I walked into the large meeting tent on the first day of Camp @ the J and was greeted by sea of eager faces. I saw the faces of campers from five years old to fifteen who were excited to start their summer, the faces of high school and college students who were ready for the long and rewarding days ahead of them, and the faces of the young professionals on the leadership team, many holding a position like this for the first time. There were faces from different cultures, races, and religions; faces of individuals with disabilities; and faces of individuals dedicated to making sure every person was included. All of them formed a community at the Mayerson JCC’s Camp @ the J.
What could I offer a group like this?
The campers rotated through a series of different specialist activities over the course of the week. They had nature special, drama special, art special, sports special, Israel special, and music special. As the music specialist at Camp @ the J, I had the opportunity to engage with each age group every day. Though I was having fun playing guitar and singing in the sun each day with the campers and staff, I found myself asking, “How am I serving the people around me? What am I learning from this work? What about this is sacred service?”
At the beginning of summer, I really struggled and felt that I was not achieving the charge of “serving the Jewish community through sacred service.” After reflecting on my work, though, I realized that I was in fact doing just that! I was providing an artistic channel through which the campers and staff could to connect to Judaism. Camp @the J was already an immersive Jewish experience, but I was able to enhance the program and make Judaism more accessible for some.
My whole outlook on this sacred work changed. I was no longer just singing Peter, Paul and Mary by the poolside. I was not simply making up silly dance moves to the camp’s favorite song, “Myrtle the Turtle.” I was fostering relationships between campers and counselors, I was introducing Hebrew language to youngsters, I was breaking down the barriers of embarrassment and reserve and forcing preteens to sing and dance like no one was watching. I was making the Mayerson Jewish Community Center a place that felt like home and a place where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to be exactly who they were. The sacred work started on day one. I just had to unpack it for myself in order to recognize what I was doing.
This article is the culmination of my work in Sacred Service. My colleagues and I are called upon to integrate our classroom learning, fieldwork experiences and personal reflections to best prepare ourselves for the important work we will do in our careers. At times, it may seem like what we do is not very consequential. It is easy to get caught up in the mundane details of day-to-day operations. But when we take the time to reflect on the extent of the impact our service can bring to the community, I would like to think that we all can find holiness in our work.
Zachary Goodman is a rising fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. In the summer of 2016, he served as the music educator fellow at Mayerson JCC’s Camp @ the J.