By, Aaron Selkow, Camp Director
Dear Camp Families & Camp Friends:
Here’s a real exchange between a group of 9 year-old campers and this camp director from a few days ago:
Aaron: “What’s the best part of the summer so far at Harlam?”
Campers: “The fun all the time…the swimming…the crazy activities…the sports…”
Aaron: “Okay…how about the worst part?”
Campers: “The end.”
“The end”. This is a concept that we’re all familiar with. We’re used to the inevitable close of things: the cue for the credits to roll at the end of a film, the final page of a favorite book, the last out in the bottom of the ninth inning, the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and the conclusion of the year. But, as the final hours of the 2013 camp season fall away and we reach the expected end of our summer here at Camp Harlam, I’m not so sure that leaving Kunkletown in the coming days really marks the end of very much at all.
Most mornings, before the majority of our campers and staff have wiped sleep from their eyes at camp, I sit on my porch with a cup of coffee and enjoy a wonderful view of camp and the Mahoning Valley. Sometimes I listen to the news, often I return e-mails and phone calls to people who are early-risers (like me), but a few mornings ago I put on some music. My iPod playlist is embarrassingly thin; in fact, the songs I have to choose from are almost entirely derived from requests that my daughter has made for music that we can listen to in the car. So I opened Pandora and the first song that began to play was “Boom Boom Pow” (don’t ask me to explain why this was the case!). I looked at the artwork from the album cover and took note of the name: “The E.N.D.”. The Black Eyed Peas released this album in 2009, and after doing a little searching, I found that “The E.N.D.” stood for: “The Energy Never Dies”. Like the song or not, I started to make a connection. The group’s creative leader, will.i.am, wrote about this title and stated, “It’s a diary of music that at any given time – depending on the inspiration – you can add to”. Rather than just a compilation of terrific songs, the group had opted to commit to an ever-changing and developing product. In his statement, there is a different perspective being offered about whether the end of something needed to actually be an end at all and it’s this assertion that I felt inspired to write about this week.
As we prepare to celebrate our last Shabbat together as a camp community for the 2013 season, I’m reminded of the saying that I use often with our leadership staff about things needing to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It comes from my education and experience as a storyteller, and is meant to frame our summer as a story for them, for their staff and for the kids we serve here every day. But maybe Jean-Luc Godard (the French film icon) was even more correct when he said, “A story should have a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” In fact, as we come together each week of the summer to read from the Torah (our most essential story book), we’re never starting at Bereshit, the first parsha (Torah portion) in Genesis. We read together from wherever the calendar marks for us and we start there; we don’t tell everyone all the things that happened last before we learn and share as a community. And when the summer nears its end, we don’t “finish the story” by telling everyone all the good stuff that’s still to come. Instead, we reflect on, talk about and introduce the fuller story that we have as a people in all the things we do at camp; we pull out lessons and text and related commentary from all places, and many that are not even part of the same linear story.
As camp begins each summer, there are some among us that seem to be starting at the very beginning. These are the campers or staff members that might be having their very first experience at Camp Harlam or their first time away from home. It could be their first chance to be in the United States, or maybe their first time in a majority setting with Reform Jews. But at the same time, there are so many that seem to be further along, or maybe even close to the end. These could be the campers that are in Chavurah, ready to embark next summer on a new adventure that cannot include being back at Harlam as they’re encouraged to travel to Israel with other Harlamites or enjoy a summer in a program like Mitzvah Corps. Or maybe it’s the staff members that have loved their work here but will be forced to start a career or a new track in life that cannot allow them to have a summer in Kunkletown with us again.
But even if these two groups seem to be at the beginning and end, I don’t think it’s that simple. Just because the first-time camper in Carmel is spending their first night away at camp, what about all of the experiences that led them here? What about all the things about themselves, about their hobbies and interests, their families and their friends that contributed to them being here? What about their families and the possibility that their time at Harlam is actually part of L’Dvor V’Dor, from generation to generation, and being a Harlamite is a legacy passed on to them? Maybe they’re a younger sibling of another camper that has been having their own virtual camp experience for years already. So the days and weeks here at camp may be – even for the new camper – a mid-point in their development and even a pretty advanced part of their story at Harlam.
And just because the staff member that is preparing to transition through to a new life cycle experience and may not return in 2014, does that mean it’s really the end? What about when things change down the road and they return? What about how they carry the experiences and the values and the skills and the successes of their summer working here to the next stage and they realize that camp stays with them? We see and hear each and every year from our alumni and friends that camp is as alive today for someone that might have been here decades ago; there is no end chapter in that book for so many people that have been here.
If we just look at the children and adults that are here today, about to celebrate their last service at Chapel on the Hill tonight and a few days from being picked-up by the cars that will be endlessly streaming in and out of our gates, what does “the end” of the summer at Harlam really mean?
I believe that this should not be the end at all. I believe that the new experiences that were part of the special days that we shared should be carried from here and should be the start of something. Maybe it’s a new activity to be involved in at home, maybe it’s the ritual of lighting candles and saying blessings together with their family on Shabbat, or maybe it’s the exploration of even more new things that feel possible now for the sake of building confidence and exploring this summer. I believe the relationships that were formed and strengthened here each day should extend beyond the hugs and goodbyes that will spread throughout the camp this weekend. Our children should remember and relish the great moments with friends, just as they learn and develop from the choices and situations and all the hard work they put in to make the connections so strong and real. And I believe that the identification and growth of a real, meaningful, connection to their own Jewish soul should be appreciated and now expanded to the rest of their lives. Why should someone that screamed “I Love Being Jewish” at the top of their voice be limited to doing so only at camp and only for a few weeks or a couple of months?
If we stretch all of these things – and the many more that have been part of our time here at camp in 2013 – to the days after the last cabin is closed for the long winter, then this is not the end at all. If I tell congregations how awesome this place is because I’ve seen my own daughter smile amongst her friends and counselors this session as a camper in Sharon, and you tell everyone you know how much fun you had, and he tells people that they made a new friend at Camp Harlam, and she tells her neighbors that camp is growing and changing each year and you should check it out…That’s pretty much what has been happening for a long time already. For 55 years we’ve built that energy and pride in Harlam and the message has gotten across to thousands.
There are too few hours left of this season for me. But as much as I’m truly sad to see the close of our program until we arrive in 300 more days to start anew, I realize that the campers I spoke to (and even The Black Eyed Peas) had it right: the end may be the worst thing. But thankfully, we haven’t reached it yet.
This is only the beginning.
Shabbat Shalom and thank you so much for your support throughout this wonderful summer at Camp Harlam,
If you’ve missed any of Aaron’s weekly “Shabbat Shalom” blog posts from the summer or any of the other amazing stories from the 2013 season, please visit http://blogs.rj.org/harlam/. Any questions, feedback, suggestions or thoughts? Please contact me at ThinkCamp@URJ.org.