As the week of the 71st Union for Reform Judaism Biennial approached, I asked my friends and congregants what they were most anticipating. For those who had attended a Biennial in the past, the answer was unanimous: they couldn’t wait until Shabbat services and the Song Session that followed. I was somewhat surprised by this – not the incredible teachers? Not the honored speakers? Not the networking opportunities? No, they were looking forward to services, surrounded by thousands of other committed, involved, passionate Reform Jews. I have been pondering this, and I finally came up with my own theory for why this is so: the Shabbat experience at Biennial is the closest most Reform Jewish adults will come to experiencing the beauty of Jewish camping.
My own years at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) as a teenager were profoundly transformative, and they are one of the primary reasons that I chose to become a rabbi. At camp, I found kindred spirits. I found extended family. I found friends who cared about being Jewish, about enjoying our Judaism, and about being with fellow Jewish kids. And I found the beauty of Shabbat – the magical feeling of holiness that descended each Friday afternoon and continued through Havdalah on Saturday night.
I was one of the few who continued past Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and I know that my summers at camp had a lot to do with it. I wanted to learn more, I wanted to be involved in synagogue life. I sought out NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and temple youth group activities – anything that allowed me to bring a bit of the camp ruach (spirit) home with me.
In my rabbinate, one of my primary goals is to enable today’s students to experience some that camp magic in their lives. At the URJ Biennial, over 200 NFTY kids and campers added enthusiasm, awesome dance moves, and youthful energy to the convention’s proceedings. They even got a “shout-out” from President Obama during his address on Friday afternoon. To harness and enhance this energy, the URJ has started a brand-new Campaign for Youth Engagement, aiming to creatively encourage students to stay involved in synagogue life after they become B’nai Mitzvah. The URJ seems to actively recognize the role that Jewish camping plays in nurturing positive Jewish identities. The various URJ Camps were mentioned often during the Biennial, and camp-style worship was quite popular each day. Camp alumni proudly advertised which camp they had attended, as well as sang camp harmonies and clapped special camp rhythms during all the songs.
It is clear to those of us who treasure Jewish camp that it is a vital part of the Campaign for Youth Engagement formula. I can close my eyes, and immediately be back at camp, smelling the camp fire, hearing the guitar playing a favorite Hebrew song (“Y’hiyeh Tov,” “Oseh Shalom,” “Kol HaOlam Kulo…”), and feeling my arms around my bunkmates. The magic will be with me always, as I pray it will be for all Jewish children from this generation to the next.
- Rabbi Marci N. Bellows
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.
Tags: Youth Engagement