Letters from Camp
Throughout the summer, members of the HUC-JIR community, ranging from students to faculty to alumni, will be sharing their reflections from various URJ camps.
August 10, 2023
Two years ago I was nervous to come to camp. It was a strange and thankfully unfamiliar experience; after all, 2021 would be, by my count, the 27th time I’ve spent at least part of a summer at one of four URJ camps. And I don’t think I’d been worried about a summer since 1993. So why was I so nervous?
I was nervous because it was the first time I would be spending two weeks as faculty for Eisner Camp, rather than one. And because it was the first summer back after camps closed in 2020, we weren’t allowed out of camp. At all. For two weeks. Yes, I was a little concerned about maintaining my congregational responsibilities for twice the time, but my apprehension was about not being able to leave what Eisner folks call “the Bubble” for two whole weeks. I feared that might be too much for me, that I might begin to sour on the experience, and that I’d have many late nights without enough, or the right, snack food.
After arriving at camp with enough sweet, savory, chocolatey, and gummy goodness to feed a small army, I enjoyed the most rewarding and fulfilling faculty stint I had ever done. By leaps and bounds. Because I wasn’t just at camp, I was in camp, enmeshed in it, surrounded by the Bubble and its daily happenings. And now I don’t think I’ll ever go back to serving just one week.
In the six weeks I have spent at Eisner these past three summers, rather than half that time, I have become part of camp. Campers and staff know me and remember me well from the summers, and I have gotten to know many of them. They know that they can bring me new songs to utilize in my “Godify” course, where we explore theology and philosophy through popular music. But they also know I’ll jump in on a pickup basketball game or play the outfield in a baseball game. They know they can come to me with questions about Judaism, but they also know they can talk with me about fantasy football, Harry Potter, Hamilton, acapella groups, and, of course, Phish. And as a result, they know that I’m here for them, and that, when they need to broach something a little more serious than last night’s score, they can talk to me about whatever that may be as well.
As someone who fell in love with Jewish camps at URJ Camp Harlam in the Poconos, I’m constantly reminded that both Harlam and Eisner were founded in 1958 as “institutes of living Judaism.” Serving as faculty for Eisner Camp is easily among the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of my rabbinate, precisely because it is both where Judaism is lived every hour of every day, and it’s a Judaism that is very much alive and vibrant. It is where I feel I can bring and contribute all of myself, all of my interests and passions and loves that make me who I am – as a person, as a Jew, as a rabbi. I am truly blessed by my congregational family to have this time here at Eisner, to be able to push the figurative “refresh” button on Judaism each summer, and bring those successes and that energy back to our home communities. I’m grateful to every congregation who are represented by the fantastic clergy and educators they share with our camps. And the connections and moments I have been blessed to be a part of, to know that I have made an impact with even just one camper, just one staff member, is a priceless gift to me, one that carries me through some of the harder moments of this work and this life.
I used to worry that two weeks at camp was too much time. Now I’m like a camper again, each year sad to leave, wishing I could stay just a little bit longer.
Rabbi Joshua Strom ’08 serves as the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk, NY.
August 10, 2023
I have the privilege of serving on faculty at two URJ camps this summer, and with that seeing camp at the very beginning of the summer and at the very end of the summer. I got to help open URJ 6-Points Creative Arts Academy’s sixth official summer and, as I write this, I am preparing to head up to URJ OSRUI to serve on faculty for the final week of camp. While on faculty at 6-Points CAA, I spend much of my time helping to empower our arts mentors to bring Judaism to life, through the arts. At OSRUI, I will get to know our youngest and newest members to camp, seeing the joy of camp through first-time campers while helping to highlight the importance of Jewish camping and community.
On the final day of the first session at CAA, I led Mo Moments (our morning ritual featuring a combination of Jewish morning prayers and lessons focusing on our value of the day). The first and last days of camp always focus on the same value “the one you bring yourself” because, without each and every one of our campers, staff, and faculty, the joy of camp would not exist as we know it. It is each of us that helps to complete the puzzle, making each session unique in its own beautiful way. During Mo Moments, I asked the campers to help me complete a poem, based on the “I Am From” poem written by George Ella Lyon. This is what they wrote:
I Am From CAA
I am from bracelets,
From grit and curiosity.
I am from the chaotic, fun, creative, and sometimes loud
I am from markers and crayons, because art is fun.
I’m from tie-dye Fridye and Shabbat whites
From Jay (Rappaport, our Director) and Samantha (Eichert, our Assistant Director)
I’m from the pretty cool and another home,
From lilah tov and our amazing international staff.
I’m from Friday night Shabbat offerings.
I’m from West Chester, Pennsylvania, challah and pasta at every meal,
From the early mornings to the energy we put into our arts majors
The “transition, transition, transition,” friends that I have made, things I have learned from my major and getting more people to come to camp!
I am from CAA.
Camp, whether for our brand new campers or our oldest, most seasoned staff and faculty members, is a place where each of us finds ourselves, and brings our authentic selves to the table. Camp is a place where each person is embraced for who they are, and the journey that they are on. Camp is a place, where we come from, and where we go to each summer, each time bringing our own excitement for the experience that awaits us.
Rabbi Jessie Wainer ’16 serves as the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, IL.
August 9, 2023
Why would a rabbi go to camp, you ask? It’s a question that comes up a lot. As a child, I never really crossed paths with a female-identifying rabbi. But it never dawned on me that being one was off-limits. Shoutout to my time at URJ Camp Coleman – those were the formative years that did the trick. Picture this: cool rabbis and rabbinical students everywhere, woven into our camp crew.
So, I set off on my own rabbinical and Jewish educator path, with one goal in mind: to infuse Jewish tunes into my days and work with youngsters from tots to teens. I wanted to sprinkle a little love for all things Jewish. Cue the music, the Jewish shenanigans, b’nai mitzvah tutoring, and a medley of fun activities from mahjong to Pilates. Yep, now I’m that female rabbi who’s all in. Think of me as a combo of a teacher, role model, facilitator, and buddy – that’s the secret sauce for building tight bonds at camp and showing how awesome Judaism can be.
This past summer I had the privilege of participating as a faculty member at the URJ Camp Coleman during the first session. There, I was reminded how relationships made with children and teens in informal experiential settings (like at a camp or retreat) are deeper, genuine, and lead to greater trust. Sharing a communal experience where we pray and learn together cannot be easily replicated throughout the school year. The competing priorities, from sports to homework, are removed when immersed in the camp experience. Hanging out with the rabbi, cantor, educator, or youth advisor at the dining hall or on a field is a lot easier to do at camp; it is organic. These interactions foster greater connections as conversations develop around Jewish spirituality and practice instilling a sense of Jewish identity that will last a lifetime.
Now, my rabbi journey has been a bit off the beaten path – serving as a Major Gifts Officer at the URJ, and before that the Director of Lifelong Learning at a congregation. Catch me at camp, you’ll spot me in a quirky getup or gym gear, hair probably in a ponytail, setting up games like mahjong or Pilates sessions, and strumming a guitar for good measure. Just like how we teach Torah, rabbis are not all the same. We seek to find cool ways to spark inspiration and make connections.
Huge thanks to URJ Camp Coleman and HUC-JIR for helping to always make this wild ride possible!
Rabbi Melissa Stollman ’08, ’10 serves as the major gifts officer for the Union for Reform Judaism.
August 9, 2023
“God blew into human nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being…” (Genesis 2:7)
These are the words framing the wooden walls of the pottery shed up at Maple Lake, the home of Camp George, Canada’s only URJ camp.
These words are embedded in a brightly-coloured landscape, comprised of the mountains and earth and sea and sky melding together in that original act of creativity, the act of Creation.
This mural has a magical, surrealistic quality as a work of art. Yet, when it comes to camp, its magic can indeed be found in its creativity.
Sitting in that pottery shed, I reflected that part of this is due to the magic of camp to enable participants to express themselves fully and authentically.
In our world today, that has connotations of identity when it comes to gender or sexuality, and in fact, we celebrated our camp Pride Shabbat during my week on faculty.
More broadly, in recalling my own experiences as a camper, this meant the gift of being able to realise our full potential as humans when granted creative license. Time and time again, I have seen our campers’ faces shine as they master a new skill, overcome a new obstacle, complete a previously impossible task, lead a successful program, or grow in their confidence, and develop into young mensches and young leaders.
Being Canada’s only Reform Jewish camp, this growth and development through creativity is not just crucial for campers as individuals, but for us as a Canadian Reform Jewish movement.
Camp George is a key manifestation of our unique identity as Canadian Reform Jews, and therefore, a critical pipeline for our future leadership and engagement. Its creative thriving strengthens us, as we strengthen it through our support, our participation, and our love of this unique and special place, which ultimately breathes life into our communities and congregations.
Just come and see it for yourself; standing on the shore of the stunning Maple Lake, you might also believe that a little bit of God’s creative spark lives here, too.
Rabbi Eliza McCarroll ’22 is an alum of HUC-JIR’s Cincinnati campus, and is currently the Assistant Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada.
August 8, 2023
August 8, 2023
I’m not sure which of my classes at HUC-JIR prepared me for helping camp staff color in a “Torah” scroll on the floor of the JLife office, but Deuteronomy does command us to each write our own scroll. Here is a story of the Torah scroll that URJ Six Points SciTech is writing:
Ten summers ago, before the SciTech specialty camp launched, my spouse, Michelle Shapiro Abraham (RHSOE ’96) worked with the Foundation for Jewish Camp as the Jewish content specialist for a cohort of incubator camps. With the new camp director, Greg Kellner, and his staff, they came up with the idea of a Sci-Tech Torah – a scroll that would illuminate the kesher (one of SciTech’s core values – connection) between the two animating pillars (or eitzim) of the camp – Judaism and Science. The Torah scroll – expanded each year, would have two parallel streams – quotes from each portion of the Torah at the top, and a related scientific fact at the bottom. In the middle was a word wave of the SciTech core values.
Camp tradition is that each morning begins with a “Boker Big Bang” a scientific experiment (usually some kind of explosion) and a scientific d’rash on one of the prayers of the nissim b’chol yom from the morning section of the daily service. On Mondays and Thursdays, the traditional days for Torah reading in the market, there is a d’var SciTech Torah – reading a portion from the scroll (which is not yet up to the summer portions) and making it relevant to the campers. It was amazing to see our growing leaders – campers and junior counselors – on the JLife team take Torah and science, and blend them together with such wisdom, excitement, and spirit.
Truly – it is a Tree of Life, for those who find ways to bind themselves and their new outlooks to our ancient words.
Rabbi Joel N. Abraham ’98 is entering his 25th year at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ. He recently received his Doctor of Divinity honoris causa from the Hebrew Union College, and celebrated the 10th summer of URJ Six Points SciTech as 3rd session faculty and proud parent of a pioneer camper, now on the leadership team.
July 24, 2023
Though this was my sixth year at URJ Six Points Creative Arts Academy, this was my first time serving as Faculty Dean. In theory, this means I supervise the other rabbis, cantors, and educators who volunteer two weeks of their time to work at camp. In practice, it means I get the walkie-talkie.
But there was one special privilege I was excited to experience. On the last night of the session, I got to sit with on the stage the rest of the leadership team for havdalah.
Growing up going to URJ Camp Harlam, I thought there was nothing better than being in the middle of a group of people singing. This havdalah proved me wrong. Sitting onstage, I could look out at all the campers, staff, and faculty as they harmonized with the Toby Singer arrangement of the havdalah blessings.
There was something nostalgic about it, like I was looking out at past versions of myself. But there was also something incredibly hopeful about it: I was looking at the future of our people.
We close out each havdalah with Rabbi Max Chaiken’s arrangement of “Eliyahu HaNavi.” It is a raucous moment of joy at camp, with everyone jumping up and singing at the top of their lungs:
So we will not wait a minute more,
to build the world we’re waiting for
Building starts with you and me
and Eliyahu hanavi!
Our theme this year comes from Pirke Avot 3:1, “Know where you came from, and know where you are going.” Being a rabbi at camp reminds me of the Jewish communities I came from, and gives me a glimpse of where the next generation is going, and what they are building.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz ’08 is an alum of HUC-JIR’s Rabbinical School. She is the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA.
July 20, 2023
Mollie the Donkey has a lot of personality, and because of this, she is the mayor of the URJ Crane Lake Camp farm. If you’re petting the goats, for example, she’s likely to walk over and nuzzle you out of the way, either demanding attention or checking in with her bleating friends to make sure everything is copacetic. She’s likely to steal some hay from the alpaca, who, despite his own caustic attitude, defers to Mollie. The four yapping puppies running circles around her hooves barely faze her.
I spent a lot of time with Mollie and her barnyard friends while teaching an elective course down at the farm. The idea came to me while preparing the story of Bilaam and his donkey for Torah study at my synagogue, just a few weeks before I was set to be on faculty at Crane Lake. What an opportunity: to study Torah next to the animals! I thought about the laws of kashrut with all the talk about split hooves and chewing cud. For kids growing up in predominantly urban and suburban settings, what does that even mean?
So we stood in the muddy pens talking about hooves and how one shouldn’t live in a town where a “horse does not neigh and a dog doesn’t bark” (Pesachim 113a). We talked about human connections to animals: both as protector and friend.
Most importantly, we built a bridge between text and reality. Judaism is tie-dyed into the camp experience, saturated seamlessly, awakening colors of our tradition we thought were muted or outdated. As a rabbi, I too benefited from this magic, leaving an ivory tower for Mollie’s barnyard. I felt connected. Maybe Mollie the donkey was indeed talking too – shedding light on the eternal joy of the Jewish experience.
Rabbi Mara Young ’11 is an alum of HUC-JIR’s Rabbinical School. She is the rabbi at the Woodlands Community Temple.
July 14, 2023
This summer I had a chance to return to URJ Camp Newman for my 16th summer on faculty. I had not been back to Camp Newman since Summer 2019 and I was excited to see all the changes and new growth since the devastating fire of 2017.
I love going to Camp Newman. As a rabbi it gives me a chance to stretch my skills by working in a different environment. This summer I had a chance to work with Gibborim, the largest eidah (group) at Newman during my time there: 65 fifth and sixth graders. We worked together to create tefillah (prayer service) centered around starting the day with gratitude and the intention to live up to our Gibborim name; to be heroes by using our power just like God does in the prayer Gevurot; to lift up others, to support each other and to help each other feel better.
At Newman, each eidah has a night away at “the overnight site,” a hill overlooking the hills of Santa Rosa. While there, we heard from the teva (nature) staff, who they explained the importance of creating a holy community in this special space. We discussed how our Jewish values teach us to care for the earth and coexist with the creatures in it. Everything was framed within a Jewish context, so that sleeping under the stars and making homemade pita s’mores became an authentically Jewish activity.
The rhythm of the camp week leads to Shabbat, another highlight. On Friday morning everything begins to change; you can feel Shabbat in the air. By the time everyone comes streaming out of their cabins in white clothes to join together, there is a palpable joy. Shabbat’s sweetness is celebrated with a festive meal, including challah and brownies, followed by high-energy singing and dancing that continues all the way up to lights out.
Camp is also an opportunity to connect with my colleagues; there are so many of us who are HUC-JIR alumni that it feels like a mini-reunion. It’s a time to reconnect with old friends and to meet new ones, and share ideas with them. Those same deep and lasting connections that the campers make with each other happen in the adult community as well, and camp is a chance for me to nurture those friendships.
My favorite thing about camp is that you can see the Jewish future around you. Camp is filled with kids whose families have chosen to make Jewish camp a priority; many of them are second-generation campers, continuing in their family tradition of spending part of the summer at Jewish camp — and they are joined by so many first-time campers who are looking for a Jewish experience. But it’s not just the campers that are the future — there are also the counselors, many of them college students and young adults who have chosen to spend their summer working with Jewish youth because they know they have something to contribute to the Jewish community.
Camp is a time to connect to the p ast, to celebrate the present, and to look toward the future. And as we say, “camp is life — the rest is just details.”
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard Bialik ’02, is an alum of HUC-JIR’s Rabbinical School. She is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation Or Ami.
July 14, 2023
I could hear the cheering and shouting from at least two football fields away. The campers in the chadar ochel (dining hall) had just finished their lunch and were jumping up and down, screaming with joy! Surely, it was because the power had finally been restored! After 52 hours of darkness and relentless humidity, I decided that the kids must have been cheering because the lights had finally come back on. I raced up the hill and into the chadar ochel and came face to face with two hundred elated campers who were cheering and jumping…in the dark. It was not the power. The power was still out. So what was all the excitement about? Popsicles. They were cheering as loud as they could because they had just been handed ice-cold popsicles!
As a faculty member at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI), I have the opportunity every summer to spend two full weeks participating in the magic of camp. This summer I had a front row seat to every song session, program, chug, (elective) and shiur (lesson). Being at camp is always a thrilling experience because I not only get to see my own child thrive, but also over 70 of our kids from the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation at their home-away-from-home. This summer was the most spectacular yet. The campers were engaged and excited and welcomed every activity the same way they welcomed every person on camp – with open arms and gratitude. While the staff members at GUCI always amaze me, perhaps the most humbling moment for me was when I heard the infamous popsicle cheering. On June 29th at around 4:00pm, GUCI and the surrounding town suffered a massive power outage. The entire grid went down and it would be a long two and a half days before it came back. It was in those 52 hours that I saw the real magic of camp unfold. Counselors and unit heads seamlessly pivoted programming despite herculean efforts to plan what had already been decided. We rallied together to charge all necessary devices, and took home laundry to help bunks who needed it. Campers went about their days, never complaining about heat or exhaustion, but rather cheering in response to the extra pool time. It became clear to me that even with the power out, the spark of magic that exists within Goldman Union Camp simply cannot be extinguished. Our camp has faced the same challenges as every other camp over the last three years, and yet our kids and our staff have never once questioned their ability or desire to change course and move forward. For me, this is the most humbling part of being at camp. I leave my two-week session in awe of what is possible when we come together as a Kehillah Kedoshah. May the strength and perseverance we learn from our time at camp carry us through the year ahead.
Cantor Aviva Marer ’13, is an alum of the Debbie Friedman School of Music. She is the cantor at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation.
July 5, 2023
As I step into my temporary quarters at URJ Camp Newman I notice the door mat. “Welcome Home,” it reads. Returning to Camp Newman is indeed a coming home for me; this is my 33rd summer at camp. In this community I made life-long friends, set upon my path to becoming a Jewish educator and rabbi at HUC-JIR, and give back each summer as a member of the educational faculty.
Camp Newman fell victim to the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Since then, the indefatigable senior leadership, several of whom are HUC-JIR alumni, have been rebuilding the property and community with assiduous intentionality. With the camp’s values always in their sights, we see this intentionality in everything from camp signage to educational programs.
New signposts stand at all paths and intersections of camp serve their purpose to point the way out should we, God forbid, need it. They, along with 30+ vehicles that stand at the ready to evacuate the community, remind us that safety is Newman’s highest value.
Upon arrival at camp, all members of the community are oriented to the camp rules. Along with the obvious ones, we engage in conversation about what it means to build a community in which all members know they deserve to be here, belong here. This value is celebrated in moments of fun, such as creating posters for the URJ Camp Newman Pride Parade. It is evident in the diversity of staff and campers. For the first time ever, the head song leader is a trans Jew of Color. It is enacted in challenging moments such as determining logical consequences for a camper who says hurtful things to a peer. And it is part of our moments of Jewish learning, when we wrestle with texts and traditions, such as 9- and 10-year-old campers studying Torah from a feminist perspective.
In the Master of Educational Leadership program in HUC’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, we continuously explore what it means to lead with intentionality, to create learning spaces and design learning experiences that are intentionally grounded in values. Here at Camp Newman, campers and staff are recipients of this values driven mindset and co-partners in bringing it to life.
July 3, 2023
I feel so lucky to spend two weeks of my summer as faculty at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI). While at camp I’m embedded with a unit where I work with our song leader to prepare and then help to lead t’fillah twice a day, I work with madrichim to prepare and to facilitate limmud and help to incorporate Jewish themes that are explored by campers throughout the day. I eat my meals with the unit, visit their intensives like science, cooking, aquatics, musical theater and sports and help with b mitzvah tutoring. I work closely with the unit head, supporting them throughout the day and reminding them to drink water.
But what I’m really here to do is listen and reflect. I love speaking with campers and counselors alike about their lives and to help them make connections, whether about how to make Minecraft Jewish or suggestions for study abroad programs. We discuss why we face East when we pray and how incredibly kind older campers are to younger ones. We work through difficult parts of the day and help campers and counselors problem solve, so that each individual is growing into their best selves.
I was one of those counselors once that loved to plan meaningful programming and a faculty member saw that spark in me. They suggested I attend an Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) Annual Gathering as an intern and it was there that I learned all about HUC. I went on to study and received my Joint Masters in Jewish Education and Jewish Non-profit Management from HUC-JIR in 2009. As part of my role as Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, IL, I have the privilege of coming back to camp summer after summer as faculty and God-willing continue the cycle, one Jewish Minecraft conversation at a time.
Laura Siegel Perpinyal ’09, RJE, is Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, IL. She serves on the RECC, The Rabbi Educator Cantor Council, that helps facilitate all of the 50+ faculty at OSRUI each summer. She is also a proud board member of the ARJE. Laura is an alum of our joint Masters in Jewish Education and Jewish Non-profit Management.