Tag: Camp Newman URJ

Where to Get the Best Drugs at Camp Newman (and Other Secrets of Summer Camp)

Worried that your kid will come to camp and discover a hidden underground culture of drugs? Don’t.

Why? Because at Camp Newman, the location of the biggest drug stash is a well known secret. In fact, this being California, first day camper orientation includes an explanation of when and how you can get your fix.

Drug Stash Revealed
I’m speaking, of course, about the Mirpa’ah (our infirmary) and its enormous stash of medical drugs (tylenol, advil, etc.). Camp Newman’s Mirpa’ah is staffed with so many medical personnel, who know how to combine the best camp diagnostic tools (usually a thermometer), the most up to date over the counter medication, and ample amounts of TLC (tender loving care) that they can handle at camp a vast majority of the situations which arise. It is comforting to know that at camp my three kids – and Congregation Or Ami’s 45 – are so well taken care of.

When Does Camp Really Begin?
Speaking of my kids, no sooner do they arrive at camp, then the Mirpa’ah countdown begins. How long will it take until a Kipnes/November kid winds up in the Mirpa’ah? Like a chocoholic drawn to a Milky Way bar, my kids are drawn to the Mirpa’ah. In fact, in some ways, camp is truly set in motion once a Kipnes/November kid spends time in the Mirpa’ah. Until then, camp infirmary is like a car right off the assembly line: all the parts are there, it should work, but you just can’t be sure until you put the key in the ignition and shift into drive. Our kids, it seems, are the keys to the ignition of Camp Newman’s Mirpa’ah.

Every summer, without fail, we get a message that one of our three kids has entered the infirmary. One year, Daniel sliced the top off his toe (now camp is strict about the “no open toes shoes” policy). Another year saw Noah quarantined as part of “Swine ’09,” the swine flu outbreak that required camps to separate out for seven days any kid with a fever. We have had everything from ingrown toenails and blisters to allergies and pneumonia.

How Do You Score a Private Room at Camp?
Camp is all about sharing a bunk with 7-10 other kids of the same age. Friendships are formed that last a lifetime. Sometime, though, a guy just needs a break from all the camaraderie. So how does one score a private room at camp?

My son Daniel discovered the answer when he needed to spend his third through eighth days in the Mirpa’ah. With fever and more, he scored room 3 – the “suite” – where he watched movies on the computer and received sympathy from the staff and campers. We like to joke that he also field-tested the Mirpa’ah processes, ensuring that the always fantastic staff were truly on the best game.

Of course, he enjoyed (endured?) the illness experience at camp much more than he would have at home. At home, we pump him full of medication, feed him and of necessity, go about our business. At camp, he got more TLC than even his doting mother could provide.

Where Do Adults Hold Hands at Camp?
When Daniel spiked 103 degrees for the second and third time, this calm camp parent became a bit more agitated and anxious. Like all parents, I put my trust in the Mirpa’ah staff. I needed some serious handholding, and the infirmary staff were just the people to do it.

Daniel was treated hourly or more by an excellent infirmary staff, headed by two doctors, PhD-toting Nurses, and many other degree-toting medical professionals. They worked around the clock diagnosing, medicating, feeding, and cleaning up. In addition, they took and recorded his temperature hourly, and treated my boy as if he were their only concern. Just as they do by phone with parents of other sick campers, they kept me informed of his progress and our options for treatment.

These incredible medical professional are up early, dealing with everything from overnight illness to bed-wetting little boys to enormous amounts of morning medications. They work late, awaiting the inevitable moment when the camp shuts down for the night so they can sleep. Still, rarely a night goes by without the “on call” nurse being awoken to deal with a camper with some issue.

So Daniel was released from the Mirpa’ah when he was fever-free (and other symptom-free) for 24 hours. He is healthy, happy and fully functional. Of course, the next unfortunate patient moved into his (deeply cleaned) medical “suite.” And the cycle of illness and healing continues.

Who Are these Incredible Volunteer Nurses and Doctors?
All of the medical staff are volunteers, most taking their own vacation time to volunteer at camp. Their compassion and care has no limits. It takes a whole village to care for a kid. At camp, that includes counselors, rashim (unit heads), program and support staff, kitchen crew and maintenance staff. They all deserve our appreciation and thanks for making the summers great for our kids.

But don’t forget to thank the medical staff. The unsung heroes of the summer camp, celebrate most when everything is quiet (though superstition prohibits them for saying aloud that everything seems “quiet”).

And so this summer, for these first two weeks, I thank our medical staff:

  • Roberta Bavin PNP DNP
  • Tanya Buynevich RN
  • Deepika Goyal PhD FNP
  • Diana Sherman PNP
  • Juliana Stewart RN
  • Dr. Greg Hirsch
  • Dr. Lona Larsh
  • Dr. Karon Seal
  • Dr. Joey Robinow
  • And Alisa Robinow, MOM (extraordinaire)

Thank you for caring for my kid. Thank you for holding my hand. Thank you for ensuring that we parents can send our kids off to camp without having to worry about their health and safety.

Postscript: How Does Camp Deal with Sibling Rivalry?
A few days after Daniel was released from the Mirpa’ah, his younger brother Noah hobbled in with a smashed toenail. Swearing it was an accident (and with plenty of witnesses to testify to this), Noah’s injury nonetheless set off a wild discussion about whether he was just hoping to “one up” his older brother. The verdict is still out on that one.

Finally, if you had to get sick at camp

A Teen with Asperger’s Tells Her Story to Her Peers

On the TV show Parenthood, teenager Max has Asperger’s Syndrome. While running for student body president, Max tells his classmates about his Asperger’s. The episode is riveting television, but not quite as poignant as when one of our Congregation Or Ami teens stepped up before her peers and shared her own Asperger’s story.

It all began when one of our teens and her mother watched the Parenthood episode. It inspired her to contact their rabbis to suggest that our teen tell her fellow teens about how her Asperger’s affects her. Since at Congregation Or Ami we start at “yes” – especially with regards to full accessibility for individuals and families with special needs – we moved quickly to scheduling a date for her presentation to her peers.

Our teen worked with her parents to compose a paragraph about her strengths and challenges she wanted to share with the group. To make it most comfortable for our teen, one of our rabbis was present to support her when she was speaking.

Jewish Teenager with Asperger’s Shares Her Story with Her Temple Peers

Our teen said:

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a part of me. I might think differently than you do. My brain is kind of like a MAC and everyone else is PC. I just do things a little differently. My brain functions a different way than yours does. It’s not wrong or bad to have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s just another way of thinking and being. 1 out of 88 people is on the autism spectrum. This is a recent number. Chances are you, or your mom, dad, sibling, grandparents, whichever, may know someone who works with, is friends with, or goes to school with someone on the autism spectrum. Scientists are still not sure what causes Asperger’s Syndrome. They have been working since the 1930’s to discover what it is and what causes it. 

There are people who have been suspected to have some form of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. 

  • Temple Grandin is an American doctor of animal science.
  • Bill Gates is the creator of Microsoft and is one of the richest men in the world.
  • Albert Einstein was a German/American theoretical physicist.
  • Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. 

My Strengths:

  • Artist
  • Ambitious
  • Honest
  • Loyal
  • Loves Animals, and
  • Loves Reading

My Struggles

  • I can take things out of context.
  • I may say things that might seem rude, but I don’t mean it.
  • It’s hard for me to make eye contact and make friends.
  • If it seems like I walk away sometimes, I just need a little break.

What can you do?

  • Understand that I struggle with social interaction and try to understand what I am going through.
  • Accept everyone as unique and valuable.
  • Talk to kids who seem shy. Include them.
  • Stand up for kids that are being bullied.
  • Don’t be reluctant to give friendship advice, but be kind about it.

Our teen answered some questions and the session continued with the scheduled session plan. But like the fictional Max from tv’s Parenthood, our real-life teen inspired her peers and taught us all about strength, grace and courage.

On Judaism and Accessibility

Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA has long been committed to accessibility for individuals with special needs and their families. We have a webpage emphasizing our accessibility to Jews with Disabilities. Our Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Fund helps us integrate people with special needs and their families into all aspects of our congregation. We are also the synagogue for Chaverim, a program of Jewish Family Service, for developmentally disabled adults, age 18 to 88. I blog regularly about the intersection of Judaism and Jews with Disabilities.

Our national Reform Jewish movement – especially the Union for Reform Judaism – has a long history of working for full inclusion and openness for people with disabilities and special needs.

URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA has a dedicated Nefesh team comprised of psychologists, therapists and social workers who are at camp all summer. The Nefesh team helps the counselors and roshim (unit heads) integrate and support all children with unique situations (including emotional, physical, psycho-social and other “special needs”). Read about Ethan’s experience at Camp Newman.

Ethan Goes to Camp Newman: Mainstreaming Kids with Special Needs at Jewish Summer Camp

Meet Ethan through the eyes of his Mom:

Since his diagnosis of autism at age 2, we have worked hard to “mainstream” our son Ethan into everyday activities, schools, sports teams and social situations. At times it has been a struggle for him and for us wanting him to be a normal kid. With a lot of hard work on his part, as well as with the help of a team of behaviorists, speech therapists and a lot of supportive friends and family members, Ethan has blossomed into friendly, outgoing, and independent almost 13-year old.

With his Bar Mitzvah service less than 6 months away, it seemed almost natural for him experience sleepover camp. Thankfully, and with the blessing of our Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Erin Mason (Associate Camp Director at Camp Newman), this experience became a reality for him (and us) this past summer, as he spent two weeks at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA.

Kvell with Ethan’s Mom about Ethan’s fantastic experience at URJ Camp Newman:

August 2012

Dear Camp Newman,

My son, Ethan Epstein, was a camper in the first session of the summer at Camp Newman in the Tzofim eidah (unit). You probably remember that we spoke in the spring about his enrollment this summer, as Ethan has special needs that may have been a concern. My husband and I felt that he was more than ready to attend overnight camp and were thrilled with the opportunity for him to attend with his friends from our congregation as well as with Congregation Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipnes and his family.

Needless to say, the experience was more than we ever imagined. From the minute we arrived at the airport (he flew with the camp delegation from Burbank) to the minute he stepped off the plane on his return, the entire experience was a HUGE success! Ethan loved every minute that he was there, and has already informed us that he is planning to attend for a MONTH next year!!!

I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without letting you know how much I thank you and your wonderful staff at Camp Newman. While it is always our hope to integrate Ethan into mainstream situations, we are aware that sometimes certain accommodations need to be made, and we thank you for that. Our goal was for him to make new friends, gain independence, and mature in a loving and spiritual environment, and he achieved (and surpassed) all of these.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for a wonderful and successful overnight camp experience. We look forward to next summer at Camp Newman!

Shalom, Ethan’s Parents

Reform Judaism – especially the Union for Reform Judaism – has a long history of working for full inclusion and openness for people with disabilities and special needs.  

Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA has long been committed to accessibility for individuals with special needs and their families. Our Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Fund helps us integrate people with special needs and their families into all aspects of our congregation. We are also the synagogue for  Chaverim, a program of Jewish Family Service, for developmentally disabled adults, age 18 to 88.

URJ Camp Newman has a dedicated Nefesh team comprised of psychologists, therapists and social workers who are at camp all summer. The Nefesh team helps the counselors and roshim (unit heads) integrate and support all children with unique situations (including emotional, physical, psycho-social and other “special needs”).

God Told Moses to Sing a Song, and We Keep Following His Lead: Dispatch from Camp Newman

Josh Friedman sings along with Dan Nichols
Sitting Camp Newman’s Beit Tefilah (camp’s outdoor sanctuary), as singer/songwriter Dan Nichols concertizes with 600 young people, I realized yet again the power of a simple idea: that a song has a better chance of transmitting and preserving significant values than most speeches or sermons do.  Dan Nichols, Congregation Or Ami’s Cantor Doug Cotler, even my Bar Mitzvah student’s Torah portion all testify to this truth. 

Torah Reveals the Power of a Song
Eric Moraly and I sat in the Chadar Ochel (dining hall) after lunch, working on his Bar Mitzvah d’var Torah (speech).  [Eric is one of the 34 members of our Congregation Or Ami delegation to Camp Newman.] We read the translation of his parasha, stopping along the way to elucidate challenging words and ideas. A bright young man, Eric articulately summarized and interpreted his section: God knew that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they would begin to follow false gods and forget Torah. So God instructed Moses to write a song – called Ha’azinu – which would remind the people of important Jewish values.

What a concept from Torah: the power of the song.

At Camp Newman, Music Sets the Stage for Everything Else
At Camp Newman, music sets the stage for and permeates everything. We sing at mifkad (morning exercizes), before and after we eat, in the middle of the day, and when it ends. Jewish songs mix with contemporary music which are combined with prayers and eidah (session) songs. It’s as if when we sing, we affirm that we are alive. It is how we express our love of life and it’s blessings.

At the Dan Nichols concert, 600 kids shined with inspired energy. It could have been a concert of any teen idol, except that our kids were jumping around to Jewish songs about tikun olam (fixing the world), tzedek (justice), Israel, and emunah (faith).

Come Quick… It’s Josh
Early in the concert, one of my kids ran up shrieking, “Come quick, it’s Josh!” As I ran down the steps, I caught a glimpse of our congregant Josh Friedman standing up on stage, right next to Dan Nichols. Apparently Dan invited Josh to help lead the community in singing the harmony.

Yup, this 10 1/2 year old kid was “living the dream.” He was up onstage with Dan Nichols – Jewish music idol –  helping him lead a full amphitheater of people in song. It was like being bat boy in the final game of the World Series, pressing the button in Times Square to lower the ball on New Year’s Eve, and starring in your own TV show, all rolled into one. As meaningfully, his bunkmates, rather than being jealous of Josh’s good fortune, joined in to celebrate this moment of simcha (joy). When the highlights of life involve music and singing, we all are that much more inspired!

We Sing Because our Hearts Need It
I thought about our own Congregation Or Ami, whose vision statement declares the centrality of music within its first sentences. Our Cantor Doug Cotler brings original music/lyrics as well as new and traditional Jewish music to our services and celebrations. Doug’s singing invites us into Jewish spirituality; it inspires us, and transforms us. We are regularly inspired to sing even more intensely by the participation regularly of our Or Ami Chorale and our Shabbat Band Jew-bacca.

At Or Ami, we sing because our hearts need it.  We sing because our faith demands it. We sing because we know that music can transmit connection to community and the Holy One, and we desperately desire those connections.

Singing Brings Forth the Best In Us
Like Josh did, like Cantor Doug does, like Dan Nichols is doing, like Moses was instructed to create, music and song so often brings out the best in us – of our values, of our energy and of our joy.  Thanks Camp Newman, Congregation Or Ami and Torah for bringing it all together.

How Camp Newman Influences our Congregation Or Ami

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.

“I Love Being Jewish”, Declare Camp Newman Campers

Dispatch from Camp Newman, Santa Rosa, CA

Early dinner is over (we have two seatings), and I can rest easy having checked in with every one of our younger campers. From a distance, I watched their interactions with other campers and their counselors; I made sure they are eating (everyone seemed to like the spaghetti and bread sticks; some even had full plates for the fresh salad bar). I look for smiles (there are so many). Then a quick hello, a hug for many of them, and a reassuring “Michelle and I are here and look forward to having fun with you.” (We similarly checked in with the Or Ami campers and staff at late dinner. All are well.)

Now I’m sitting here in the Beit Tefilah (outdoor amphitheater) where the whole camp community has gathered for the All Camp Welcome. After a heartfelt welcome by Camp Director Ruben Arquilevitch, each set of rashim (unit heads) introduced themselves and their eidah (unit). The energy was electrifying as campers broke out into cheering and dancing.

The directors countdown how long everyone has been at camp. They elicit special cheering as the first year campers rise up and are welcomed. As they call out from second summer campers up past ten summers and more, my wife Michelle and I quickly count up our years at Camp. Michelle counts 30 summers at Camp Newman (and its predecessor Camp Swig), which is improbable since she only just turned 34 years old (not really)!

Then, as the energy begins to peak, my ear drums almost burst amidst the cacophony as campers shout out passionately, “I love being Jewish!” It is music to my ears to hear so many young people (and high school and college students) declare the centrality of being Jewish to their lives.

Great summertime experiences.

Yep, that’s what camp is all about: vibrant youthful energy, passionate Jewish experiences, and good, clean fun.

Bruce Springsteen, Dan Nichols and Electrifying Music





Music is like that. Electrifying, exhilarating, intoxicating. Music can transport us to higher planes of existence. I notice it whenever we go to a concert. Or go dancing. When just sitting in the sanctuary listening to Cantor Cotler when he is in the groove.


Connecting Teens Thru Music
If you want your kids to connect Jewishly, bring them to a Jewish Rock Concert. Watch them interact with their peers, even those they don’t know, as the music transforms them and transports them.


Watch Dan Nichols singing Redemption.]

A Mosh Pit in the Sanctuary
So we invite you to connect or reconnect your kid to Judaism and Or Ami in a uniquely energetic way. Bring them (yes, you should attend but like me will sit toward the back and sides, while the kids are in a mosh pit in the center of the sanctuary). The concert is appropriate for all ages, but every 6th-12th grader should be at or Ami for that 1+ hour experience. Adults should come too.

Tickets are only $10.00 ahead of time (reserve yours online here) or $15.00 at the door. Seats will sell out, so reserve yours now. Reserve your tickets here.

Music speaks louder than words. Make sure your kids and their friends are at Or Ami for this Jewish Rock Concert. 

How do we Connect, Inspire, and Engage Kids: What We’ve Learned from Camp

Counting the days until the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial convention outside of Washington DC became that much more exciting
after a planning session with some colleagues.  Gathering together by telephone from all across the US, we –
three camp directors, three rabbis, and one talented URJ specialist – put our
heads together to plan a biennial session on the “magic of camp.” (I am a URJ Camp alum, parent of 3 campers, and Camp Newman Rabbinic Faculty dean each summer – here’s my Camp blog.)  Who would
have thought that just the planning process alone would illuminate why we all love
URJ Jewish summer camping so much.

Our initial plan incorporated a series of seven minutes
frontal presentations, mixing the reflections of the camp rabbis with the
insights of a collection of talented camp directors. Reserve some time for Q
& A, and the session would quickly be over.  Our planning session could have ended then and there. 
That is, until Ruben Arquilevich, Director of Northern
California’s URJ Camp Newman challenged us to fashion our program session in
the image of what happens effortlessly at camp. With that one comment, the
ideas started flying.  How do we
craft a presentation session for the biennial that captures and shares the
“magic” of camp?
Any camp staffer knows that what might appear to be
effortless fun and recreation at a Jewish summer camp is actually quite
intentional, as camp staff work diligently (and late into the night) to create
strong interpersonal relationships and communities of meaning.  
Ruben’s piercing comment got us all thinking, and in
minutes, the program transformed: Let’s begin with some music; singing is
camp’s spiritual glue. How about adding in some personal stories of how camp
has transformed the life of one former camper, now camp parent/camp rabbi!  Oh, let’s gather participants with like-minded
people – former campers together, congregational leadership wondering how to
invigorate their camp delegations, people who don’t know what Jewish camping is
about, camp leaders/staff – and have them talk about something in small
groups.  After all, camp is all
about meeting new people and making new friends.
Oh, burning questions. Invite people to share their burning
questions with the group by means of old-fashioned poster board technology.
Then the camp directors can respond to real questions and concerns, raised by
real people to ensure that everyone walks away with better understandings of the
strategies and tools used at camp to connect, inspire, and engage kids in
Jewish life and learning.  To set
the mood, we can throw into the background some pictures, quotes and
mini-videos from summer camp 2011. How about ending with a big friendship
circle, singing Hashkiveinu, like
most camps end each day?  
In just an hour, our draft plan for serial frontal
presentations transformed into a musical, experiential, informational, and
technological camp-like program. 
And we on the call were reinvigorated by an energetic camp programming
process to recreate camp for biennial participants.  I cannot wait for URJ Biennial to start!
So don’t miss our session – How do we Connect, Inspire, and Engage Kids: What We’ve Learned from
Camp
– on Thursday, December 15, 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM (during Learning
sessions Block C).  Once you sign
up, help us focus our program even more. 
Go to our session page on the URJ Biennial website and leave a comment
on why you chose to attend this session
and/or what burning questions do you bring to it
.  We will use your responses to better prepare an engaging
session.  
We – Camp Newman Camp Director Ruben Arquilevich, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Greene Family Camp Asst. Director Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Camp Harlam Director Aaron Selkow, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, and URJ Associate Director of Camping Lisa David – look forward to seeing you there. 

If You Had to Get Sick at Camp…

No one should end up in the infirmary during a summer at camp. Or God forbid, in the hospital. Summer is about freedom from all the cares in the world. But it occasionally it happens. And when it does, during an emergency, that’s when you can truly take measure of the place you send your children and your friends.

I have concluded a two-week stint at the URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA. During those two weeks, we twice encountered medical situations, which allowed us to peer into the inner workings of our Mirpa’ah (Hebrew for infirmary). First, my little one got a fever (he’s fine now) and spent a few nights in the mirpa’ah. (He’s fine now.) Then, we had a late night experience, as the ambulance came to take an adult to the hospital. (He’s fine too.)

In both cases, we were treated to the professionalism of our Mirpa’ah doctors and nurses. They were clear headed, nurturing and compassionate, and appropriately strict. They balanced the medical and emotional needs of the individual with the safety of the camp as a whole. They are imitatio dei (imitators of God) as they work as rofei hacholim, healers of the sick.

My wife and I have now left Camp Newman, and therefore left our three precious children for the balance of the summer. Nonetheless, we shall sleep soundly, knowing that God-forbid something happens that affects their health, the camp is prepared, tried and tested, to respond with compassion and medical excellence.

So we send a hearty todah rabbah (thank you) and mazel tov (congratulations) to the first two week’s Mirpa’ah nurses and staff – Roberta, Lori, Lisa, Deepika, Roberta, Alyssa – and to the our Doctors – Greg, Steve, Mack and Joey. (My apologies if I missed someone.) I will sleep very well tonight knowing you are there with my children.

Top 9 Benefits of Taking Jewish Teens To A Pride Parade

Today at the San Francisco Pride Parade, we couldn’t have been more proud!

42 teens from the URJ Camp Newman‘s Avodah session ventured into San Francisco to walk and celebrate. Adorned in their purple camp t-shirts, and led ably by Avodah Director Aaron Bandler (a future rabbi??), our 16-year olds danced Israeli folk dances up Market Street. As they carried a tye-dyed chuppah complete with glass to break, they exhibited additional pride as they marched on the heels of the New York State vote to legalize marriage equality.

We went to San Francisco to live out the values of Torah:

  • B’tzelem Elohim – that we all are created in God’s image (Gen. 1)
  • K’shoshim T’hiyu – that we are all holy (Lev. 19)
  • Ahavat HaGer – love the stranger (36 times in the Torah).

Wonder why we brought our teens to the Pride Parade?  
Because participation in the Pride Parade…

  1. Instills pride in themselves no matter what their differences.
  2. Offers chance to be boisterously joyful in public about being Jewish.
  3. For teens who are questioning their own sexual orientation, it makes them feel safer and more accepted, a major goal of NFTY’s GLBTQ Teen Inclusion priorities.
  4. Learn about and live out longstanding Reform Jewish positions on marriage equality and gay rights.
  5. Teaches them how to stand up for something significant.
  6. Bonds them together as a group.
  7. Provides a chance to meet lots of different people of all sorts of shaped and sizes and color and religions.
  8. Allows them to really let go and have unrestrained fun and joy in a safe and sober way in a public place.
  9. Gives the opportunity to wear their sillier clothes including green fishnet stockings, pink tutus and Mardi Gras beads.

Finally, as the real life follow up to the previous evening’s program on self-acceptance, this experience allowed each teen the opportunity to verbalized to themselves and out loud to their community, “I’m proud to be me.”

This blogpost was cowritten on the bus back to Camp Newman by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Camp Newman Faculty Dean & Rabbi, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA; Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, URJ Director of Teen Engagement; Michelle November, Associate Director of Admissions, New Community Jewish High School, West Hills, CA; Alissa Robinow, Youth Advisor, Congregation Rodef Shalom, San Rafael, CA; Aaron Bandler, Camp Newman Avodah Director.



“OMG WTF”, said the Rabbi to the Campers

We gathered together, a dozen Jewish tenth graders and me, their camp rabbi, for discussions about God.  I sat them down and, figuring we were about to share some deep thoughts, I invited them to introduce themselves by explaining why they chose this group. Some didn’t believe but wanted to find a way to believe. Others wanted to know why bad things happen. One teen was just looking for a place to talk about the really important issues of religion.

I looked around the circle, smiled at them, and said (in my best “Valley Grrl” impression), “OMG WTF!”

They laughed.

To those well versed in the shorthand of texting, OMG WTF usally means “Oh My God, What the &@#%!”  Few expected such language from the mouth of their rabbi.

Of course, I explained that I meant, “Oh My God, Where’s The Faith?”

We all live in a gorgeous world of wonder and possibility, but so few of us talk about holiness, or spirituality or God. So I asked, “Where’s the Faith”?

It is right here at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where a dozen teens are sitting together sharing their deeply held ideas and questions about faith, belief, disbelief and about God. Here at Camp Newman we take on the most challenging topics, which for teens seems to include intense questions about God’s existence.

So I invited them to pick one of four ideas, which most closely resembled their ideas:

  1. I believe in God OR I know God exists
  2. I’m not sure I believe in God but I lean toward probably.
  3. I’m not sure I believe in God and I lean toward not
  4. I don’t believe in God or I know God doesn’t exist.

Then we challenged each other to collectively determine the top three reasons they picked this idea.

Then we talked. Choosing among these four arbitrary choices forced participants to examine their beliefs and articulate to others their reasons why. With ground rules that honored the multitude of opinions about God, we engaged in an energetic exchange. My role was merely to ask questions, to help them clarify their ideas, and to identify where their opinions paralleled significant Jewish philosophers. Thus we found teens speaking the thoughts of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Baal Shem Tov, Spinoza, and the theologies of monism, panentheism, and Kabbalah to name a few.

Informed by the faith development work of Professor James Fowler, I patiently allowed for the agnostic and sometimes atheistic thoughts of the campers. While hewing very closely to the Principles of Reform Judaism which presuppose One God yet allow for a multiplicity of ways of describing and connecting to that One God, we invited challenge and response.

I must say that these discussions are amongst the most enjoyable that I have had up here at camp this summer. Serious kids talking about serious topics. Deeply personal one minute; hysterically laughing at a joke the next. Although God is a topic like sex, drugs and death which make many parents feel squeamish, here at Camp Newman it is just one of the topics that permeate this sacred space we call Camp Newman.

In fact, one colleague reported that immediately after she finished plunging a toilet in one of the camper cabins, the staff members said “thank you” and then peppered her with questions about God.

OMG WTF.  It seems like God is part of the conversation at so many different times: when things are good, when we are worried, and when the #$@& begins to flow.

Joy, Freedom and Blessing in Abundance at Camp Newman

Simcha – Joy 
Judaism, according to one accounting, has at least 15 different words to describe joy.  From rina (meaning joyous song) to simcha (meaning pure joy), Jewish living is supposed to be an expression of joyous living.  I have learned over the course of the years that while simcha (joy) is possible even during the darkest of times, it often takes purposeful openness to allow joy to permeate your life. 

That’s one of the reasons I love going to summer camp.  At camp, more than almost anywhere else in the world, people allow joy to permeate every corner and every moment of every day.

Walk with me around URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, and we will notice more smiles and hear more laughter than is usual amongst any group of teens at school or at home. Hugs of joy are a regular feature of their interactions; expressions of love and caring abound. 

I once asked a staff member why people seem so happy. He thought for a minute and responded, “Here at camp we are free. Free from pressures. Free from judgment. Free to be who we really are.”

Chofesh – Freedom
Campers the world over look forward to that block during the day when they can do what they choose for as long as they choose. In most camps, staff members are spread throughout certain areas, giving campers free access to activities ranging from basketball and skateboarding to arts ‘n crafts and just hanging out in the sun. At Camp Newman, where my wife and I are chaperoning a delegation of 39 Jewish campers, this period is called chofesh, after the Hebrew word meaning break or freedom.

Wandering around Camp between my assigned responsibilities as Rosh Faculty (faculty dean), I have come to think that the word chofesh designates more than that specific hour or so of free time.  It seems to describe the central characteristic of the feeling that envelopes each camper and staff member.  In fact, chofesh may characterize the entire Jewish summer camping experience. How so?

Bracha – Blessing
I asked a group of Camp Newman campers to describe the blessings that camp brings into their lives.  They responded:

  • I’m happy.
  • I’m able to be who I really am.
  • No one is judging me.
  • I can make new friends so easily here.
  • Judaism is so alive and joyful.
  • There’s so much love.
  • I’m at home, more than when I am back home. 

Heartwarming words from wonderful kids.

Joy, Freedom and Blessing
The last thing Senior Camp Director Ruben Arquilevich reminds his staff before the first parents arrive is to smile. Through a silly “Show off your Best Smile” contest that he hosts, Ruben inculcates within his staff a simple message: With your smile, you let your joy shine through. So revel in the freedom that camp brings to you and to our campers. Its a bracha, a holy blessing. Enjoy it, cherish it, share it.

I would love to tell you more about Camp Newman, but that will need to await another blogpost. For now, I just want to wander around and revel in the blessing of joyful freedom.