At GUCI, we take great pride in building a diverse Reform Jewish community. We encourage people to really be themselves, and to work hard to develop their “best selves.” We embrace the wide range of personalities, interests, and skills people bring to our community each summer. Kids who grow up at GUCI leave our program with a strong sense of self-confidence and a meaningful connection to their Judaism and the State of Israel. As you can imagine, our GUCI alumni have gone on in their lives to do some amazing things, to make a difference in the world in which they live, and to inspire others.
We are starting a new series called “Alumni Spotlight,” where we will highlight the accomplishments of some of our alumni. GUCI has alumni who serve the Jewish community, excel in business, teach, practice law and medicine, are politicians, musicians, comedians, etc. We hope you’ll enjoy reading these profiles, and if you know of someone you think would be a good inclusion in this series, please let us know!
Our first Alumni Spotligh is David Burkman. David is a filmmaker who has been working on a feature film called, “Haze”. That film is going to be released in theaters this week, and will be available on a variety of digital media starting October 17th! David grew up at GUCI. He was a camper and staff member. He and I were co-counselors together in a Gezah cabin just a few years ago. I hope you enjoy my interview with him.
- When did you attend Camp?
I started at GUCI as a Gezah camper back in the summer of 1983. I was camper for 4 summers, then Avodah ’87, then a Machon, and a counselor for another 5 years. I also directed Project the summer of ’91 (The Boyfriend and The Pajama Game). All in all I was at GUCI for 11 summers.
- What parts of camp did you enjoy the most as a camper?
I loved so many aspects of camp, but Shabbat stands out as one of the most special experiences. It’s like the molecules in the air changed to something electric and magical when it was time to douse myself in Drakkar Noir and get ready for the Shabbat walk. The way that everybody would come together and celebrate life on those special evenings sticks in my mind and heart. I loved everything about it, from the walk to the services, the dinner, the song session ending with what to this day may be the prettiest sound ever – the singing of the Shehecheyanu, the dancing, the campfire, and Ron Klotz’s hassidic tales. Nothing matches that experience in spirit and peace.
- Why were you drawn to camp, to return so many times?
In a word – the girls! Ha! I’m only sort of kidding. I mean, I met a lot of nice Jewish girls at GUCI. 🙂 But I think that camp for me was a place unlike anything else. It was a place where we lived the way I feel life should really always be lived. The “real world” can be a place of cold alienation at times, but at camp I never felt alone. The friendships and bonds I made at camp remain to this day some of the closest relationships I’ve ever had.
- How has your experience at GUCI impacted your life as an adult?
I think that GUCI made me aware of how important human relationships are. And I think that the way I try relate to others now stems directly from the way I learned to connect with others on a very deep level at camp. Also, I learned a lot about teaching at camp. The way in which the educational programs were rooted in experiential modalities really stuck with me. I have been a teacher, formally at times as an adult, and I bring so many of the wonderful teaching methods I learned at camp to the table when I teach.
- How, if at all, did GUCI help you grow or find your Jewish identity?
It’s hard to say what kind of Jewish identity I would have if it were not for GUCI. My entire sense of being Jewish stems from those summers living a fully Jewish life. GUCI is where I learned about Jewish values, traditions, and way of life.
- Tell us about your career in film and how you came to be a filmmaker.
That’s a long story, of course. I struggled for a time after college trying to find my path. I’d always been creative, and a lot of that creativity was cultivated and encouraged at GUCI. I ended up going to USC film school, which gave me the structure and confidence I needed to commit to filmmaking as a career.
- Tell us about the current project, HAZE, what it’s about, etc.
HAZE is my first feature length film. It’s a movie based on my own experiences pledging a fraternity at IU. It is a very dark, yet realistic story about fraternity and sorority hazing. It occurred to me that while Hollywood has always been fascinated with stories about Greek Life (ever since Animal House), these films all tend to be comedies, treating hazing as a innocuous game. I wanted to make a film that took a more realistic approach and captured the realities of what some men and women all over the country have been experiencing for decades. The story itself is based on ancient Greek myth. I thought it would be interesting to tell a story about Greek Life based on Greek myth.
- Why was it important for you to make this film?
Being hazed in college was a profound, complex and memorable experience for me. I have to say that while going through it, it was an adrenaline rush, a thrilling experience that made me feel really alive. But some of what we endured was really dangerous, life threatening even. And I felt I wanted to try to capture the entirety of the experience. All of the stories I feel compelled to tell are about memorable, emotionally charged times in my life. I guess I create art from these experiences to try to make more sense of them, and I hope that there is something about my experience that others can connect and relate to. In my opinion, art is about trying to connect people by sharing universal truths. This, I realize, is a philosophy I may have cultivated at GUCI.
- What lessons do you want people to learn from experiencing the film?
For me, all good films do three things: They entertain, they make you think, and they make you feel. My hope is that HAZE does all of these things. I would also hope that it sparks a constructive dialogue about hazing. But even more interesting to me is the films’ exploration of the nature of brotherhood, and the nature of friendship. And the lengths to which people will go to belong. It’s not surprising to me that as a GUCI alum, I would make a film that explores these themes — after all, camp was a place where I learned the true meaning of friendship, of brotherhood, and always felt like I belonged. As I mentioned, I think the world at large can be a cold, isolating place. Everyone wants to find a sense of home and human connection. GUCI is the best example of a place where these deep bonds are formed in safe, healthy, meaningful ways. This should be an example to these groups that hurt each other to try to connect.
- Talk about current success:
I am very proud to say that after many years of intense sacrifice and hard work, HAZE has distribution. It will enjoy a limited theatrical run in several cities. The theater details can be found on the HAZE website here: http://hazemovie.com/screenings.html
From there it will be released on dozens of digital/VOD platforms as well as DVD/BluRay.