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Open Letter to Camp Newman Teens, Staff and Alumni from Rabbi Paul

Dear Camp Newman teens, staff, and alumni:

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and his wife Michelle November on Shabbat at Camp Newman

Its 3:00 am and I can’t sleep. Can we talk?

It’s Rabbi Paul (Kipnes). I’m one of the Camp Newman rabbis. I hope you will take the time to read about our shared questions and struggles and some of my (simultaneously helpful and inadequate) answers. And maybe share them with your friends and with your parents too. And maybe let me know what other helpful answers you have found.

[Many of my answers and prayers are found through links that won’t show up on Facebook or Instagram. Would you switch over to my blog and keep reading this letter? Find it at paulkipnes.com/letter-camp-newman-teens-staff ]

You are my Camp Newman family and I share with you with a deep love for Camp Newman, that place where “Camp is life, the rest is just details.” Where for a few weeks each summer, I can shed the pressures, awkwardness and discomfort of life out there, to find unlimited openness, radical acceptance and almost indescribably awesome spirituality in there.

Like you, my internal clock is perpetually set to camp time, with a special countdown clock to next summer that begins the moment we leave the front gate.

Although each of us grieves differently as we hold unique though overlapping experiences from summers of magic and Jewish spirituality at Newman, most of us are hurting from the destruction of our cabins, our chadar (ochel), the Beit T’filah and BK, those other special locations that bring us peace… We feel heavy pain at the burning down of our safe and happy place. Like you, I am so saddened for the loss of the home that was so formative for my children, my wife, myself.

Do you feel shaken like me?

We say: I am a better “me” at Camp Newman. I can make it through the year when I know camp is there come summertime and sometimes mid-year.

So we ask: How can I be the “better me” without camp? How will I ever get through?

We say: I feel thrown around by the intense destruction and pain I have seen in just these past few months. We have watched (just to name a few) hurricanes devastate Texas, Florida, and especially Puerto Rico. We have witnessed the murder of innocent concert goers from gunfire hailing down from on high in Las Vegas. An earthquake in Mexico.

And yea, also brutal racism in our cities. Sexual harassment and abuse in the business world. Hatred and violence directed at trans and queer people. And for many (but not all), the struggle to find meaning in a world that has resulted in what one of you called the “incomprehensible ugliness and incompetent lack of leadership in our nation’s capitol and at the head of our government.”

We ask: Why does this keep happening? How can there be a God if all this happens?

We ask: Where can I find the strength to get through?

And we ask: Why bother doing anything or being good when it all can randomly be taken from us overnight in a fire, flood or hail of bullets?

We adults are supposed to have the answers, right?

I am a rabbi. I am an adult. And yet, I too feel so humbled by these huge questions that we are asking. Like many of you I turn to texting, video chatting and social media for connection with Camp friends to grieve and try to make sense of it all. And through it all I’ve been talking – yelling at – God. Luckily, our God can hold onto my anger and hurt and still be there for me.

What answers am I finding?

I’m about to ask you to think deeply, open yourself to vulnerability, read some long answers, pray some uplifting prayers, and sing a camp song. With me. Finding real answers is hard work. I hope you will do it with me. [Can you switch over to see the links on my blog at paulkipnes.com/letteer-camp-newman-teens-staff.]

About God and the pain in our world,

I am struggling, but I am learning this:

After a 49-year old mother died days after her daughter became Bat Mitzvah (and weeks after hurricanes and earthquake), I had it out with God. Here’s what I learned about human responsibility for many of the world’s issues and God’s continual but frustrated love for us. Will you read about that time I had it out with God?

After 3 tragic deaths and a hurricane in Haiti years ago, I sat with God in a cemetery. I asked, “Why do the good die young?” God talked about free will, unintended consequences of Creation, and how God sheds tears during such painful moments. Will you read my conversation with God?

About finding strength when I’m so saddened or get depressed,

I am trying to remember:

That we Jews have learned resilience from the history of our people. We have always risen out of the ashes, clinging to our kehillah kedosha (holy community) and each other, holding onto tikva (hope), and remaining unswervingly committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world) for others and ourselves. We Jews reject the easy impulse to give up to despair, to give in to hopelessness, to quit. We refuse to become deadened by the pain we see (even when it threatens to debilitate us). We bring Hope into our lives and ask (demand!) she take up residence in our hearts and minds. Sometimes I find prayer helps me get through.

Like after the Las Vegas shootings, we pray Kaddish, we refuse to move on, and then we commit to taking action. Will you pray this post-shooting Kaddish with me?

And during the fires, we pray especially for the people being harmed, losing homes and facing ongoing danger. Like during those beautiful camp havdalas, we are reminded of the difference between kodesh and chol (what is holy and everything else). Will you pray this prayer for during fires with me?

And then will you sing with Dan Nichols to Be Strong?

About helping others even while I’m in pain,

I am pushing myself:

I’m trying to balance my own pain with the pain felt by other people, especially in the areas surrounding camp who have lost so much – homes, keepsakes, computers and more; things that won’t easily be replaced. And I’m trying to remember that beyond the camp walls so much repair needs to happen – for Puerto Rico, Houston, and Mexico City, and against the rampant racism and the trans hatred, within the still boiling conflict between (and in) Israel and Palestine, and so much more. I’ve learned that we can have a breaking heart AND still have love for others. That we are grieving AND we must still act now to help others. Will you explore the sacred power of AND with me by reading this?

When you are worried about yourself or a friend,

I am discovering that we can grieve AND we can go on simultaneously. We can grieve and still do our work and homework. We can grieve and we can still fulfill our responsibilities. We can grieve and we can still be kind to our families and classmates.

But if you find you can’t hold the pain, will you please please reach out to an adult too? A rabbi or teacher or your youth advisor or a school counselor or a parent or a therapist. Many of them have some wisdom for getting through. And they really do care for you too. More than we sometimes realize.

You are created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). That means you are intrinsically valued, uncompromisingly equal, and undeniably blessed. You mean so much to me and us. Please don’t let the grieving destroy you, or the fire will have twice won: burning down camp and burning you up. Reach out to someone. We need you to. Because you are part of our Kehillah kedoshah (here’s Dan again – let’s sing together).

And if you have a camp friend who is burning up dangerously, about whom you are really worried, will you do what we learned at camp? Remembering that good friends don’t keep secrets when friends are seriously in danger or in pain, we turn to a trusted adult to get help to help them. Will you do that?

Hashkiveinu, our reminder that we will make it through

The magic of camp lives on our hearts and our memories. As our camp leadership works tirelessly to find temporary alternative places for year round programs, and figures out how to preserve camp time for the summer, please gain strength from the muscle memory of holding camp loved ones close, as the nights approaches, and we sing hashkeveinu, asking God to “shelter us beneath Your wings” and to “guard is from all harmful things” and “keep us safe throughout the night til we wake with morning’s light”. Will you sing the Friday night Hashkiveinu with Dan Nichols, our songleaders (and me )?

We are the light for each other. That’s God’s holy spark shining through each of us.

Please know:
We will get through.
We can support each other.
We must keep repairing the world.
We do turn to other adults to for help.
We will be #campnewmanstrong.

I am proud of you as you struggle through your pain. I cry with you. I hold you in my heart.

And I love you.

Your camp rabbi,

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

3 comments

  1. Kacey Van Zanten says:

    Thank you so much rabbi Paul. I cried so much cause I am grieving and in so much pain from the sadness. This means the world to me. Camp is my third home and it has been destroyed and now it has made me crumble to the ground with sadness. Thank you again with all of these answers.

    • Paul says:

      Hey Kacey, we are all feeling it. So sad. So painful to lose our other home. So many memories feel like they went up in flames. But you know as we all do that the abiding part of camp resides not in a building but in our hearts and souls that are opened and released in the Kehillah Kedoshah of camp. And while we rebuild the buildings, we know that the love, and holiness, and caring and kindness and and and… all continue.
      So cry. That’s okay. Crumble a little too.
      But we got this.
      Together. We will make it through to enjoy another siyyum under the stars in those sacred hills of Santa Rosa.
      I’m here if you need me.
      Rabbi Paul

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