By Joanne Cohen
Four years ago I was given a wonderful invitation to join the Nefesh Faculty at Camp Newman for two weeks. Not only were my kids ready to go to Jewish summer camp, like my husband and I did when we were younger, but I could go back to camp? As a School Counselor with summers off it sounded like an intriguing offer. Things would come full circle since I started my counseling career as a CIT and Counselor at Camp Swig and I could now use my 25 years of experience to give back to camp.
I learned that Nefesh (which means “soul” in Hebrew) was a program, which was started to provide extra support to campers, counselors and staff, by professional therapists and social workers. In my first year on the Nefesh Faculty, I found that the staff and counselors did an incredible job on a daily basis to keep the campers fed, happy, engaged, and busy. The Nefesh team was only needed when issues became bigger than the ability level of the young adults in charge. Each year there is a Nefesh Coordinator who is a part of the staff and spends the entire summer at camp. The coordinator oversees a group of therapists, social workers or educators who spend about two weeks at a time at camp. These therapists are on call throughout the day and evening to provide one on one counseling, small group meetings, consultations, support and advice to unit heads, lead professional developments and more.
Often people ask “who took care of these issues at camp in years past?” I asked my sister Barb, once an Assistant Director of Camp Swig, and she told me that they often looked to the Rabbis for help. Ellen Goldsmith, a Social Worker, and Rabbi’s wife spent many years going to camp with her husband Howard who was on the faculty. Along with Ellen, other spouses of Rabbis and Educators with mental health backgrounds stepped up to help. Ellen remembers that each year she was asked to help out more and more until it was finally decided that a formal program was needed. Dina Hankin, a Psychologist, wife of Jewish Educator Phil and longtime camp person also stepped in to provide professional assistance as well. In 2009 Ellen, Dina and a team from camp founded the Camp Newman Nefesh program.
The question I am asked most often about Nefesh is: “have the issues gotten bigger or did we just not notice them before?” My answer to this question is always “Yes.” “Yes,” we were not as aware as we are now of the struggles which teens went through in decades past. “Yes,” children and teens felt they had to hide anything that was “different” about them and did not open up as often. And “Yes,” we have seen an increase in mental health issues over the years and an increase in the number of children taking medication. In its fifth year at the camp, Nefesh is now very well known. It seems there is not a lot of stigma about getting help from one of the Nefesh staff and it is a comfort to many parents, campers and staff that the therapists are there. Each year the Nefesh program keeps growing in terms of people involved, support and programming. The camp is very dedicated to continuing to develop the program as the needs grow and change.
What is my favorite part of being on Nefesh? Knowing that even though the campers and staff I am helping might be struggling, they are in the right place with more support than they could find anywhere else. The last day of camp I watch campers sob as they say goodbye to this incredible place and amazing people. Even the campers who may have dealt with some difficult issues while at camp realize that they grew and connected and overcame and belonged. I know that their experience at camp and the support they were provided will carry them through even the most challenging times during the school year. I feel truly blessed to be a part of such an amazing place and program. Being on Nefesh at Camp Newman is some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.