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My Youth Advisors (Adam and Bobbee Griff) were right…
Hosting a Regional NFTY event wouldn’t just be great for our teens, but it would have the power to transform our youth programs even further towards becoming a Youth Community.
We had 324 Jewish teens in our facility this past weekend. That in and of itself was a miracle. But more than sheer numbers, what was so powerful was my ability to witness some amazing things.
We had 45 kids from our synagogue alone opt in to try to have an encounter with a Youth Community. For many, this was their first event; for others, they see themselves as seasoned veterans at these retreats. But our newcomers and those from all around the NFTY-SAR Region (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth — SAR is the Southern Area Region of NFTY), our teens embraced what Ron Wolfston calls the “Spirituality of Welcoming,” reaching out and connecting people to one another. s
They focused on teaching about different kinds of families, our commitments towards inclusion and our respect for diversity. The educational programming was thoughtful and our teens walked away with the perspective of how every family is precious and has integrity.
Our prayer experiences were tremendous. I know I like the traditional tones of our service, but I was exhilarated and inspired by their JOY. There were no spectators in that sanctuary. Our kids PRAYED — with songs that brought them closer to one another and (whether they know it or not…) to God!
But here is the thing. Our youth advisors challenged us to take on almost all of the housing responsibilities ourselves. Most host congregations reach out to their neighboring synagogues for some help. Why not? Who couldn’t use some extra help? The challenge was made and we needed 70 host families. 60 came from our synagogue. That means, more congregants were able to witness some of these peak moments like I did. They saw a ruach-filled sanctuary come to a quiet, soulful moment as the students sang Sh’ma — holding on to each word for an entire breath. These hosts saw our NFTYites laugh and play, learn and teach. It wasn’t just our youth group board that had responsibilities…it was an array of teens from 8th through 12th grades who played a part. They and their parents were so invested in the success of this kallah.
These hosts — not all of whom even have kids in high school or NFTY! — were able to see how lives could be changed by a meaningful, compelling, fun Jewish experience. So I don’t just have a lot of kids going to Jewish events… I have a bunch of teens who want to build a community and parents who are no longer bystanders. They witnessed how great it is for their kids to find other Jewish teens with similar Jewish needs — for community, for prayer, for justice, and for hope.
So here is the unapologetic, unabashed pitch… help us. Temple Beth Tikvah has three ways to help us support our teens. Consider:
an act of tzedakah to our Annual Campaign to support everything that is happening in the synagogue — there is no corner that is not touched by these gifts.
- an act of tzedakah to our Camp/Israel Scholarship Fund — help us get more kids to summer programs in Israel, Jewish summer camps and learning programs.
- an act of tzedakah to our Youth Group Fund that provides scholarships for our teens to go to NFTY events when there is financial need or to help fund special programs for our teens.
You can select any of these funds by going to: http://www.bethtikvah.com/make-donation
Make a gift in honor of your teen, of our event, of our Youth Advisors, of our Youth Committee volunteers. The Jewish way of expressing our gratitude is by paying it forward. I am grateful for all who invest in our youth.
Bobbee and Adam — thank you. To our youth group Board and our Kallah Chairpeople — may you all go from strength to strength. To our Youth Committee and parent volunteers — we couldn’t make these things happen without you. To all of our staff, partners, stakeholders, leaders, schleppers, cooks, bottlewashers… it really does take a village.
I just posted this piece on the Reform Movement’s blog:
This blog post struck a real chord with me. I hope all of those who are committed to the Jewish values of inclusion, accessibility, and human dignity read this piece from a colleague that I do not yet know.
The sad thing is…I have had this taste of rejection. My daughter with Autism has been welcomed and included at URJ Camp Coleman. They have gone out of their way to make sure that she is a part of the community with minimal additional supports. However, our local Reform Jewish day school changed its policies to prohibit any acadmic inclusion by the students in a special education program that was partnering with the day school. We removed her that program, and our other daughters from the day school.
So I feel this father’s pain.
I hope and pray soon that our Jewish institutions will recognize that in order to be an authentic Jewish program, we need to be accesible and inclusive of all.
For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.
My almost-16 year old blind son, Solomon, was supposed to spend 8 weeks in the second-oldest Aidah (age group) at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish camping program affiliated with the Conservative movement. My wife and I went to visit him and our 12 year old daughter this week. While there, the camp director told us that he was sending Solomon home four weeks early at the session break because “the camp is not able to accommodate Solomon’s needs for the full 8 week session.”
This is Solomon’s fifth year at camp. Sol went for one session each summer for the previous four years, but this year, called the “Magshimim” year, required campers to enroll for the full summer. Solomon was thrilled to go for both sessions. He loves camp, and for the first four summers…
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It was the summer of 1985 and I was never at sleep away camp before. I was a fifteen year old at Kutz Camp when I was inspired. After losing my father that summer, I was comforted by good, kind, decent counselors, rabbis, and educators. They inspired me by “being there” for me. Simply “showing up” for a shy kid that they didn’t know so well changed everything for me.
Being at camp that summer started my journey into Jewish camping, youth work, Jewish communal work and eventually the rabbinate. So I guess it worked out OK since Ira Schweitzer, my synagogue’s director of youth activities and the religious school, sent me to camp to learn how to songlead. (I worked it off for him after I returned by teaching music in the Sunday school.)
I first understood what a Jewish community looked like at camp. I found God for the first time at camp. I also found my own voice as an emerging youth leader at camp. But it wasn’t only a summer of self discovery. It was my first encounter with real mentors. I found rabbis that were devoted to teens — Rabbi Alan Smith, Rabbi Ramie Arian, Rabbi Stuart Geller — just to name a few. They were the first ones to personally guide me on my Jewish journey; they invested their time, energy and so much more in me and helped me to learn how to invest in myself.
And now, 26 years later, I am at another camp, watching my own daughters have similar experiences of growth, mentorship, and fellowship. I celebrate how this camp, URJ Camp Coleman, is investing similarly into these two girls who are only 11 and 12. They are not only having fun, but learning for themselves about community, Jewish life, Israel, and sacred responsibilities (to God and to one another). I can’t even begin to explain that kind of joy that gives me.
Not every Jewish camper becomes a rabbi (although since I have been teaching here at Coleman this summer, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Tampa, Rabbi Lauren Cohn of Atlanta, and I were all Kutz Camp participants in the summer of ’85!). But Jewish camping is clear to transform a young person’s life through a web of Jewish memories and experiences. Even more significant than that, is provides for us so many tools for Jewish living that ground us well beyond our childhood and teen years.
Thank you Kutz Camp for helping to shape my life. Thank you Camp Coleman for doing the same for my daughters (the third daughter will start next year!). Thank you, whomever you are, for your support for Jewish camping by reading this blog, sharing it with others, supporting Jewish camps’ scholarship programs to enable another generation of campers to experience it, and by scrimping and saving to send your own child or grandchild. All of these acts help us to “show up” for others and invest in our Jewish future.
For my congregants, if you are interested in sending your child next summer to a Jewish camp, please check out my list of my favorite Jewish summer experiences. I would be glad to help you find a good fit.
Hope you all have a wonderful, renewing summer.