Congregation Or Ami, our Reform synagogue in Calabasas, CA, receives high marks from our congregants and guests alike for the warmth of our community, the creativity of our learning, the depth of our Jewish spirituality, and the intensity of our musicality. As one of the rabbis at Or Ami, I am often asked what is the secret to our success? I’ll point to our amazing Cantor Doug Cotler, the warmth of our Henaynu caring community, and our extensive social action efforts.
As significant – yet less well-known as an influence – are the weeks I spend up at Jewish summer camp.
Every summer for the past fourteen years, my wife Michelle and I have chaperoned a delegation of more than 30 young people up to the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA. I serve as on rabbinic faculty, chairing the West Coast Rabbinic Camp committee, while Michelle develops creative alumni programming for the upcoming year.
Something amazing happens at Jewish summer camp
Camp Newman has a lasting influence on ensuring that Or Ami is an innovative, inspiring Jewish community. At Camp, I teach collaboratively with creative rabbis from all over Southern California, and with motivated college students. Fast paced daily schedules demand creativity, innovation and high levels of responsiveness to the Jewish and interpersonal concerns of the participants. Services must be engaging, learning must be meaningful, and the community it’s must be warm and welcoming. Conversations about Jewish identity and Jewish values permeate the community. Teens dialogue regularly about the reality (or not) of God in their lives and ask that services reflect those struggles. Young people feel loved and accepted (no matter what); older youth buddy up with younger campers. Song sessions and Shabbat services are energized and uplifting.
Each summer, I come home from Camp Newman armed with new stories, creative lesson plans, and implicit (and explicit) critiques of synagogue life. Questions raised by campers form the basis of sermons; they ask everything that most of us are too embarrassed to ask. The unconditional love and acceptance becomes the impetus for inclusivisity at temple for special needs kids, interfaith families, multiracial and multiethnic families, LGBT individuals and families.
Why is Or Ami so successful as a congregation?
For many reasons, including and especially because Camp Newman continues to rejuvenate and inspire me, Or Ami’s rabbi. Yes, I believe that all of us – Jewish professionals working in synagogues and Jewish organizations – are better and more effective because camp models creative Jewish living.