Jewish Camp & Our God Journeys

By Ruben Arquilevich, URJ Camp Newman

“Camp Newman helps us feel closer to God”.    This is how I opened my dialogue with our 2013 leadership staff at our annual Spring retreat. You could have imagined the response. Even some of our Rabbinic students felt uneasy about this language and its timing (opening conversation). “God” talk is scary for many of us. It is not common language and many of us are just not comfortable with the term “God”. We are not alone and have a long history of struggling with this concept – after all, the term “Israel” means to “wrestle with God”. As Reform, progressive Jews, we do not strictly define God, so the sentiment of “closer to God” might feel foreign. Yet, the belief in God is a central pillar of Reform Judaism and of Camp Newman.

I have also struggled with God language, only having reached a comfort level in recent years. While I profess no single definition of God, I have DSCF2798come to appreciate the belief in a source of life, meaning, ultimate issues and purpose beyond our lives; and that Judaism and God play a role in this narrative. I have come to embrace God through life and death moments, nature, silence, children’s laughter, daily tribulations and accomplishments, tears of joy and sorrow and the daily mysteries and miracles of life.

At Camp Newman, and at Jewish sleep away camps in general, one only needs to take a stroll to bear witness to Godly moments: friends sitting under a tree, sharing with each other their greatest fears and hopes; campers shouting from the “Star of David Hike”, “We love being Jewish”; the sounds of laughter, joy and glee around every bend; pausing to reflect upon sunsets; a group of children engaged in deep conversation about life and its purpose; the embrace, support and healing from community as campers deal with loss and difficulties at home, reconciliation and deeper understanding after a conflict; a real apology and forgiveness; Israeli staff and Israel culture; Shabbat ruach, with staff blessing their campers; arms around each other at night as they gaze upon the stars and sing the Shema

Camp is ripe for feeling closer to God because we believe the most when we feel the connection. Camp, because of its 24/7 Jewish living in community, in nature, under certain values, provides endless touches of inspiration, feeling, emotion – joy, sadness, conviction, gratitude, awe, love. At camp we are not only unplugged from distractions of technology, but more importantly, plugged into the sacred in each other as Jews and human beings.

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We just completed the Counting of the Omer, the period of counting the days between Passover (freedom) and Shavuot (receiving of the Torah). The mystics believed that we needed to meditate upon the 49 days leading up to Shavuot as a way to be “worthy” of receiving the Torah. That we needed to acquire certain manifestations of God, very human characteristics, certain emotional attributes: Chesed -loving kindness, gevruah -justice/restraint/awe,  tiferet – beauty/harmony/compassion; netzach – endurance, fortitude, ambition; hod – humility; yesod -foundation; malchut – nobility, leadership.     During this period, the Jewish people were becoming a nation, filled with laws/rules/things to know. To receive the Torah, however, the greatest gift, it was less about what one knew but about how we were to treat eachother as human beings and about how we were to be in the world.

The Talmud states “That By The Breath Of Children God Sustains The World”. The opportunity to wrestle with God , in a community of peers, mentors, role models and without judgments, is one of Camp’s greatest gifts. I call it our God journeys. We celebrate over a million hours of Jewish immersion at Camp Newman every year. It is during these hours, some formal but mostly informal, that we get to practice the aforementioned manifestations of God – which are very human, help us connect to God and travel our God journeys.

P.S. I concluded my conversation with our leadership staff as follows:  over the weeks ahead, as you prepare for summer, you will learn many “how to do’s” and you’ll work on programs. Remember to take the time to prepare yourself emotionally and how you will support your staff, campers, your faculty and your campers parents around interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, helping us all connect with God.

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