by Rabbi Javier E. Cattapan
Reprinted from RJ.org
This summer, after a 15-year hiatus, I decided to spend time working at a Jewish camp – GUCI, in this case. I happened to pick the last two weeks in June thinking the weather would cooperate, yet, Indiana’s early summer broke all records (mind you, dry heat!). It was a physical challenge for everyone to try to concentrate, for instance, during evening t’filot, with temperatures hovering at the three-digit mark. Obviously, many of the outdoor activities were also hindered by the extreme heat, except our determination to have fun, share our lives, and learn about Judaism. Despite the weather, I doubt that any of the campers had a less stimulating or exciting summer than otherwise. I know I had a great time being part of the faculty and enjoyed the legendary ruach at GUCI.
The centerpiece of every URJ camp is our effort to provide Jewish memories for our youth, who will grow and shape the future of Judaism for years to come. We have all heard the statistics about the unparalleled impact that Jewish summer camps have on strengthening our youngsters’ connections to Judaism. Certainly, the statistics are true, but they seem impersonal to most of us. I would like to offer, instead, an eyewitness account of a few hours, at one URJ camp, on a Friday evening, before sunset …
After a week of shvitzing at breakfast, at lunch, during programs, at t’filot, etc., it was difficult to visualize the transformation that camp experiences as we welcome Shabbat. Visitors from all over the country flock to camp for Shabbat: former campers, counselors, staff as well as spouses, children of those of us working at camp – a spot at the Shabbat table is highly sought-after months in advance.
So, what’s all the fuss about Shabbat at camp? I have experienced the “magic” of a Shabbat at other camps before, but the great anticipation in everyone’s descriptions of the evening confirmed that this was special. I could not fathom how campers had managed to save a set of clean clothes! But there they were, all prepped up and ready to welcome Shabbat. At GUCI, Shabbat begins with a “Shabbat Walk” from the upper regions of the camp to the “lower” cabins section (I hope I am not revealing any trade secrets …). As our Shabbat walk winded down to the various areas of camp, I wondered how they could all look so radiant and happy. I knew in my mind that they were the same campers and counselors, but I could perceive that something had changed them: Shabbat had worked its magic. Tears welled in my eyes: I am happy with my age and my life’s journey, but at that instant, I wished I had had their opportunity if for a second I could be a camper… and welcome Shabbat.
It may sound cliché, but it begs the question: How could Jewish parents not want their children to experience this? If they could see their kids’ punim (and they cannot – that’s part of the “magic” of camp), they would not hesitate to send their children every single year. We know that camp is not for everyone, but for those youth to whom camp is a great fit, why should they miss out? As someone who grew up overseas with no significant Jewish camping movement, I would not want to imply that those children who do not attend camp will not grow to be fully committed Jews. There is no warranty that our campers will either, but whatever path they choose, we can be certain that the memory of a Shabbat at camp will be treasured all their lives – and that must be worth something, if not priceless.
Rabbi Javier E. Cattapan serves Congregation Achduth Vesholom in Fort Wayne, IN.