Tag: Camp Newman URJ

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.

When Nature Becomes the Jewish Text

Up at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, nature itself has become the text from which to teach a whole Torah’s worth of Jewish lessons. Daily, the four hundred plus campers, counselors and Rabbinic faculty study the myriad of religious sources to illuminate the religious truths hidden right before our eyes. Little did I realize when I received my “camp faculty marching orders” from a way too young but exceedingly creative visionary Rosh Eidah (unit head) Aaron Bandler that I would be blessed to witness some truly amazing moments of holiness. 

Lesson #1: Opening the Door to Inspiration
Twice this past week a group of wide-eyed Rishonim campers (8th and 9th graders) and I (camps’ rabbinic dean) braved the 87 degree heat to venture beyond main camp to explore Jewish theology about God’s role in nature. Armed with reusable water bottles and plenty of sunscreen, we made our way, boisterously, up a steep incline. We paused at the water tower mostly to catch our breath. There, we told the folk tale about a man who, searching for something of meaning, travels far and wide seeking inspiration, only to return to discover it right outside his backdoor.  Sitting together, staring out over a stunning view of the far reaches of camp’s spacious back country, the folk tale gave voice to a universal truth. Lost so often with our thumbs on the cellphone keyboard and our hearts caught up in the drama du jour, most of us miss out on the inspiring beauty surrounding us.

Lesson #2: With Eyes Open, Colors and Wonders Abound.
The Baal Shem Tov (“keeper of the Divine name”), founder of chasidism, once commented m’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo, that the whole earth is filled with God’s magnificence, but we humans use our little hands to cover our eyes. Sometimes it only takes but one story to open our eyes from this temporary blindness.  The second leg of our hike, under an uncomfortably hot sun, was noticeably more inspiring. Eyes opened wide to the beauty around us, we noticed more colors, interesting plants, and “cool” rock shapes. Soon talk about cabin drama turned to conversations about how soil erosion can be both beauty and of concern.  Before we realized it, we were being treated to front row seats as a turkey vulture hang glided on the air currents.  So close that we could almost reach out to pet him, the bird gave us city folk a lesson on flight control in the wild.

Lesson 3: Exploring the Relationship between God and Nature
With our hike in nature as the text, our discussion delved into the subtext: What was the connection between God/holiness and nature? As we hiked on, I offered four statements to ponder about God and nature:  

  • That God was mainly just the Creator of nature.
  • That God was in nature.
  • That God was nature (and nature God).
  • That God was really unconnected with nature.

Our next break provided an opportunity for a Four Corners discussion. Campers divided into groups along whichever statement best described their ideas about God and nature and there came up with their three top reasons why that statement spoke to them.  I sprinkled their insights with connections between their ideas and those of famous Jewish thinkers – Israel’s Rav Kook, Baruch Spinoza, early Kabbalists, Reconstructionism’s Mordechai Kaplan – and with philosophical systems ranging from Torah’s creation story, Isaac Luria’s shevirat hakayleem/tikkun olam myth, monism, mysticism, pantheism, and panenthism.  Give 8th and 9th graders an opening, and the conversations become refreshingly intense and deep! 

Lesson 4: Mah Norah HaMakom Hazeh (How Awe-Inspiring is this Place!)
The Torah tells the story (Genesis 28:10ff) of our ancestor Jacob, who lies down on the ground in the middle of nowhere only to awake to find a ladder stretching up to the heavens, with God standing alongside it. After conversing with the Holy One, and gaining unprecedented assurances that God would be with him throughout his life, Jacob declared achen yeish Adonai bamakom hazeh (God surely was in this place) vanochi lo yadati (and I did not know it). Suddenly aware of what always was, Jacob said with amazement Mah norah HaMakom hazeh (how awe-inspiring is this place). Ein zeh kee eem Beit Elohim (it must be God’s temple) v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim (and this is the gateway to heaven!).  Standing above a scenic overlook, we agreed that although we all differed in our theological outlook, we each agreed on one thing: that we were surely standing in a holy place.

Lesson 5: Hitbodedut – Talking to God
Another perfect segue, and an opportunity to talk to the Holy One.

We Jews spend inordinate amounts of time saying prayers yet often the ancient words serve as  incomprehensible conversation stoppers, even to the fluent Hebrew speaker. Someone once compared trying to use the prayerbook language as a means of talking to God with trying to speak with a 21st century American using Shakespeare’s Olde English. Both throw up roadblocks to real conversation.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, recognizing the danger of a disconnect between formal prayer and the soul’s need to speak to the Holy One, encouraged his followers to engage in hitbodedut.  Hitbodedut, often translated as self-seclusion or intentioned walk-talking, refers to unstructured, spontaneous, individualized form of prayer in which one walks around and talks aloud with God. I first encountered hitbodedut when I was instructed to do it during a rabbi’s retreat at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  It moved me so deeply that I knew I had to teach the spiritual practice to others. 

Now imagine fifteen teenagers, usually hobbled with concerns about “what will others think of me?”, walking around in the hills, pouring out their thoughts and feelings to a God some of them weren’t even sure existed!? I encouraged them to suspend their disbelief and let go of their teenage discomfort.

The results were awe-inspiring. One teen spent his time talking to a bush (a la Moses and the burning bush), only to be rewarded with a sense that the bush talked back to him. A madricha (counselor) confessed that while during silent prayer in worship services she rarely says anything of significance, speaking aloud during the hitbodedut exercise forced her to focus her thoughts and open her heart. Others shared a sense of spirituality and a feeling that someone/thing/God was really listening.

Their words took my breath away. Just a the Biblical Jacob discovered, retreating into the wilderness can lead to deeper meaning and inspiration. With nature as our text and Jewish teachings as the subtext, eyes are opened, and lives are transformed.

Final Lesson of the Day: Send Kids to Jewish Summer Camp
That’s why I send my kids to summer camp every summer. And that’s why you will find me at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa every summer, volunteering my time. Because this kind of transformation occurs every summer at Camp Newman.  Sometimes it happens in the cabins. And we see it during a particularly raucous song session on the basketball court. For some, they discover it at the top of the 50 foot climbing tower. I was blessed to witness it firsthand, as one group of campers – 8th and 9th graders of Rishonim – found God also in the middle of nowhere, in the back country of camp. And their words inspire me.

36.5 – What’s Special and Jewish about that Number?

How do you raise kids who understand and value being Jewish? Who have a greater chance of giving you Jewish grandchildren?  And what is special and Jewish about the number 36.5?

Most evidence points to four primary factors:

  • Family affiliates with a synagogue and remains members and involved AFTER the youngest child becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah
  • Children participate in Jewish Youth Groups and study Judaism through High School Confirmation programs
  • Family has a Jewish home, which includes vigorous home celebration of holidays and attendance at services monthly
  • Children attend Jewish summer camps and go on teen Israel programs

Thus Congregation Or Ami kvells (shares its pride) even more that our delegation to the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California rose to 36.5 people. Led by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and his wife Michelle November, our Or Ami delegation gathers primarily in the first sessions at camp, bringing light and energy to the camp community.

This past Shabbat, most of us gathered at the Mosaic (an outdoor hang out area) for what our kids like to refer to as “Torah study.” In fact, the gathering is an Or Ami Shabbat party, where our Or Ami children can share stories, connect with their rabbi, and enjoy the sweetness of Shabbat (in the form of their favorite cookies and candy snacks).

Our youngest participants include Jake Oliner in the 4th-5th grade Bonim session, while the oldest include counselors Rachel Kipnes and Sarah Sherman as well as Rosh Eidah (unit head) and former Mishpacha teacher Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch (known to all as “Fish”). Between bites of cookies and sips of soda, Or Ami participants spoke about their favorite parts of camp:

  • making new friends
  • climbing the 50 foot tower
  • the peacefulness of Shabbat
  • camping overnight in the Treehouse
  • just being able to “be myself”
  • Judaism that is so relevant and spiritual
  • getting to spend time with their rabbi
  • hashkavah (late night, pre-bedtime activities)
  • swimming at the pool

Rabbi Kipnes, who serves during the year as the Rabbinic Camp Committee Chair and over the summer as Dean of Faculty for the first session, has worked vigorously with the Foundation for Jewish Camping and Camp Newman itself to provide substantial scholarships for those who need it. Says he, “Where else do we find Jewish kids immersed in Jewish living for extended periods of time, all the while being cared for by great college and grad-school age positive Jewish role models?”

Michelle November, a social worker by training, serves as Camp Mom. Part of a team led by a licensed, practicing psychologist, the Nefesh Team (Nefesh means “soul”) help the counseling staff handle camper issues that have ranged from providing a hug of a camper with simple homesickness to bringing parents and counselors together by phone to help campers struggling with depression or others facing the death of a grandparent or dear friend.

Why do we bring a group of our Or Ami young people to Camp Newman every summer? Why, in the middle of the Rabbi’s sabbatical, is he spending two weeks at camp? Because the Jewish future is built around poignant, positive Jewish experiences which sear into the heart and soul a love for Judaism. Jewish Camp – and especially Camp Newman – more than almost any other place, provides that intense Jewish heat to make kids more and more Jewishly-connected.

So who is the “.5” member of our delegation? Six month old Julian, son of former Or Ami Rabbinic Intern (and now Rabbi) Jordana Chernow-Reader, who is gaining first-hand experience of Jewish camping as he revels in being passed from hand to hand amongst the staff and faculty of Camp Newman.

Interested in learning more about Jewish camping?

The campers have arrived! Camp Newman, Summer 2009 has begun. Take a look at these pictures of Or Ami campers and staff (scroll down to see our campers)

From Camp Newman 2009

After a week’s delay, Camp is filled once again with the sounds of laughing and singing as our campers arrived. It was difficult to determine who was more excited: the campers, who pined away for the moment they could return to camp, or the staff, which counted the minutes until their campers arrived.

While the campers move into cabins and begin to learn the names of their bunkmates and counselors, the rest of the staff has begun facilitating what will undoubtedly be a fabulous Camp Newman summer experience.

Thanks May Be Kosher Even If Swine is Not

My family is up here at Camp Newman still as the camp moves forward, caring for those with the flu (at most 20 to date, of which only 2 have tested positive for Influenza A).
Though the word on the street is that there is swine flu here (H1N1), we know that only the 2 exhibited symptoms. The actions of the camp – postponing the arrival of the younger kids, isolating those exhibiting symptoms, and separating staff from the CITs/Avodahniks who arrived at camp later – are intended to be prudent, conservative and responsible.

I remain impressed with our senior staff. I sent the following email to the senior camp Newman leadership this afternoon. I hope it captures the amazement and comfort we feel with the actions, transparency and compassion of this group:

Dear Directors, gezah team, senior administrators, medical team, office staff (and other camp newman leadership),Being up here on faculty allows me to be both a participant and an observer of the goings on at camp. I have witnessed so much that amazes me. I see so many caring people – you! – rising up to act in ways that evidence the depth of your compassion and the fullest of your ability to care for others, I see so many courageous people – you – who are facing so many unknowns, so much not in your control, yet are moving forward thoughtfully to manage the camp and care for the staff, CITs and Avodahniks who are here, I see so many tireless people, who are working endless hours, moving thru the moments of exhaustion to plan and respond,I see people who evidence bikur cholim, caring for the infirmed, as you take care of those few who have the flu, those who are well on the way to recovery, and each other (ensuring that you do not burn out), I see so many people with endless patience, who are calmly answering questions, sharing information, exhibiting the quiet reassurance that lets the rest of us move thru our days without worry. Thank you for taking such good care of all of us at camp, for working endless hours to address that which is beyond our control and for making sure that wisdom and caution prevails amidst the pressures of opening camp. My whole family – a CIT, 2 soon to be teenage campers, and 2 adults – is up at camp right now. We feel safe, cared for, informed. I am so proud to be part of this amazing community. Thank you for all you are doing.

Swine Aint' Kosher at Jewish Summer Camp


D’var Acher
(Alternate Title): Porky Pig, Superman and Other Comics

translation: swine flu, super staff and the theater of the absurd

D’var Acher (Alternate Title): “I Know it is 1:00 am, and I’m Sorry to Wake You, but…”

Team Crisis Management. From midnight, Wednesday, June 17, 2009 thru lunchtime, June 18, 2009, Michelle and I joined the URJ Camp Newman’s Team Crisis Management as the camp responded to a few cases of Influenza A (presumed to be H1N1 – swine flu) and another dozen cases of the regular flu.

[We just read that the Sacramento newspaper reported: 15 swine flu cases close Santa Rosa religious youth camp

Camp Newman-Swig, a sprawling 500-acre complex on Porter Creek Road, had two probable and 13 highly suspect cases of the H1N1 virus among members of its adult staff, said Dr. Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, Sonoma County’s public health officer.

The Camp experience began as expected. We had arrived at Camp Newman at about 5:30 pm and enjoyed the traditional pre-camp faculty dinner out at Dafna’s Greek. A fabulous faculty meeting followed where we learned about many exciting camp intiatives, and where I was introduced as Faculty Dean and Michelle as a member of the Nefesh Team (“nefesh” = soul = the camp’s psychosocial support team). We were dazzled by the efforts of Or Ami Rabbinic (and Rabb/Ed) intern, now Camp Education Director Sara Mason-Barkin.

Not ten minutes after the meeting let out, the faculty was called back into session and informed that camp, facing a number of staff with flu-like symptoms, had determined that we were facing a few cases of presumed H1N1, swine flu. With a decision immanent to postpone the arrival of the younger campers (Avodah, CIT and Staff were already at camp), we were being drafted into Team Crisis Management and asked to call all camper parents tonight to inform them of the decision.

By 10:15 pm, a calling script was being written, call lists divided up (rabbis/educators began by calling our own congregants), and, with Michelle’s guidance, a list of responses to anticipated questions was being developed (when will camp invite the younger campers up? Still to early to say).

By 11:00 pm, we were spread out all over camp, manning phones, spreading the calm but clear message:

Dear Parent,

We are in the process of calling all of our camper parents with the important announcement…

In the last 48 hours a number of our staff members have come into the infirmary not feeling well, some with fever. In order to be very cautious and responsible, we tested some of our staff and the results came back positive for Influenza A. Our county public health department has informed us that this is mostly likely the H1N1 virus – swine flu. Therefore after consulting with medical professionals and the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism we have determined that is wise to delay the opening camp and to demonstrate an abundance of caution. While we know that this will be tremendously inconvenient, we take our responsibility for the health and safety of children entrusted to our care as our foremost priority.

We will be in touch again by email late Thursday with an update. We hope by then to be able to make a determination as to when the session will begin. Again we are very sorry for calling so late and we certainly understand that our campers will be disappointed.

Thank you for your understanding and support. (Email addresses were provided for those with questions.)

From 11:00 pm until 2:00 am, Michelle and I joined a dozen other faculty, waking parents and sharing the news. It was a fascinating and overwhelming experience. Fascinating because here we were, telling parents that their child’s camp experience and long planned family plans were being changed, yet with the exception of a handful, most parents were appreciative and complimentary about our proactive decision. Overwhelming, because a good many offered to help in a multiplicity of ways. Even better, of 200+ campers, only one (one!) camper showed up for camp. In just 3 short hours, we successfully reached the entire camper population!

Though we were dragging by 2:00 am, we were reassured by the experience of being part of a Jewish community dedicated to emet (truth/honesty), chochma (wisdom/wise decisions), and responsiveness. Just before we passed out in our bed, Michelle and I chatted about how impressed we were with the quick, patient leadership of Director Ruben Arquilevich, Associate Director Phil Hankin, and their senior staff. They consulted with the top notch camp doctors, coordinated with the local Department of Public Health, conferenced by senior URJ leaders in New York (waking them as the concern mounted), and made appropriately conservative decisions in the best interests of the staff/CITs/Avodahniks currently in camp, and those who will come up in the future.

Those staff who are sick have been segregated (isolated/quarantined is the medical term), and many of those who had flu symptoms are currently on the mend. As the flu has an incubation peried of about 7 days, the camp is being proactively responsible in waiting to see if the flu will spread. Our daughter is hanging with her CIT (counselor in training) friends, observing the camp separation between CITs/Avodahniks and the staff (the latter who were together during the incubation period).

After a few hours sleep (I woke at 7:30 am Wednesday), we gathered down in the Chadar Ochel (dining room) to evaluate and begin the process of deciding next steps. Communication with the national URJ office, with the Health Department, with our medical staff, with the region’s rabbis/cantors/educators and with parents continues on the highest, most open level.

How are we Kipnes/Novembers?
Understand that our Kipnes/November family is healthy and safe, as are the vast, vast majority of the camp community. Though we told our two sons to wash hands regularly, to eat at tables away from the rest of the staff, and to refrain from hugging anyone (a challenge in the loving camp community), they are enjoying the run of the camp with only minimal supervision.

Reflections on our Camp Newman Leadership: You take the measure of an institution, and the measure of a man, by the way they respond in the most challenging of situations. That’s why, in the end, I remain a fan of the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and of its leadership (from Senior Director Ruben Arquilevich). They are being prudent, responsible, consultative, caring, tireless and more…

Or Ami Delegation Energizes Camp Newman

One Shabbat each session, Michelle and I invite all of our Or Ami campers and staff to a “study session” (a.k.a. junk food party). It is one of our highlights of the summer to hear the campers kvell about their camp experience.


They eat some junk food. They talk loudly. They eat more junk food. They talk more loudly. They each participant shares their most exciting moments at camp. They eat even more junk food.

It is amazing to watch these campers, some nervous on the first days, warm up to camp. They love it.

It is also incredible to notice how many Or Ami faculty and intern alumni are now part of the Camp’s senior staff. Rabbinic Intern Sara Mason Barkin (former Mishpacha Coordinator) and Rabbinic Intern Jordana Chernow-Reader (former Mishpacha Faculty member) are co-Directors of Education. Their husbands also work at camp: Josh Barkin, former Education Intern, is on faculty while Luke Reader, Mishpacha faculty member, is a Rosh (unit head). Jake Singer-Belin, former Mishpacha faculty member, is Rosh Tefillah (in charge of ritual life at camp). Fisch (Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch) is CIT Director. A week before we arrived, Rachel (Isaacson) Margolis, former Mishpacha Coordinator, served on faculty.

Camp Newman is one of the most creative Jewish learning and living places in America today. As so many Or Ami interns and faculty come from Camp Newman, that bodes very well for the continued creative life of our Congregation Or Ami community.

The Joy of Hanging with “My Kids”

There is something special about hanging at camp with “my kids,” the children of Or Ami congregants. Sure, Michelle and I have three our own (biological) children. Yet, each summer that number jumps as we chaperon a delegation of campers from Congregation Or Ami to the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA.

Most of the 18 campers this year come during the first sessions, because their parents find comfort knowing that their child will be watched over by their Rabbi (me) and by my wife (“Camp Mom”) Michelle November. We love checking in with the campers at meals, celebrating Shabbat with them, playing frisbee or doing art together.

Often, as we are walking down the path, dodging hordes of campers, we find ourselves suddenly wrapped in a hug given by one of the congregant kids. Then just as suddenly, smile shared, we part and go on our separate ways.

A moment of holiness.

What’s a Rabbi Do Up at Camp?

We met yesterday with some people from a Foundation who were interested in partnering to further deepen the Jewish educational experience at camp. They asked us a series of questions including: What do you do as Rabbinical faculty at camp? We asked: Expected responsibilities or unofficial ones? They asked: Both!

What does a Rabbinical faculty member at the URJ Camp Newman do?

  • Lead services and help others lead services
  • Help the Rosh (unit head) lead tochnit, or daily content programs
  • Meet with cabin groups for Torat Chayim, relaxed discussion about explore how Torah lives in our lives
  • Support the Rashim (unit heads, plural) as they work with counselors and their campers
  • Teach adult learning “lunch and learn” sessions – this week a panel on tattoos and Judaism
  • Partner with the Infirmary staff to comfort sick campers, especially when they are from our congregations
  • Tutor Bar/Bat Mitzvah students to keep them on track in their studies
  • Orient newer faculty members on our responsibilities at camp
  • Meet with the eidah (unit) staff to brainstorm programs and manage camper problems
  • Provide support for HUC Rabbinic/Education students who give their summers to help lead camp (three current and past Or Ami interns/faculty are Education and/or Tefillah/service Directors)
  • Fill in wherever the Directors need help

We also have a lot of fun, hanging with our friends, sharing ideas about synagogue programming and leadership, drafting future High Holy Day sermons, reading, talking walks in the beautiful forests, go wine tasting, watch our kids make friends and grow up, climb the 50 foot tower…

We Rabbis come to camp for so many reasons:

  • Camp is one of the premier Jewish educational and Jewish living environments, and we want to help create and sustain it
  • Camp provides a real time laboratory for informal Jewish education
  • Camp offers a place for spiritual renewal for us too
  • Camp allows us to interact with our congregant kids in informal ways (18 Or Ami kids and staff are up here this summer)
  • Camp is so much fun
  • Camp gathers together some of the most creative rabbis which allows us to share ideas to bring home to our congregations
  • Camp, like life in general and sometimes better, allows us to watch our kids grow in a loving, supportive environment with positive Jewish role models.

In Loco Parentis: Camp Staff Are Crazy for their Camper Kids

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.