I just posted this piece on the Reform Movement’s blog:
It was 1985 and my father was losing his battle with cancer. My mother was a religious school principal, and my father hadn’t worked as a store manager for months. At the same time, they had their heart set on giving me a great experience at a Jewish summer camp because I was so involved in our synagogue youth programs. My mother wanted me to go to URJ Kutz Camp, which they picked because it was the Reform Movement’s leadership development camp for high school students. The problem was, there was absolutely no way I could have made it to camp if we needed to rely only on the financial resources of my family. My folks wanted to give me a gift, but they couldn’t have done it themselves.
It was Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow’s Director of Education, Ira Schweitzer, who made it happen. He had the insight and commitment to find the money to cover the majority of my tuition. He sent me to Kutz to learn how to be a songleader and youth group leader. After that summer, I became the music teacher at my synagogue, sharing what I had learned and giving back to my own community.
Because I was only 15, I didn’t realize at the time just how great of an investment that synagogue made in me and other teens like me. It wasn’t a huge synagogue with a large endowment and many major donors. Its resources were limited but its commitment to youth was tremendous.
As much of a cliché as that sounds, the summer of 1985 was a defining time in my life. I learned how to be a leader. I learned the power of bringing a community together through Jewish music. I met the next generation of rabbis and rabbinical students who loved being Jewish and doing Jewish. All of that was inspiring. But perhaps most poignantly, I learned how a community goes out of its way to care for others. You see, my father died that summer while I was at Kutz. The most powerful take-away for me from being in this safe Jewish environment was that you have to step up for other people when they need you.
Looking back, I can see that the whole experience of being at camp opened a new door to Jewish life for me. I took a tremendous step in owning my Judaism. It was no longer something my parents were telling me to do; it was something I was personally connecting to. And it was because my parents were willing to make a significant sacrifice of resources and my educator had enough faith in me and my potential that they made the investment so that I was able to go to Kutz.
Now I am a rabbi of a congregation that sends 90 kids to different Jewish camps in my area. That is approximately 20% of our students who go to Jewish summer camps. While I am very happy to have gotten to that number, my hope is for it to reach 80%!
If our congregations and Federations would invest in our campers the way my childhood synagogue invested in me, I am convinced we could make a dramatic difference in strengthening a Jewish community for today and tomorrow. I know I could send another 15 kids who currently do not attend because of their family’s inability to pay even a partial tuition, especially if we are talking about more than one child in a family.
My drive to advance camp scholarship funds is fueled not only by my experience but by the experiences of my three daughters at URJ Camp Coleman. I watch them pray. I see them interact with Israeli counselors and staff and learn that Israel isn’t a far-off place, but a place with connections and inspiration. They play Frisbee one minute and sing Jewish songs the next. And all three are able to get there based on scholarship funds that are rapidly being depleted due to a tough economy.
I have loved reading all of the this month’s blog posts about Jewish camping from the perspectives of our camp staff, rabbis and educators, even parents. They all share how our camping movement is strong and vitally important to nourish the souls of our kids. And while our camps are doing well, we want as many of our kids to go as possible – because it is good for their souls. It strengthens their resiliency, their compassion, and their faith.
Jewish camps make a difference. Let’s reach out to our congregations and Federations to advance a stronger agenda of getting our children to these Jewish summer camp experiences. It will be rewarding for these kids, for their families, and our greater communities.