Thursday, July 23, 2015

One of my rabbis growing up was Steve Karol and he did something very special for me one Sunday morning during religious school.  He convinced my parents that (a) I was ready to go to sleep away camp, (b) that Eisner Camp would be a great choice for me and (c) that the Temple would help make it financially possible!  So, in the summer of 1978 I began my URJ camping journey at Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I have to say, URJ summer camp was one of the best things that ever happened to me...

My camp experiences grew from being an Eisner camper in Ofarim and Tzofim to being a part of the very first Olim unit in 1980. I became a song leader that summer and was elected regional NELFTY song leader upon my return to Buffalo.  My experiences at Eisner led me to the Rabbinate and eventually to Goldman Union Camp in Zionsville, IN where I served as a Shoresh counselor and Unit Head for Avodah and Gezah.  Priceless memories - Goldman Union Camp became the place where I could be myself, share my skills and add to the community. It really did not matter whether I was tucking campers in at night, cleaning the pool filters or the bathhouses or spending a night out with fellow counselors, I was able to grow in a safe place, be nurtured by others and allow others to help me navigate the challenges that inevitably came along summer after summer.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of returning to the place where it all began, to Eisner, during a summer session, for the first time in over 30 years.  I realized that though I had changed considerably, camp was still camp.  I think many of those with me at camp this past weekend, recalled and perhaps even re-experienced those first moments on camp: not really knowing all the tunes to the songs and the prayers, or the way that relationships restarted like it had been 30 minutes and not 30 years. I witnessed  two children walking together, and I stood with their parents who told me how they developed a relationship with one another in this exact same space. I marveled at Shabbat Morning Services in the Chadar Ochel and how the songs, some new and some 40 years old, filled the room with the beautiful sound of Crane Lake campers singing in harmony.

I truly believe that when Rabbi Karol send me to camp, he gave me an immeasurable gift and I consider it my honor and privilege to share that gift with my students today. I never would have imagined that more than 30 years after stepping out of that van in front of the Manor House, I would one day be able to watch and "kvell" over an inspiring new generation of Eisner and now Crane Lake campers and staff - It was a moving day - and I can't wait to return again!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Last week I visited a new and exciting place - URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.  It is an awesome camp with a mission to instill Jewish identity through science and technology. As I drove through the rolling hills of the north shore of Massachusetts, little did I know what an incredible place this camp would be.

Sci-Tech is a specialty camp not unlike URJ 6 Points Sports Academy who's director, Alan Friedman, I also met on my tour.  Sci Tech clearly offers dedicated periods of time to specific activities where campers can learn about a subject about which they are passionate. I observed campers engaged in robotics, digital media production, environmental science, and video game design. I also saw one awesome game of ga-ga!  It was so cool for these kids. 

The counselors have incredible backgrounds in programming, chemistry, biology, art, theater - the list is endless.  What I loved most are the Jewish values—curiosity, discovery, respect, and connection—and a Jewish camp framework—morning blessings, song session and Shabbat.

When I asked campers what they liked best about Sci-Tech, I heard comments like: this is a place I can be myself,” and, “for the first time I was not picked last for the team.” I repeatedly heard kids say that they really felt like they fit in. “They get me here,” was a common refrain or I found my person.

Sci Tech is a camp and an environment for kids who might have never experienced a Jewish camp if it weren't for the science and technology offered in a comfortable and well designed space. What I observed was every camper engaged, every camper challenged and every camper comfortable at expressing who they are and what makes them tick.

I want to give tremendous praise to Greg Kellner and Robbie Berg and all camp staff.  It was an incredible visit and now I have a mission - I think there are a number of students in our midst who naturally shy away from certain summer camp experiences but who might thrive at Sci Tech.  Let's spend the next few months finding them and perhaps changing a life for the better.  

Thursday, October 31, 2013

This post was crafted by Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School at Gann Academy.  He took the words right out of my mouth...Being a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan I feel a certain kinship with the old man in the story who could have been my father, who coincidentally, was also born in 1918.  My father used to say in life you could count on three things; death, taxes and the Bills losing.

"Last week, as I drove to a Grandparents’ Breakfast at my school, I heard something on NPR that brought tears to my eyes. Commentator Bill Littlefield read a poignant essay called “The Old Red Sox.”

Picture an old man and a young man talking, when the old man says in a less than enthusiastic, almost dejected, voice: “They’re gonna win the World Series.”

An exchange ensues between these two representatives of two generations. The young man cannot understand why the old man isn't thrilled with the fun and excitement of the Red Sox winning in 2004, 2007, and again this season. It’s fun, he says.

The old man laments the fact that things are not as they used to be. “What are we, the Yankees?” he asks. “This is fine, if you’re in it for the fun,” he says to the young man. The old man misses the dependability of the good ol’ Red Sox, whom we could always count on to raise our hopes and then lose. And not only lose, but lose with artistry.

This is a beautiful piece about the gap between generations, relevant for anyone who thinks about continuity, tradition, transmission, history, memory, family. What does the future look like through the eyes of a tribe’s elders? How can the younger generation appreciate the experiences of those who came before them?

Littlefield captures the feelings of sadness and loss that we feel when the world changes around us, even for the better. What does it mean that my children will never know the longing that Red Sox fans felt since 1918, the year my grandfather was born?"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why I Send My Kids to Camp

This fantastic article was sent to me and offers remarkable insight into what the camp experience is all about. Some wonderful words of advice, especially for first time families.

"Why I Send My Kids to Camp"
Last week, my kids went off to sleepaway summer camp again in the high Sierras—their third year in a row. I will never, not ever, forget the first time I dropped my kids off at camp.

The drop-off didn't go very well.

When I was a kid, I begged and begged to go to sleepaway camp with my best friend, Rory. I did extra chores to earn it, and I counted the days until I got there. I don't remember being homesick, or sad at the drop-off. I remember feeling wild and free. I loved the horses and the outdoors and ceramics. I got postcards from my teachers. It was awesome.

My kids had mixed feelings about going to camp that first year: they were excited, but also scared. "TWO WEEKS!?" my youngest cried when I told her what, to me, was great news: They were going to summer camp! "They have horses!" I said cheerfully, trying to drum up excitement. "And sailing! I've never been sailing myself," I mourned. "You'll get to do it before I do!"

I said this knowing full well that sailing is actually not on my daughters' bucket list. It's on mine.

The kids spent the last few weeks readying for camp and making serious sister pacts to stick together. My younger daughter, Molly, was particularly concerned about what would happen if her older sister made friends first. Would Fiona and she still pick the same activities? Could Molly join Fiona with her new friends? Pinky-swears of allegiance were traded, plans to sneak into each other's cabins made.

Molly had a plan: Fiona would take care of her. She was nervous, but also excited.
Fiona was calm, reassuring.

That is, until about an hour before we arrived at camp. At which point Fiona became more clammy than cool and collected. She developed vague "not feeling well" symptoms. She was too carsick to eat lunch. When we arrived, she was faintly green.
Altitude sick, I declared. "Drink some water," I insisted. "Take deep breaths," I said, taking them myself. "Think good thoughts, Fiona. Find two things to be excited about."
Frankly, I was feeling faint myself.

But the thing is, I believe that it is important to challenge kids. To get them truly outside of their comfort zones so that they can grow. Hence two weeks instead of a mini-camp. My desire to challenge my kids was reinforced in an Atlantic article about "Why the obsession with our kids' happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods." The gist of this article is that "kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don't know how to solve problems." And the article is right—they don't.

The article reminded me that happiness—an often fleeting emotion—in and of itself is not the goal. That comfort—my own or my children's—is not the goal. Instead, all of this is about how to lead a happy life. And while it's true that a happy life comes from positive emotions (like gratitude and compassion, for example), it also comes from having the tools we need to cope with life's inevitable difficulties and painful moments.
My kids have had their difficulties—my divorce, a move away from a beloved school and neighborhood, a humbling medical situation—and they've risen to each challenge, though not without pain.

(I'd like to pause to acknowledge that even with those difficulties, my kids have a pretty cushy life. We don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where we will sleep tonight. That said, the fear the kids had anticipating me leaving them at camp was very real to all of us.)

At any rate, by sending my kids to camp, I was sending them the message that I believe that they can manage loneliness, and homesickness, and anxiety. I believed that they could, at the tender ages of 8 and 10, handle these difficult emotions themselves, without me standing over their shoulders telling them to breathe. As awful as it sometimes feels to me, they simply don't always need me there, telling them what to do and what to think.

By sending my kids to camp, I send them the message that I think it is incredibly important to unplug for a while every year. And not just from electronics and phones and computers and TVs, but also from their well-meaning but often over-bearing mom. They learn that it won't kill them to not report back to me on every high point and low point of their day, every kind deed, every "good thing."

In sending my kids to camp, I make it abundantly clear what I value: real time spent outdoors, the social skills needed to make new friends, compassion, gratitude (compassion and gratitude are themes at camp), and most importantly, their own autonomy.

I say all this, but of course deep down I wanted it to be easy for them. So when Fiona became so nervous as we dropped her off that she needed to lie down in the infirmary, I also became a nervous wreck.

"She'll be fine," the camp nurse, Tigger, reassured me. "Now we need you to hop on that van — it is the last one headed back to the parking lot!"

I had become the lingering parent who wouldn't leave and who was making the whole thing worse for her kid by trying to make it better. But who could fault me for not wanting to leave my kid IN THE INFIRMARY?! I justified to myself.

In the end, Fiona rallied, but not before she became so nervous she threw up, just minutes after I got on the bus back to the parking lot. She spent her first four hours at camp with the nurse, who french-braided her hair and gave her cold cloths for her forehead until she was feeling better. She looks back on that time and mostly remembers being bored; Tigger needed to be sure she didn't have a flu or something, and so even once Fiona felt fine, she had to stay in the infirmary for a while.
I didn't know until she got home that Fiona had thrown up (thank goodness I didn't know that; who knows what I would have done if I knew). Once I got back to my car, two weeks of profound discomfort began for me.

I spent those two weeks obsessively checking the camp website for photos and my mailbox for postcards, looking for evidence that my girls were happy. I answered dozens of emails and comments on my blog, defending my decision to send my kids to camp, and to leave Fiona there in the infirmary, terrified.

After what seemed like two years, the kids camp home on the bus, wearing t-shirts that said, "Happy Camper." And, in fact, that is what they were: so, so happy.

Two weeks of being unplugged helped them tune into nature in a way they don't anywhere else. Though both reported missing home, they found comfort in knowing that they could cope with homesickness. They each tried dozens of new activities and sports, took on new challenges, and learned to accept their discomfort as a part of their growth.

Both kids made friends that they kept in touch with all year, and hope to return to their camp every year with "forever."

Still, sending kids to camp is not for wimps. It requires a leap of faith that the difficulty (and, l'll just say it, that the cost) will be worth it. It requires an ability to manage the emotional discomfort that comes with not-knowing, not-controlling, not-checking—it requires just trusting. But I'm comfortable with that discomfort.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

You know how when you first meet someone, you engage in small talk. Where do you live? Where’d you go to school? What do you do for a living? Well I seem to get through the first two questions with no problem, but when I tell people who do not know me what I do, it never fails to throw them a bit. You’re a Temple Educator? You must mean a teacher. A principal, really? It’s kind of amusing.

We all have our own assumptions about what other people should be like and how they should lead their lives. It helps us categorize and make sense of our complex world. And yet, we find time and time again that people don’t fit neatly into the categories we create.

I’m reminded of a Hasidic Tale. Rabbi Zusya teaches, a short while before his death, “In the world to come I shall not be asked, Why were you not Moses? I shall be asked, Why were you not Zusya?” In other words, we need not compare ourselves to others. We need not try to live up to external expectations. We need not be a Moses. An Abraham. A Miriam. A Sarah. Rather, we need to look inside ourselves and ask some serious questions.  Who am I meant to be? What gifts do I have to share with the world that only I can give? How can I maximize my God-given potential?

So here’s what I have come to learn. It really doesn't matter what other people are doing. In some ways that is reassuring. But the harder, more challenging lesson for each and every one of us is to look inside ourselves and find what we are meant to do in life. What is it that only we can offer the world around us in our own special way?

As we come to the end of another school year, I feel blessed to be here at B’nai Shalom educating our children and youth. I am doing what I am meant to be doing. And so, when people seem surprised at what I do, I smile to myself and think about the wisdom of Zusya and hope that that they too will be fortunate enough to find their uniquely special place in the world.