There’s a legendary story often told among experiential Jewish educators about the child who returns from Jewish sleepaway camp. Upon returning home, her parents ask her how camp was, and she responses with a smile that camp was incredible. When asked what her favorite part of camp was, she quickly responds that it was Havdallah. Her parents are elated. Among all the activities at camp, it was a Jewish ritual, the moment when we say goodbye to Shabbat for the weekend, when we separate out that which is kadosh – holy – from that which is chol – ordinary – that stuck with her most. When asked if she wants them to start doing Havdallah together as a family every Saturday night, she quickly responds “no!” When her parents ask her why, she clarifies: “we don’t have a lake!”
While this story is meant to cause us to laugh, there is some truth to it. Jewish summer camp is one of the most successful institutions in the American Jewish community for engaging Jewish youth in joyful Jewish experiences. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to bring those experiences back to synagogues and Jewish communities who are in search of the community building and spiritual growth that the utopian environment of Jewish camping provides. At Congregation Beth El, we too were interested in bringing the joy of Jewish camp to Beth El. Our answer was to bring Beth El to camp.
Ever since I arrived at Congregation Beth El, I had a vision of having a congregational retreat at a summer camp. I know that some members of our community had this vision long before I was a part of the community. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who made up our retreat committee and an enthusiastic community, we had over 250 members of our community join us over Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania.
This retreat was an incredible opportunity to build community, to disconnect from the outside world and our devices and screens that often consume so much of our time (including mine!), to be with loved ones, to make new friends, to strengthen existing friendships, to connect with God as Creator in the beauty of nature, to try new things, to have fun, and to appreciate the sanctity of Shabbat. The melodies and singing of prayers and Hebrew songs brought Judaism to life. Shabbat services outdoors in the amphitheater and weekday minyan by the lake allowed us to experience the Presence of God that we were praying to all around us. Our meals allowed us to break bread with new friends, building intergenerational connections around the tables of the dining hall. And friendly competition – congregational-wide softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee games – helped build community as well. The gorgeous whether was an added bonus.
On Saturday night, as we saw three stars glisten in the sky, we gathered by the lake for Havdallah, just like the camp experienced in that urban legend. Earlier, each child had made their own havdallah candle, and slowly as the light of one candle extended to another, and the flickering flames of over 100 candles illuminated our circle, we experienced the true light of community. Singing and swaying and saying goodbye to Shabbat transitioned into a late-night bonfire with s’mores and karaoke.
And although we had a closing activity on Sunday morning, with everyone taking home a new friendship bracelet to wear, reminiscent of the new relationships we’ve built, there were no tearful goodbyes or bus notes to write. We weren’t saying goodbye to a community, to a home away from home. Rather, we were bringing the joy of camp back home with us, as a community. The ruach of that experience will carry with us in so much that we do. And for those who yearn to go back, we are already beginning registration for next summer.
May the joy we feel at summer camp carry with us all the time. May we always smile like we do when we are singing outdoors, or zipping down the zipline, or tie dying our t-shirts, or hitting the bullseye in archery. And may we always have enriching Jewish moments, without needed a lake to make them happen.
We are especially grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and One Happy Camp NJ for their generous grant that helped make this retreat a reality! One Happy Camper can help your child find the right Jewish summer camp for them. Click here for more information.
-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky