There is something about the URJ Camp Newman that brings out the best about people. It might be the fact that is founded upon a belief that each child is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis), and that therefore, no matter what they do or say, they are valuable and good and worthy of love. From the moment a child (or a staff or faculty member, for that matter) walks into camp, he/she is bombarded with that message: that he/she is lovable and loved. Talk about a mind game!
We live in a world where people make names for themselves or make their riches by climbing all over other people or by demeaning others. Our schools are littered with youngsters harmed by the “Mean Girls” and “Queen Bee and Wannabees.” Our elections reward those who resort to negative advertising. The message in our world is clear: “I’m better than you. I’m good so you are not.” This reality makes you wonder, just what is going on at our camp?
At Camp Newman, we teach that even though I am created b’tzelem Elohim, so are you. (We even sing a song by Dan Nichols about this value.) That means I need to treat you with respect, kindness and compassion. No matter what. It is so counter-cultural! And it permeates every aspect of camp life.
- Campers arriving on the first day are bombarded by joyous singing of a song: “Heveynu Shalom Aleichem – we bring peace to you!” It brings smiles to the faces of even the most anxious kids and parents.
- Counselors are taught to lead their Tochnit (Judaica learning program) activities in such a way that every child’s comments are valued.
- On Yom Sports (Sports Day, elsewhere known as Color War) we play a plethora of activities including sports, drama, and art so that every child – even the non-athletic – have an opportunity to be successful. At the end of the day of inter-team competition, few focus on who really won. The message permeates the camp: everyone is a winner because we all had fun!
- Hashkevah (bedtime activities) – trust walks, nighttime gaga, pass the yarn – are geared toward creating community. Get to know everyone because everyone matters!
- Of course, try climbing the 50 foot tower. The amazing Tower staff are trained to help each person challenge him/herself. Making it to the top is less important than pushing yourself or learning about yourself. (Trust me, I succeeded in climbing higher than ever before – still shy of the top – and they made me feel great about myself!
Walk through any high school and you will see the cliquish division of the lunchroom: football jocks here, computer geeks there, drama kids over there… Walk through camp Newman and you will see kids shedding labels, collecting friends, intermingling in amazing ways.
At my home Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we strive to promulgate similar values by wearing name tags at services, reaching out through our Henaynu (We are Here) caring community, and welcoming guests by name at services. Word on the street is that we do it well. And here’s the secret to why: as a former camp director, I keep camp as a model. In fact, I return to Camp Newman every summer for just that purpose: to renew my understanding of the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim. Now that I’ve left Camp Newman, I cannot wait to return. Because camp makes me feel so good about myself and everybody else!