Tag: Camp Newman

Being a Big Kid at Summer Camp (URJ Camp Newman)

I sit here up at Faculty Row of the URJ Camp Newman (Santa Rosa, CA) as Shabbat evening comes to an end. We just finished enjoying an inspirational all camp service, delicious dinner by Tammy, awesome brownies for dessert, a raucous song session under the stars and an energetic (read “exhausting” hour of Israeli dance.

Now Jewish composer and singer Dan Nichols and Fresno’s Rabbi Rick Winer are leading the gathered group of faculty in singing old favorite Jewish songs from summers gone by.

Still dressed in our Shabbat whites, we faculty are seemingly reliving our younger days as campers and camp staff. Really though, our faculty Shabbat gathering – a unique combination of singing, laughing, noshing (eating a lot of small bites to duck the big calories), and joking – evokes a unique kind of camp l’dor vador (from generation to generation).

We all grew up in one of the camps of the Union for Reform Judaism, where our hearts and outlooks were shaped in deeply meaningful ways for all time. Now we each dedicate precious downtime in our professional lives volunteering at camp to ensure that the subsequent generations of Jewoah youth enjoy an updated version of vibrant living Judaism to sustain them in the years ahead.

We were kids back then, singing, struggling, loving camp and embracing our Judaism. Now most of us have kids here at Camp Newman, (our own and those of our congregational family) who are similarly singing, struggling, loving camp and embracing their Judaism.

How fortunate are we that we get to see the relevance of this 24/7 Judaism and it’s purposeful youth engagement, even as our children move from camper to counselor and beyond.

Of course we come to camp for more than just nourishing our own souls and those of our children. We come because at camp we quickly rediscover the unvarnished bountiful beauty that is our Jewish tradition. We practice our creativity here at Camp Newman with (and on) 1400 youth and college students, and then return home to our congregations and organizations prepared to reenergize them the same way.

Too soon havdala will arrive, and with it the end of Shabbat. May the light of the havdala candle remind us always of how interconnected are our Jewish homes; our house, congregation, Israel and camp form one seamless whole that brings warmth and holiness to life. And our lives.

May it be so always. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi, Can We Talk about God? Pelted with Questions from Teen Campers

Ever have one of those moments when your child reaches out to you and all you really want to do is collapse from exhaustion? It happens at home and it happens at camp. So what do you do?

I am up here at URJ Camp Newman, the Reform movement camp in Santa Rosa, CA, leading our delegation of 42 people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) for Jewish summer fun. After a full fantastic day of spiritual hikes, meditation teaching, service planning and camper counseling, I was hot, tired and worn out.

Rabbi, Want to Talk about God?
Yet, no sooner did I sit down for a little quiet time when I heard someone call out, “We’re having a conversation here about God. Rabbi, do you want to join us?”

Looking up, I saw three of our young people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) sitting at a picnic table smiling at me.

I had just finished an intense conversation with a staff member about the slow death of her grandmother as she described being there as the last breath left her body, followed by a phone call with a dear friend who is now facing a similar situation with her mother. I was looking forward to putting my feet up. But I responded from my heart and not from my weary bones, saying “How can I turn down such a wonderful invitation like that!?”

So three of us – my wife Michelle, a faculty artist and I – joined Lisa, Matthew and Ethan for the best experience of my day.

Pelting Us with Questions
They asked so many questions, which I answered initially with “Well, what do you all think?” Only after they answered would I share my thoughts.

How many of the teens at temple do you think are really atheists? (Most, I suggested were agnostics, unsure about God, but you can be a great Jew even if you don’t believe in God.) 

How do we pray if all the prayers seem to offer only one view of what God is? (Read the prayers as poetry and then mine them as metaphors. Or supplement the traditional prayers with kavannot (spiritual interpretations) of your own. Or let’s write some prayers which speak to a spectrum of beliefs. The rabbis of old did it; you can too!) 

Do you believe in God with the white beard and the throne on high? (Once I imagined God that way, until I learned that there are so many different Jewish God ideas – I blogged about 18 Jewish God concepts – which are more in keeping with what I feel is closer to my truth. Let’s find some time later and I’ll teach you about them.)

What’s your favorite God concept? (The internet as a metaphor for God. Not a being, but an existence, a presence. The One without end is here, there and everywhere, accessible if only you open a browser – your heart or soul – and allow yourself to connect in.).

Time Flies When You’re Talking God
We lost track of time as the campers asked questions, offered answers to each other, and thought deeply about the reality of The Holy One. When their counselors came around to collect these campers, we all expressed sadness that this moment had to end. And yet, we smiled at each other, knowing that we had taken our relationships and our spiritual journeying to the next level.

“Let’s do this again!” suggested one of the campers. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” I responded.

Why do I Come to Camp Newman each Summer? 
Because in the midst of the long days, chance encounters quickly become deep conversations, allowing this rabbi the opportunity to elevate and nurture meaningful Jewish spirituality. I cannot wait for the next conversation.

We Sent Our Kid to Camp Anyway… And He Loved It (by Marcy Cameron)

Ethan at center with Camp Friends

Camp Newman Through a Mother’s Eyes: Before and After
By Marcy Cameron

Before Camp – June 6, 2013

He Didn’t Want to Go
Our 7th grade son, Ethan, did not want to go to sleep-away camp, but after years of hearing Rabbi Paul Kipnes praise the value of URJ Camp Newman, my husband Clark and I were determined to send him anyway. Ethan’s “comfort zone” is home. New adventures tend to create anxiety for him. Even though he prefers going to school, hanging with friends and attending day camp, we felt that going to Jewish overnight summer camp would be an experience he would benefit from.

So we signed him up, covertly, for the first session, knowing Rabbi Kipnes, his wife Michelle, their own children, and many other kids from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) would be attending during the same session.

Ethan was NOT Happy about this Decision
Rabbi Paul met Ethan beforehand for a pep talk; Or Ami teacher and former Camp Rosh Eidah (unit head) Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch sent him an encouraging text message.

Ethan was still NOT happy! I started collecting necessary items, I signed up for BunkNotes, and I even sent a care package the day before he left. Finally Ethan became resigned to the fact that camp was happening. He did not participate in packing and was quite sullen on the drive to the airport.

To help ease some of Ethan’s anxiety, I decided to fly up to Oakland Airport with him to meet the camp bus. There were probably 30 kids on the flight (and a few parents). The camp’s adult chaperone was friendly and answered some questions Ethan had about the flight home. Thankfully, Ethan spent the flight chatting with congregant and friend Lisa Friedman – a seasoned Newman camper!

Amazingly Warm Welcome by Camp Staff
The camp staff greeted the group at Oakland airport and everything was very organized. As Ethan was called into a group to load the bus, it was time for me to say goodbye! Of course hugs and kisses were exchanged much earlier – in private; after all, he is a 13-year old boy! So I gave him a “thumbs up” and off he went. I left for a lunch date in the city and enjoyed big glass of wine!

A few hours later Rabbi Paul texted a photo of Ethan at camp. I’m sure the smile on Ethan’s face was coerced for the camera, but I have no doubt that sending him to Camp Newman was the right decision. 13 days of his life! I have no worries about how he his doing up there. I know that even if he is having the time of his life, he won’t want to admit it, but I will know anyway! After all, I am his #1 fan – I’m his mom!

After Camp – July 11, 2013

Ethan (on left) with Camp Friends

“The Food was Good”
I remember that the envelope from Ethan came on Day 11! Two pieces of paper from a small note pad I had sent in a care package. A few brief scribbles about the rain, a pool party, wearing white on Shabbat, and the Dan Nichols concert. Ethan said the food was good and he did the ropes course! I don’t think I have ever smiled wider!

Ethan does not speak effusively about anything – not even his first love, baseball. But when he came home from Camp Newman on Sunday, he didn’t stop talking. From the time we picked him up at the airport until he went to bed, he told us every detail about camp! He took close to 300 pictures. So we set the computer up to watch through the TV and Ethan narrated each and every photo!

Of course, Ethan is Ethan. When friends and family ask him about camp, he gets that coy smile on his face and tells them “it was good.”

Did Camp Change Him??? 
Well, he’s still Ethan. 14 years old, stubborn, and still picky about food, but he seems to have developed a quiet confidence. His older sister, Jessa, has noticed the newfound confidence at the day camp they both attend. Now, Ethan is trying new activities and is well liked by his counselors.

I’ve read so many parenting articles about letting your children be who they are and I had so many friends ask how I could send him to camp when he didn’t want to go. Well, I can now say with no hesitation…

Best Decision I Ever Made!
 Going to Camp Newman gave Ethan the opportunity to get out of his “comfort zone.” And he succeeded. He did it! That knowledge is now within him and cannot be denied.

Will he go next year??? Well, typical for Ethan, he won’t commit yet but I think there’s a good chance that he will want to go back. I’m starting a Camp Fund jar!!!

Looking Ahead – January 2, 2014

Yes, Ethan’s Returning to Camp
Ethan has made the decision on his own to return to Camp Newman. He had fun and looks forward to the experience again. What a joy. What a gift.

Thank you Camp Newman – your counselors, your Rosh Eidah, your directors – for helping my son Ethan have an away from home success. I cannot wait to see how he grows up next summer.

Thank you Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz, for encouraging me to send Ethan, and for holding our hands – mine too – through the initial anxiety and challenge. Best Decision I Ever Made.

Camp Newman, My Holy Community by Amanda Front

Amanda Front (left) at Camp Newman
with friend Jacqui Osborn

Amanda Front, a teenager at Congregation Or Ami, joined her father Seth Front for a trip to Orange County, CA to promote URJ Camp Newman to kids at Temple Beth David in Westminster, the temple where Seth’s father Henri Front served as Rabbi. Amanda reflected upon her first summer there. What she wrote was so beautiful, and delivered so eloquently, we had to share it with everyone who was such a big part of her first summer at Camp Newman.

The URJ Camp Newman Experience By Amanda Front

“URJ Camp Newman.”

Just hearing those words brings a smile to my face and precious memories into my head. The highlight of my summer was spending two weeks at Camp Newman. This was my first time ever going to sleep-away camp and I am already counting down the days until I go back to camp next summer: 234 days!!!

The staff is amazing! The counselors are the best! They are responsible, fun, friendly, and caring. They are always there to talk to and have fun with like a friend, and then when it comes time to do something important, they are very responsible and professional.

Being that this was my first time at camp, I was very nervous and not sure I wanted to go. I was going to have to go on a plane without my parents. I was scared I was going to land at the Oakland airport and not know where to go. But right when we got off the plane, we saw camp counselors awaiting our arrival, greeting us with smiling faces!!! I knew at that moment that this would be an amazing experience.

Shabbat at camp is one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced in my whole life. The whole camp dresses in white and we have an amazing service. My favorite part is when the counselors bless us. They sing a blessing and hold tallit over our heads. This is so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes, knowing I was in such a special place with amazing people.

Dan Nichols is a Jewish singer/songwriter. We sing his songs at camp and he comes to camp every summer to share his music with us. One of his songs perfectly describes the Camp Newman experience: “When I reach out to you and you to me, we become B’tzelem Elohim.” Camp is a Kehillah Kedosha, a holy community, where you feel like you are a part of something special…and you are. I encourage all of you to become part of the Camp Newman “holy community” with me this summer.

Consider sending your child to Camp Newman for part of the summer.

When ‘just be good’ isn’t enough

Cross Posted at the Jewish Journal

“Why all these values, rabbi?” preteen Josh asked. “Can’t you just say we should be good people?” Often it is the most basic questions that set me thinking, and Josh’s query sure did.

My wife, Michelle November, and I are at Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, where we are chaperoning Congregation Or Ami’s 45-person delegation. While Michelle serves as camp mom, answering questions by phone for the next session’s camper-parents, I work as dean of faculty, guiding young people with the camp’s daily middah (or Jewish value/virtue).

Jewish Values Guide Our Interactions
Over the course of a session, we explore b’tzelem Elohim (recognizing that each person was created “in the image of God”), kehillah kedushah (that as part of a “holy community,” we have responsibilities to each other) and kavod (that “respect” necessarily guides every interaction we have with other people and creations).

We embrace ometz lev (being “courageous”), insist on ahavah (the “love” that binds us together) and turn our hearts toward Yisrael (the land, modern state, people and children of Israel). These middot and others permeate the camp, invigorating every moment of the day from mifkad (morning assembly) to sports to hashkavah (bedtime activities).

When ‘Just Be Good’ Isn’t Enough

Josh’s question penetrates these moments of meaning by asking, “Why do we name and number so many middot, when one simple instruction — Just be good — or one simple Torah verse — v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) — might suffice?

We find our answer back in the mid-19th century, in a commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner on this week’s parasha, Shofetim. The Ishbitzer (Polish) Chasidic rebbe (d. 1854), whose teachings were compiled as “Mei HaShiloach,” believed that the more clarity we have about how we should live, the purer, more righteous lives will we lead.

Guarding the Gateways Into Our Bodies
Our parasha opens with what appears to be basic instructions for the creation and implementation of a new justice system for the tribes. “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the gates [she’arecha] that YHVH your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). For Rabbi Mordechai, this opening verse points also to the way we guard our lives from sin. He teaches, “She’arecha (gates/settlements): we are to establish magistrates (judges) for each and every detail of life, in every state and in every city. This applies, as well, in our individual lives. These ‘gates’ are the seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. We have to exercise great care over each of these gates by which we derive good.”

Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality drashes (explains) that “the Ishbitzer is concerned with guarding what enters us from the outside, how we are affected by what we see, hear, say and smell. All of these sense-events/acts are powerful, affecting our inner awareness and our capacity to respond in a balanced, loving manner. Without awareness of the forces at work on our consciousness we are unable to align ourselves with the Divine.”

A Complex World Requires a Multiplicity of Tools
So why do we name and number so many middot? Because we live in a complex world with widespread influences that pull us in all sorts of opposing directions. Because our yetzer harah (inclination for evil) can easily overpower our yetzer hatov (inclination for good). Because we need multiple tools to filter everything we experience. The middot stand as shofetim (judges) at our seven sense-gates, ensuring that everything we see, hear, say and smell can and will be interpreted and moderated for goodness and godliness.

Sending Kids Off With Toolboxes Filled With Torah
When we say goodbye to Josh — and to the 1,400 young people who enter Camp Newman’s gates every summer — we know we are sending him home with a toolbox filled with Jewish virtues to keep him on a morally straight path. As the 19th century Rabbi Mordechai Yosef teaches and the 21st century Rabbi Jonathan Slater reinforces, the overall message is this: We need to establish practices that guard us from passively being affected in negative ways, just as we need to prevent ourselves from affecting the world negatively through our deeds.

For this is our highest hope: that Josh and all the children who attend Jewish summer camps around the country find direction and guidance from the Jewish values we impart to them. And we pray: May all they have learned transform them, so that they come home kinder, more compassionate and more Jewishly self-identified than ever before.

What I Love about Camp Newman: Or Ami Campers Respond

My wife Michelle and I gathered our Congregation Or Ami campers together for another of our summer “Torah study meetings” in our cabin. These young people had been at Camp Newman for two weeks. We looked forward to the opportunity to see them all (and to eat delicious junk food). 

I asked our teens to share what the love about Camp Newman. Between bites of Oreos, Kit Kats, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups, Watermelon Sour Patch Kids, Chips Ahoy cookies, soda, Kettle Corn, humus and crackers, dried bananas and more, they each typed a few sentences:

Zachary Oschin, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because of the incredible friendships I make and the way in which they grow and blossom. The loving and caring community enables me to have a fantastic home at Camp Newman.

Jenna Morris, Maccabiah, Age 13: I love camp because I get to be away from home and make incredible friendships that last a lifetime. Camp Newman is like my 2nd home.

Marlena De Castro, Maccabiah, Age 13: I love camp because it is the only place where every moment is shaped to be a lifelong memory. Camp has an accepting atmosphere that allows everyone to find their Jewish identity and be their best self. I also believe that the friendships I’ve made at camp are the most real, beautiful relationships made during my teenage years.

Hillary Delin, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because it is my escape from reality; everything is so calm and serene at camp, and I love taking it all in. My fondest memories are all from Camp Newman.

Lauren Perlmutter, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because it is my home away from home and a place where I can be my best self. Camp is an accepting place where everyone is himself or herself and incredible bonds are created amongst our peers.

Lauren Cohen, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because it is truly my favorite place in the entire world. It has become my home away from home, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it.

Ashley November, Counselor/Art Room, Age 17: I love being at camp and being surrounded by nature, and my friends, and just people who have similar loves. Everybody is really connected to each other and to their Judaism. It is just great.

Jacqueline Oschin, Maccabiah, Age 13: I love camp because everyone immediately becomes so close. Everyone is so accepting so you are able to be yourself, which makes it so much fun.

Sophie Barnes, Avodah, Age 16: The reason I love camp is because it is a complete escape from home life. Being away from home for such a long time and really connecting to Judaism and friends is the greatest feeling. The fact that everyone is so open and accepting makes the experience even better.

Noah Kipnes, Avodah, Age 16: SMILE!

More Camp Newman pictures on Facebook.

For Many Jewish Youth, Gay Marriage is a New Normal

I woke early one morning in June to hear the decisions of the United States Supreme Court on a pair of cases about marriage equality. Joy mixed with disappointment. I celebrated the return of marriage equality to the State of California and the effective end of the ill-named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) through the extension of benefits to gay and lesbian married couples. At the same time, the Supremes dodged an opportunity to make Marriage Equality the law of the land. Still, there is hope as advocates work within the states to move equality forward.

Some people expressed frustration at the slow pace of full equality. I am not one of those people. I see that great strides have been made and more will come.


  1. Because at its root, marriage equality is grows out of our Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), and the inalterable Jewish value that all of us – including gay men and lesbian women – are created in that image, thus deserving to be valued and inherently demanding equality. AND
  2. Because of young people like Dani and her friends who are increasingly becoming the dominant voice in our land. 

The Youth Shall See Visions

Dani is an 11-year-old young person from our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) who recently spent a month at the URJ Camp Newman summer camp.

Dani inherently gets this rightness and justice of marriage equality. The challenges raised by opponents seem irrelevant to her. Homosexuality and the resulting call for marriage equality are a new normal for her and her friends.

Dani’s mother Debby explained it this way:

Dear Family & Friends, 

I wanted to share with you the story of how Dani and her friends celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision about Prop. 8.

One of the role-playing games that girls play these days is a variation on the time-honored game we used to call “House.” Modern girls now call the game “Family.” Everyone is assigned a role: one is the mother, one is the father, and the others are various sisters, brothers, and inevitably babies. Occasionally there is a dog or cat or horse involved. The girls have never hesitated to take on male roles, and they will spend hours playing the game (which usually involves a lot of scolding of the children and heavy sighing by the frazzled and overwhelmed mother). 

Dani was away for 4 weeks at her beloved URJ Camp Newman when the announcement that the Supreme Court dismissed the Prop 8 appeal reached Dani and her beloved cabinmates. They responded by deciding that they should all get married. So the ten girls, ages 10 to 12, formed five “married” couples for the rest of their time at camp (though there was flexibility in who was married to whom from day to day).

That they so readily and seamlessly (and joyfully) adapted the game of Family to include same-sex couples truly brought home for me how far we have come as a society in overcoming ignorance, intolerance, and fear when it comes to accepting, embracing, and role-playing different kinds of loving couples.

Dani and her cabinmates’ game does not mean that equality has been achieved yet, but how this one group of girls responded provides us a glimpse into how today’s children will act when they are tomorrow’s adults. 

Statistically, it is quite possible that one of those 10 girls may already know or later discover that she herself is a lesbian. Imagine her having this silly yet loving pre-teen memory to hold dear as she chooses how to make her own way into a world that may not always embrace her sexual orientation as warmly and naturally as her cabinmates did in the Summer of 2013.

To those of us who seek full equality for gay and lesbian individuals and couples, Dani’s game playing is so moving.

Two friends of Dani’s mom reacted even more passionately:

Said one,

I am fighting back tears as I type this. My heart is too full to say much, but please know I find this a beautiful sentiment to a subject that is so hard for a lot to stomach. The fight is constant and continues, of course, but knowing this is the future is very empowering.

Said the other,

I remember playing “house” (and yes, that’s definitely what we called it then) with the cute as a button little blonde across the street, and I ALWAYS had to be the boy. It never dawned on us that we could both be the girl and live happily ever after…

Debby allowed me to publish this story after she asked Dani what she thought about sharing this on your blog. Dani does not have a problem with it.

To quote Debby, 

I think the thing that feels so remarkable about Dani’s story and about the kids my daughter is friends with is that they do not view being gay as a big deal or particularly interesting or special – or negative. Obviously, there are still plenty of kids in the country who do NOT feel this way, but the momentum feels to me to be moving in the direction of: why should I care (or have any say in approving) who someone else loves?

Right, why should I care about or have any say in approving who one marries?! Relationships between two mature, consensual, supportive adults, who see in each other B’tzelem Elohim  deserve equality.

May that equality, blessed by our communities, soon become the law of our whole country.

Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen Kvells about Camp Newman

Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen, of Congregation Beth Shalom (Carmichael, CA), recently returned from two weeks as rabbinic faculty at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA. She sent us this letter about her amazing experience:

Dear Camp Newman Leadership:

As I reflect on my two weeks as rabbinic faculty for the 6-7th grade session Shomrim, I am truly moved by the experience. I think I am one of the ‘vatikim,’ having spent some 13 years growing up and serving on staff at Camp Swig, and nine summers on rabbinic faculty at Camp Newman. With all of those experiences, this summer I felt the magic of Camp Newman in some new ways that I’d like to share with you all.

High Quality Staff: Positive Jewish Role Models
I felt that there was a quality among the staff that showcased new levels to the Newman experience. From the morning shtick when Hebrew man appeared along with the presentation of a middah/value for the day, through the programming and how staff treated campers, deep Jewish soul instruction was present in a very engaging and delightful way. The songleaders were a team – no one stood out as the “ego” or super star. Everyone worked seamlessly together. What came through was incredible support and collaboration.

Having been at Camp Newman for some years, I felt as well the very high quality of the staff. The staff always love the campers, however in addition, I experienced a very high level of programming where the value of the day integrated into whatever program we were doing. Simple blackberry picking became an experience in cooperation as they picked for each other. Kindness for campers frequently moved me to tears. There was something set into the very fabric of the session so that children with various challenges were not only tolerated by the other campers, but loved. I witnessed again and again how a particular child, who would otherwise be ignored or teased in the non-camp world, was joyfully accepted.

Enhanced Musical Repetoire and Singing Experience
As a former songleader at Camp Swig, I always pay close attention to the musical repetoire and how songs are taught. I saw that there was some experimentation with teaching songs in the Chadar Ochel with a powerpoint system allowing for both learning new songs, even more complex songs, but still making space for the current custom of dancing around. I also was thrilled with the sound system on the basketball courts for Shabbat. The quality of singing, the gentleness of the older campers toward the younger campers, and the method of leading dance from the small stage in the middle, made for a safe and exhilerating Shabbat.

Joyous Prayer
This is a Reform Jewish summer camp and the campers really know their prayers. They exhuberantly bless the ritual washing of their hands, they are pretty ecstatic about the blessing before eating and even more joyful singing Birkat Hamazon with its inclusive prayer for our cousins, the children of Ishmael. There is some shtick, but it is precious shtick and kept at a respectful pace by the blessing leaders.

In the 6-7th grade session I worked with, the campers really knew the basic meaning of each prayer and were eager to lead, to write their interpretations and to participate in story telling. We would pray at the Creek on Shabbat Morning till the end of Amidah and then walk up to another place for Torah reading. There was a trust among the counselors and the campers about respecting the beautiful space and participating in prayer there. The way I saw it, gently tossing pebbles into the water and watching the rippling out of circles was like the impact of Camp Newman and the broader affect it has on their lives.

Calm Intentionality in the Senior Camp Leadership
Perhaps more than any other summer, I feel a calm intentionality from the senior staff. Rabbi Erin is a grounded presence. She always knows what is going on and what needed to go on – aware of both a specific child in need, as well as the perspective of how the camp is running and how the staff is collaborating. You feel here calm, grounded, aware presence directly when she speaks at Shabbat services and you sense it by how she speaks with all of us. Ruben creates a stable and vibrant energy from the first loving chorus of “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” at the start of camp that only builds till the last night when campers shout with everything they’ve got, “I love being Jewish.”

Faculty Flowing into the Rhythm of Camp
At the start of my two weeks here, Rabbi Paul Kipnes (Camp’s Dean of Faculty) spoke to the faculty about how we fold into an already working system. It was a very meaningful talk – reminding the faculty that we are here not for our own ego gratification nor to make things how we think they should be, but to respect what has been going on and flow into that stream. Putting egos at the door and seeing ourselves more as open vessels created within me even greater appreciation for all the work that had been put in place.

Before even arriving at camp, I was sent, along with all faculty, the names and email information of the leaders, the Rashim, of the session I’d work with along with the invitation to contact them. What a great thing! It took no time at all to email them just to check in and say how happy I was thinking of being at the session with them. In addition, we were invited to collect some texts on a particular value or “middah.” This too made me feel that I could be part of the collaboration with such talented young leaders.

High Quality Jewish Learning
As I near my 25th year of Rabbinic Ordination, I know, hands down, that Jewish summer camp is the very best way to nourish the Jewish spirit. As rabbis, we can preach our best sermons, we can sing our songs, we can shmooze at onegs and do all the things that we are supposed to do to feed our congregants’ Jewish identity. However, I am convinced that it is the high quality of Jewish learning at Camp Newman, the loving counselors and specialists and the grounded, organized and deeply committed leaders who are the ones who make the magic happen.

Why I Gained Weight at Camp Newman (a camp food confession)

Salad Bar Smiles

I wish I could say my days at URJ Camp Newman were consumed with bouts of hunger.

I wish I could say that at Camp Newman
there was nothing to eat,
that the food sucked,
that the camp could not accommodate my picky palate,
or that I refused to eat the usual carb-heavy muck that passes for institutional food service.

I wish I could say all that because then I might have lost the extra weight I was supposed to lose to camp.

But None of that Happened
Because the food at Camp Newman is so delicious, nutritious, green, balanced, and plentiful, that I ate too much. And I gained weight.

I tried to be a “good boy.” On the days they served chicken nuggets or grilled cheese, I hit the salad bar instead. I stayed away from the pasta bar that is available at all lunches and dinners. I didn’t make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as many campers do when seeking extra protein.

So Why did I Gain Weight at Camp?

Salad Bar Heaven

Perhaps I piled my plate too high at the salad bar on those days that I decided to forego the main course. Which I did often, because the plentiful salad bar is available twice daily, every day.

Between the fresh lettuce,
pinto beans,
tuna fish,
hard boiled eggs,
3 kinds of fruit,
and a bunch of healthy things that I don’t eat –
oh, and at least 3 kinds of salad dressing plus oil and balsamic vinegar –
this place competes with Fresh Choice restaurants for healthfulness and variety.

Maybe I snacked too much on the fresh fruit, available 24/7. Can one eat too many bananas, apples (delicious and fuji), and oranges?

Chef Tammy Kempner: A Wonder-Worker

Tammy also bakes delicious cookies

According to the campers – and my own experience confirms this – the food is just too darn good! Honestly, I’m not sure how our director of catering, Tammy Kempner, does it. Her background is as a chef and a caterer, with a specialty in mid-eastern and kosher food.

She works in a kitchen designed 25 years ago to churn out 200 plates per meal. Today, without kitchen expansion or upgrades, Tammy prepares 6 sittings totaling 2,800 delicious meals a day. Plus snacks twice daily for 1,400.

In addition to the regular meal, Tammy daily provides meals for people with special dietary needs, including
no soy,
peanut allergic,
(and of course, pasta-tarians).

The Kids Say Great Things About the Food
“There are always options,” said Sydney, an 11th grade Avodahnik from Calabasas, “The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are always great snacks when I want something extra.”

Fresh Fruit Every Morning

“Camp Newman is the best food in the world. Yesterday, I had chicken, fries and a big plate of salad. Oh, and fruit too. It’s as good as Grandma’s cooking. And you should taste Tammy’s homemade cookies!” said 11 year old Danny.

Jake, a 19 year old counselor from Southern California, kvelled, “Coming from college to Camp Newman is kind of a relief. I don’t need to be innovative with my food anymore. Everything is laid out for us. My campers are excited for the food no matter what meal it is.

The Battle of (my belly) Bulge Continues
Soon enough, I’ll be home to hit the treadmill. I’ll dream about Camp Newman, wearing sandals and shorts all the time, and the Camp Newman Chadar Ochel experience. Good food, lovingly prepared, easily accessible. Yum!

Thank you Tammy (and the whole kitchen crew) for keeping me well fed with the tasty variety of meals you serve daily.

So what’s your favorite camp meal?

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

10+ Things I Really Hate about URJ Camp Newman

Now in my third day as faculty member at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA (and in my 18th year on faculty), I have been here long enough to clearly articulate all the things I HATE about this place. And there are many…

  • Waiting in line for 3-5 minutes for a meal that someone else shops from, prepares and cleans up from.
  • Sore feet from walking the miles of gorgeous trails in the bright sun under the clear blue sky
  • Being tired from staying up late with other faculty – rabbinic, education, art, medical – talking, laughing, problem solving, and sharing best practices.
  • Having to come up with a new story each day for services because the kids love the stories.
  • Needing to talk 24/7 about spirituality and God with staff and campers who want to think about, wrestle with and figure out the what, when, where and how of God. It’s not like that’s why I wanted to become a rabbi. (Oh right, it was!)
  • Putting on sunscreen to protect me from the sun, which shines constantly all day so we can enjoy outdoor activities (I’m kind of uptight about all that slimy, messy, white stuff).
  • Needing to remember the Jewish value of the day, because the staff integrates it into every moment of camp (Really? As if Judaism matters!?!)
  • Getting “hug bombed” (unexpectedly engulfed in the hugs) of my temple kids and other campers, even if I’m feeling cranky.
  • Realizing that while I grow older, the campers in the eidah (unit) and the counselors all are the same age year after year.
  • Having to dig through the huge bowl of freshly cut pineapple, cantaloupe  honeydew melon, watermelon, and grapes to find a fresh strawberry – I think those sneaky campers pick them out.
  • Not being able to enjoy the limitless tater tots at breakfast or breadsticks on pasta night because my stupid nutritionist said my metabolism can’t take it anymore
  • Being dragged into a circle of hugging singing people on Shabbat during the amazingly melodious shira (song session).
  • Dealing with happy, loving people all the time.

A lot of people kvell about (praise) their camp experiences. But that’s so easy to do; it doesn’t count.

But finding enough things to kvetch about, now that takes real talent!

Read my other Camp Newman blog posts.

The Latch on the Bathroom Stall Door

The Latch on the Bathroom Stall Door

What do we notice about those and that which we love? Go to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA and you will assuredly notice lots.

Camp built three new, gorgeous, well-designed cabins for 16 kids up top and 16 below, as the first stage in a multiyear master plan to usher camp into its future. Camp laid new grass upon the upper field, making it more enjoyable to use for play, especially for the pre-Shabbat ritual of Staff vs. CIT ultimate frisbee game. In the art room, the art specialist even created a museum of tie-dyed t-shirts, making it easier for campers to decide which design to make. All these exciting additions to camp. So noteworthy!

Of course, what was the first thing a certain camper mentioned to me after a few hours back in camp? That camp changed the latch inside the bigger stall in the boys’ bathroom in the Chadar Ochel (dining room) at Camp Newman. It seems that this door used to lock with a hook and eye screw; now it uses a fancy latch. You may be thinking, “Who cares about some lock on a bathroom door?!” Details matter. The little things connect us to the past and usher us through the present into the future.

Ask any camper, staff member or adult what makes camp so wonderful, and each will rattle off a list of favorite elements of camp:

  • Endless bread sticks on pasta day
  • Fresh fruit
  • Enduring friendships
  • Sunset on Shabbat
  • Enchanted Forest – a hike through beautiful wooded area
  • Goats at the Kibbutz OKY
  • “Repurposing” the Manure at the Kibbutz
  • Havdala under the stars
  • Its It – ice cream cookies on Shabbat afternoon
  • When the campers shout out “I love being Jewish!”

And then there are the bathrooms (again). I saw one young boy, at camp for the first time, rush out of the boys bathroom in the dining hall exclaiming, “You won’t believe this. You can basically pee right on the wall.” (He was referring to full length, wall to floor urinals. (Trust me, they are uniquely cool!)

Yes, everything at camp has its fans. Like the people who know all the special spots in Disneyland, or the foreshadowing in their favorite tv show, campers come to love (and elevate) the details, making camp the uniquely special place it is.

What’s your (or your child’s) favorite part of camp?

Out Come the Sandals: Camp Newman is Beginning

Soon I trade my shoes in for sandals and my briefcase in for a backpack. Pants are replaced by shorts; a baseball cap I place of my kippah. The change in clothing reflects a change in the location of my work from the synagogue in Calabasas to a summer camp in Santa Rosa. While my outer garments are significantly more relaxed than my regular temple clothes, they do not indicate a more relaxed few weeks for me. Rather the change in clothing just makes it easier to “get down and dirty” with the 350+ young people who attend and the 150 college students who lead the camp. 
At camp I lead multiple three session series of outdoor activities – entitled OMG WTF (Oh My God, Where’s Thy Faith). These sessions, held under the blue sky on the hilltops of Sonoma, guide 8th and 9th graders to encounter the Holy One. Together  they meet such Jewish thinkers as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel; in small groups they plan and lead t’filah (worship services).  Our Torat Chayim bunk activity provides us with a chance to wrestle with the challenging messages of the weekly Torah portion. As significantly, it offers the young people with a chance to ask their most burning questions to a patient rabbi who cares. We mentor college student counselors and graduate school Rashim (unit heads) as they nurture young Jews. And we refresh our own souls. 
For the last 16 summers, my wife Michelle November and I have traveled to Camp Newman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA. There, we chaperone our synagogue’s delegation of 45 youth and adults. 
We go because Congregation Or Ami highly values the Jewish summer camp experience, recognizing camp as one of the most significant Jewish enculturation and identity building modalities, second only to an active Jewish home. We go because we were shaped as Jews by the URJ summer camps – Michelle at Camp Swig and me at Kutz Camp. We go because camp is part of a quartet of Jewish influences which nurtured our four children: camp, Israel, Jewish day/high schools, and our synagogue Congregation Or Ami. 
For many people, summer is about relaxing. For us, our children, our congregation, and the delegation we chaperone, summer is a time for engaging Jewishly, searching deeply for our spiritual path, and for rejuvenating our souls. 
Come back to my blog for more updates from URJ Camp Newman.