On Friday night, the Beit Tefillah, Camp Newman’s main amphitheater outdoor sanctuary, is an ever moving sea of white shirts, kippot, and smiles. Hundreds of campers and staff join together for a guitar and saxophone-led singing tribute to holiness and the Holy One.
At one high point in the service at the URJ Camp Newman, the Reform Jewish Movement’s summer camp in Santa Rosa, counselors rise from their benches, stretch their arms out over their campers’ heads, and bless them with Birkat Kohanim, the “priestly benediction”. It is both touching and incredibly symbolic. Touching, because you can see how much these college-age counselors love their campers. Symbolic, because it captures the essence of what being a Jewish summer camp counselor is all about.
Some background: On Shabbat eve in Jewish homes around the world, parents place their hands on the heads of their children and bless them with Birkat Kohanim. Originally recited by Moses’ brother Aaron (on God’s instruction) and the other Kohanim (biblical priests) over the entire Israelite people, Birkat Kohanim became a mystical moment of duchenun, when those claiming to be descendants of the Kohanim would rise up, cover themselves with their tallitot (prayer shawls), and bless the congregation. Today, rabbis and cantors bless babies and bar/bat mitzvah students and wedding couples with the same words of Torah.
Still, when 19 and 20 year old camp counselors bless their campers, you know that this is a moment of transcendent symbolism. With this ritual act, these counselors offer more than words of blessing. They are demonstrating their acceptance of the sacred responsibility of caring for other people’s children.
Sending Your Kid to Summer Camp: Excitement and Worry
Plenty of parents send their kids to camp each summer without thinking twice. But parents approaching that possibility for the first time worry about who will ensure the safety and sanity of their young ones while they are away from home.
During staff week at the URJ Camp Newman, Camp Directors Ruben Arquilevich and Phil Hankin explain the sacred responsibility each counselor and staff member assumes when he or she accepts the responsibility to watch over and care for a parent’s child. The seriousness with which these young counselors approach this obligation astounds me. These counselors are but 18, 19 or 20 years old (supervised by a graduate school-aged Rosh, or unit head) , years away from contemplating the daily responsibility of raising a child of their own. And yet, they set aside their own need to play and be kids to make the camper’s well-being their number one priority.
But – from what I have witnessed here – being a Camp Newman counselor is more than assuming a quasi in loco parentis role. Sure, health and safety takes priority. You should see the seriousness with which they spread out to offer coverage during pool time or patrol the cabin area during shmira (late night coverage). What amazes me is the caring and compassion with which they attend to the campers’ emotional and spiritual needs as well.
Which circles us back to Shabbat eve’s Birkat Kohanim blessing. College kids blessing teenagers and elementary school kids. The spiritual life of the children second only to their physical safety. Holiness embodied as each finds the holiness within and shares it with others. Very cool. Very spiritual. Shabbat shalom.