What I Learned at Summer Camp about Being a Rabbi

For twelve straight summers, first as a camper and subsequently four years as a counselor, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin was my home away from home. Summers spent at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, a Union for Reform Judaism overnight camp, offered me everything that any other summer camp has to offer. However, the wealth of Judaism that is embedded within the culture of camp had a profound impact on me as a Jewish youth—so much so, that I attribute my desire to become a Reform Rabbi in large part to my experiences at Jewish overnight camp. Thus, when I was informed that I would serve as a TJF Summer Fellow by working at the Mayerson JCC’s Camp at the J, I was enthusiastic for the experience ahead.

In the first half of my fellowship, prior to the start of camp, my responsibility was to develop ways in which aspects of Jewish culture could become an integral part of the daily schedule at camp over the summer. But there was one major hitch: a significant proportion of the campers and staff members were themselves not Jewish. This is not unusual for a JCC, which often serves the general community as well as the Jewish community. In order be successful, I needed to creatively introduce the camp community to aspects of Judaism in an inclusive manner.

I realized that deciding upon the best means of introducing Jewish culture to any individual or community is a common responsibility for rabbis, so it seemed fitting for me to be faced with such a matter as a rabbinical student at my fellowship placement. The approach I took as Jewish Culture Coordinator of Camp at the J focused primarily on presenting Jewish culture in a universal manner. I designated a specific middah (Jewish value) for each week at camp. Often, the week’s Jewish value corresponded with Themed Day Thursday of that week. For example, one week the value was tzedek v’chesed (justice and kindness). During that week, the value’s message was exemplified on Superhero Thursday, when everyone dressed as his or her favorite superhero; Superhero Thursday illustrated to campers that, similar to superheroes fighting for justice and kindness, we too must be kind and just in our actions. Middot (Jewish values) are one component of Jewish culture that can be universal in nature, as opposed to Jewish ritual observances, for example.

I considered how I could integrate additional pieces of Judaism to camp while making the entry point for campers accessible. I decided to integrate the use of Hebrew into Camp at the J, as well as develop a special schedule for Friday of each week. Hebrew was something exciting and new that the campers could learn, special words that had meaning in the context of camp. The modest goal behind developing a special Friday schedule was for campers to experience camp differently on Fridays than they did the rest of the week. Each Friday concluded with campers and staff gathering inside the air conditioned building of the JCC, after spending the majority of their day in the hot sun, to celebrate Shabbat to come and mark the end of another week of camp. Although Shabbat is a distinctively Jewish concept, we emphasized it as a day of rest, a time to spend with family and friends, and an opportunity to take some time for oneself. The particular notion of Shabbat addresses universal human needs. Overall, Fridays at camp allowed campers and staff to experience a sense of Shabbat by engaging in special Shabbat activities planned by staff members that gave a unique flavor to Friday afternoons.

As I reflect upon the overarching goal of the summer Foundation Fellowship placement, which strives to demonstrate a model Jewish community for rabbinical students, I believe my placement working at Camp at the J did just that. The diverse demographic of the community members at camp this summer offered me an accurate portrayal of many liberal Jewish communities in America today. As a Reform Rabbi, it is inevitable that in whichever capacity I serve, the members of that community will be diverse. On the surface, my experience as a TJF Fellow working at the JCC this summer helped provide for me an example of how to present Jewish culture in a more universal manner. However, a deeper reflection of what I have learned from my experience this summer has left me with a greater understanding of one particular role as a rabbi I will be obliged to fulfill. That is to say the rabbi, regardless of the makeup of the community, must determine the best possible means of introducing Jewish culture with the interest of their community members in mind.

Simon Stratford served as a TJF Fellow this past summer as the Mayerson JCC’s Jewish Culture Coordinator of Camp at The J. Meet all of this year’s fellows by clicking here.

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