better inspire or train or model our imperative context of Kehillah Kedosha (Sacred Community) or Shalom Bayit (Peace in Your Home)? We moved away from the incident and into a conversation about how we each have a responsibility at camp to be active and positive members of the camp family, and especially with this group of smart, committed and spirited Harlamites, it seemed to resonate.

The Teshuva (Repentance) process included taking some time to help clean areas of camp, as well as a request (once they’re home from Harlam) to consider a meaningful donation to our Mitch Perlemeter Scholarship Fund. But the most immediate step was helping me speak to the entire K’far unit about what happened.

I could have yelled and screamed about the destruction of our property; I could have had the staff deal with it and chalk it up to “kids being kids”. And I also could have been the one to address, alone, the seriousness of this misstep and how we might grow from it as a community. And while all of those strategies (and I’m sure many others) might have worked, the best one was what actually ensued.

The same young people that had their moment of poor decision-making a few days before stood in front of their peers and their role models and delivered an honest and meaningful teachable moment. They expressed embarrassment and a wish for forgiveness; they didn’t say what they thought we wanted to hear, but instead said what they felt. And in that brief talk, they fully represented the best that we can do at Camp Harlam. Learning from one’s mistakes, showing Anavah (Humility), standing up for oneself, and even showing leadership by owning the process of reflection are all examples of things that we aspire to create and reinforce in our campers’ summers here.

After letting the families of these teens know about the situation, I received some truly wonderful notes in return. I’m thankful for this support, and even though this situation is one tiny piece of an enormous puzzle and by now has faded into the background of camp life, there is real value in seeing this as a success of the summer. I expect that campers and staff alike will remember this (at least for a little while), and as I told the kids involved, I’m looking forward to many years from now when we can look back on this and appreciate how it was actually a very good thing.

We may be at the end of the First Session of our 55th season at Camp Harlam, but I suppose it doesn’t have to be too bittersweet. We can celebrate all of the special times and laugh about the craziness that filled our days. We can also hold on to the things we’ve learned and the accomplishments we’ve had in our development individually and as a camp community. And if we do that, I guess we don’t need to see Sunday as an end at all. As a matter of fact, maybe Sunday will only be the beginning.

Thank you all – especially our camp parents – for supporting us as we’ve tried to make this session at Harlam an extraordinary experience for the children entrusted to us. I’m proud of our efforts, and excited for the next session and the next summer to try to make it even better.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron

Any questions, feedback, suggestions or thoughts? Please contact me at ThinkCamp@URJ.org

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4 Responses to Lessons Learned at Camp

  1. Laurie Levine July 20, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    That was a really nice story – what a gift to be able to think like a parent and then pull back and not be that parent. As a therapist with teens I do it almost daily and am always grateful when I catch myself and am not their parents (as opposed to my own kids, who, I am sure, would prefer I not be that parent either).
    Thanks for taking care of 2 out of my 3 this session as I entrust 3 of 3 to you next session.
    What a fantastic place Harlam is!
    Laurie Levine

    • Aaron Selkow July 20, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

      Thanks Laurie…3 out of 3 in 2014 sounds great!

  2. Jennifer Lee July 20, 2013 at 11:19 pm #

    Aaron,

    What great restraint.

    Thank you for turning every moment at Camp Harlam into a teachable moment. We parents are lucky to have you and your incredible faculty and staff to guide them through the best moments of their year.

    The countdown begins tomorrow ….

    Gratefully yours,
    Jennifer

  3. Aaron Selkow July 21, 2013 at 5:01 am #

    Thanks Jennifer…I’m especially lucky to be teaching in the best classroom. What could be better?

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