Before we arrived at the URJ Camp Newman for summer camp, my sons told me that I WAS playing in the camp’s Ultimate Frisbee game this summer. No excuses. No made-up last minute meetings to attend. Their dad was to join the staff team in their annual Ultimate Frisbee combat against the CITs (Counselors in Training).
Little known fact: their dad played on the Trinity College (Hartford, CT) Ultimate Frisbee Team for at least half a semester, though I have no recollection of competing in a tournament. More likely, my college roommates, slightly embarrassed that I would be lettering only in Varsity Religion, cajoled me into joining the team with them.
However, Dad’s now 44, the average age of the camp players is 18, and this camp game, a highlight of each week, is intense. Taking place after camp nikayon (cleanup) but before personal nik (“shower for Shabbat”), the game is athletically challenging and exhausting. In days gone by, this game saw its share of sprained ankles and broken bones. So I readily admit that I was a tad ambivalent, or more truthfully, a bit concerned about playing. Would I be able to keep up with all those college kids, including one female Rosh (unit head) Samara who plays varsity Ultimate over at UCLA and can throw down field with precision that amazes? In the back of my mind I had fears of spending the rest of the summer with crutches. (Apparently my wife did too; she made sure the Camp Doctor was around when I took the field.)
Well, I had my 5 minutes of fame on the Ultimate Frisbee field, ratcheting myself up in the eyes of the boys. I did okay too! Still, more significant than any single play I made (or missed), was the fact that I stretched myself to do something new and scary. ‘Cause that’s what we do at camp. And that’s what makes Jewish summer camp so special.
Every summer, a few thousand Jewish kids come to the URJ Camp Newman for a summer of fun, friends, vibrant Judaism and personal growth. The most common refrain from older campers and staff about why they love camp (coming after “making new friends” and “spiritual Shabbat”) is that they grew so much during each summer.
Imagine going away to a place where love is boundless, where every adult is tasked with making sure you feel valued and loved. Imagine being with a group of people who truly believe – as it says in Genesis – that you were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore are special, unique, worthy and valued.
That’s summer camp. No pressure from school assignments, parental smothering and worry. No social pressure. Just acceptance and love.
Kids learn quickly to try new things. This kid, afraid of heights, nonetheless tries to climb the 50 foot tower. She makes it only halfway up, and upon descending, smiles widely and proclaims victory, “Last year I only made it up 1/4 of the way.” That teen, born with two left feet, tries Israeli dancing chug (activity) and finds himself performing before 300 people at the end of the session. Another one sits at a potter’s wheel and creates a beautiful pot, her first ever “successful” artistic creation. Camp removes the judgment from the process, allowing kids to do what we hope they would: spread their wings and try to fly.
So I flew. In fact, that’s me flying in the air, wearing the dark green shirt, in the picture at the top of the page. I made one diving slap at the frisbee, knocking it (we think) out of the way. The other team scored eventually against my line anyway. Didn’t matter. Because Rabbi Paul, facing the fears, played in the Staff-CIT Ultimate Frisbee game. I did it! And though I ended up pretty winded, I showed my boys – and myself – that Camp’s the Ultimate Experience of taking that chance and soaring to new heights.