The Comforting Power of Jewish Camp

By Jaclyn Fromer, URJ Camp Newman Education Director 2011

Creating a Makom Kadosh: Sacred Space at Jewish Camp

Ozi v’zimrat yah

Vay’hi li lishua

God is my strength and my song

And will be my freedom.

On Saturday night, July 30, these words began the most unique and meaningful ceremony I’ve ever had the privilege of participating in. That night I facilitated a giluach rosh, a shaving of the head, for a sixteen year old girl in her second round of chemotherapy for brain cancer. 

I met Jessica on her arrival day at camp two weeks ago. I remembered her face from last summer, welcomed her back, and asked how she was doing. She told me that she was excited to be back, for she was going to shave her head at camp.

I raised an eyebrow. We usually have strict rules about such grand physical changes here at Newman.

Jessica proceeded to tell me her story. She was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly before starting her freshman year of high school. Her first round of chemotherapy was unsuccessful, but at least she got to keep her hair. She was now midway through a second round of chemo. Her once thick and luscious hair was falling out. She wanted to take control in a situation where she had very little, and decided camp was the safe space she needed to be in to go through such a transition.

I was stunned by her boldness and bravery; by her determination. I immediately asked if she wanted me to write a ceremony for the occasion. She smiled wryly and said, “sure.”

So, on Saturday my dear friend, HUC cantorial student, and Rosh T’filah Amanda Winter helped me write a ceremony marking the shaving of Jessica’s head. It was a carefully crafted ritual that embraced change, choices, and Jessica’s strength. It focused on Jessica’s tenacity, her decision to take control, and the love that exists for her here at camp. That night, we invited all the women of Jessica’s eidah, plus a few female faculty members and spouses, to participate.

From the moment we started singing the words above, people began to weep. Fifteen and sixteen year old girls began crying, counselors wiped away tears, and everyone in that space found themselves sobbing openly, slowly gaining a grasp on what was happening. In that small room, normally a programs location for movies, songleading, and games, we were able to experience something sacred.

Jessica’s mom, a wonderful rabbi from Bakersfield here on faculty, said a few beautiful, poignant words. She offered a touching poem. And as she spoke, her tears began to flow. Jessica began to sob as she told her story. And the girls of her eidah embraced her and her mother, welcomed them, and through their body language and embraces made it clear that they supported Jessica fully.

After a series of prayers and songs, Jessica stood up and walked to the chair where Tal, our resident hairstylist, began to shave her head. We all watched, silent, unable to look away, as this incredible young woman sat calmly, taking control of her situation. By the time Tal finished, Jessica was left with a beautiful bald head. She truly looked gorgeous, and everyone clapped. 

At the conclusion, five girls from Jessica’s cabin sang a medley of songs – from Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” to “Isn’t She Lovely” to “Stand by You.” Then the entire group offered blessings to Jessica. To stand in a room full of teenage girls extending blessings to their peer – including strength, love, continued support, confidence, and faith – was nothing short of inspiring. I stood there with my mouth agape, tears flowing from my eyes, as gems of wisdom and maturity passed through the lips of these campers.

The whole evening culminated with a celebration featuring Martinelli’s sparkling cider, fresh fruit and chocolate, and songs of joy. It was done beautifully, and Jessica’s incredible rashim and madrichim did an amazing job making sure it was a joyous event.

This giluach rosh proved the importance of sacred rituals; of embracing change and noting the transitions that mark our daily lives. It created a space in which Jessica herself could mourn the loss of one phase of her life – one identity marker – and celebrate the beginning of another. It enabled the other women of the eidah to understand and accept that one amongst them was different and unique. And it celebrated strength, teaching girls and women alike about conviction, dignity, and perspective.

Rabbinical school simply cannot prepare you for this type of event. No amount of training can teach you the appropriate response to give a teenage girl with cancer seeking to totally alter her appearance. Having compassion, respect, and a deep love for the sanctity of Judaism, combined with an open mind and eager heart, can certainly help along the way.

That Jessica felt comfortable enough here at camp to do such a brave act is a testament to the significance of this place; this safe environment. That the people surrounding her openly wept and extended her their support and love is a statement of how much this place means to people. And that she has walked around the past few days rocking the most beautiful bald head I’ve ever seen, receiving high fives, smiles, and pats on the back from campers and counselors young and old, exemplifies the uniqueness of this sacred place, this makom kadosh.

Camp is a place where the holy and profane meet; where the simple act of living can be infused with meaning and purpose. It is a place where children come to feel safe, loved, welcomed, and nurtured. Camp is a place which teaches all of us how to be good human beings. Those of us lucky enough to work or be involved with Jewish camping have the fundamental principles of our faith to guide us through that process.

Most importantly, camp is a space in which campers, teenage counselors, and even grown adults learn how to navigate life’s many peaks and valleys. It is a place where people of all ages learn how to celebrate and mourn, laugh and cry, and experience the holiness life can offer every day. It truly is a makom kadosh, a sacred place, if we allow it to be.

Below is a prayer we read at the beginning of Jessica’s service. It can be a reminder to all of us of the incredible opportunities that exist within change.

For Being Open to Change, from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav; Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco:

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu. O God who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; who bestows miraculous things to those who are open to your blessings, send your insight and love to Jessica as life’s journey brings change. 

Like Sarah, may we have the strength to continue forward even if we are not sure where our path may lead.

Like Abraham with his son Isaac, may we have the courage to turn challenges into blessings, even as we grapple with life’s unmarked paths.

Like Hagar with her son Ishmael, may we be granted a glimpse of what is Divine, so that we may turn our fear into faith.

O Source of all, who revealed the Torah to our people, let us be open to witnessing Your ways in our lives.

We bless You, O God, who guides our journeys.

And let us say, Amen.

Jaclyn Fromer is a Rabbinic/Education student at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus. She grew up in Los Angeles at Stephen S. Wise Temple. The summer of 2010 was her first ever at Jewish camp and it changed her life. She is thrilled and honored to be the Education Director at URJ Camp Newman for the summer of 2011.

 

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8 Responses to The Comforting Power of Jewish Camp

  1. Shari Unitan August 10, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    This is powerful, and in its essence, the true meaning of camp. I grew up in Long Beach with Cheryl and her family. I wish all of them the very best as they continue the fight for Jessica’s life.
    How wonderful that they were able to share this experience at camp, and open themselves
    To the incredible love and support that is waiting for them. I was just up at Newman for the Alumni Shabbat a few weeks ago. It is a place filled with every day miracles.

  2. Jacky Rosen August 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Wow, wow, wow. You took my breath away. As a mother of a Newman camper for the last 7 years and Vice President of Youth and Education at my Temple, I try to relate to parents the value and meaning of camp all the time . You couldn’t of said it more beautifully. I think I will send them to read this post if they have any doubts. Thank you for being there for our kids. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said ‘there’s no place like home” but I think “there’s no place like camp”.

  3. Lanie Rose August 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    We at the Dr. Marnie Rose Foundation hear moving stories every day about our courageous and determined brain tumor patients–our Heroes. Jessica’s story, however, touched our hearts
    and our souls to the core. Thank you for sharing it. I know of many young patients who will be inspired by this remarkable young woman, her family, and her friends. We will keep Jessica in our hearts and in our prayers.

  4. Rachel powers August 16, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    Jessica and her story filled my heart with light. All of my blessings and prayers for rafuah shlemah go to this inspirational young woman. I will share her story with my Hebrew school class and religious school classes.
    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Kaila Kaden August 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    I am a recent breast cancer survivor. Jessica, your story touches me in very intimate ways. I do not know you personally, but I am your sister in ways that no people ought to have to be connected. I applaud your joy of fully living each moment of your life. Regardless of health issues, to understand this makes you an extremely blessed and radiant person. May your path be an easy one and may you continue to be blessed by such a wonderful Mother and such a supportive and loving circle of women who surround you. Venture forth in love, humor and joy, dear girl. My prayers and love are with you.

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