“Designed Just for Me”: The 6 Points URJ Sci-Tech Academy Experience

I spent last week at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, where every morning after Modeh Ani, we blow something up. It’s called Boker Big Bang. Check out Friday morning’s explosion here (after the first explosion, skip to 2:30 to find out why the experiment didn’t work the first time)!

As a rabbi, educator, and former camp counselor, I’ve been on a lot of field trips over the last 15+ years. I’ve taken groups to beaches and amusement parks (fun but terrifying in terms of keeping track of kids); gone hiking, camping, and rock climbing (not my favorite); visited museums, synagogues, and historical sites (not the kids’ favorite).

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Earth and Sky Workshop simulating volcanic rock formation.

I have never, EVER seen a group as well-behaved as the one I accompanied to Google’s Cambridge offices on this week’s Trip Day with URJ Six Points Sci Tech Academy. The dozen campers filed off the bus and across the street without seeming to notice that there were stores and restaurants lining their path, selling all types of items either forbidden or unavailable at camp. They listened carefully to instructions, showed kavod (respect) to our guide by dutifully following her everywhere, and asked thoughtful questions of a panel of Google employees.

It wasn’t until we were back on the bus that I realized what had happened. It’s not that Sci-Tech campers don’t sometimes struggle to pay attention to instructions. It’s not that they don’t want to binge on candy  (they did that later when we stopped at Boston’s Museum of Science). It’s not even that the Google offices are incredible to behold (they are!).

It’s that, for this particular group of kids, there was nothing more exciting to do on a sunny Tuesday morning in July than to learn about how a major technology company operates.

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Making s’mores with the Forensic Science Workshop, after a lesson on arson!

This realization filled me with joy. I felt so happy for these kids, that they had found a place tailored to their exact interests, with dozens of like-minded kids for them to connect to. Even within the camp, campers are able to split off into subgroups based on what excites and inspires them: Biology, Earth Science, Robotics, Video Game Design, Web and Graphic Design, Forensic Science, Digital Film, Programming and Coding. While we were touring Google, other workshop groups were scattered across the Boston area, learning about earthquakes, playing with DNA in a crime lab, and meeting video-game designers, among other things.

Though I was never a science kid, I’ve been a fan of Sci-Tech for awhile. I’ve promoted it to Jewish families as an alternative to traditional overnight camp. But Sci-Tech actually provides something that even my own, much appreciated, Jewish camp experience did not. Sci-Tech gives campers an opportunity to nurture their talents and interests in a Jewish context, and connects them with kids who are, in many ways, just like them.

In my camping experience, the only thing that all of us had in common was Judaism. We managed to figure out for ourselves who enjoyed sports and who preferred the arts, but we didn’t really put much energy into either while we were at camp. We just liked being together. The Jewish part of camp ended up becoming one of my major interests, but other passions of mine–writing, music, theater–were usually confined to a few periods a week, or relegated to my life outside of camp.

This is exactly what the Foundation for Jewish Camping was addressing when they began providing incubator grants to camps like Sci-Tech. Noticing that many Jewish families were not opting into Jewish overnight camp, they looked for ways to make the Jewish camp experience more appealing and accessible. Sci-Tech provides the option of two-week sessions (not available at traditional camps past a certain age) in which a camper can be completely immersed in a subject they are passionate about.

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In addition to leading Jewish activities, this time I also taught arts and crafts. Here’s the result of a “design challenge” to make a lanyard Torah.

(A side note: I didn’t know specialty camps were a thing until I was an adult. My brothers and I had unwittingly attended a sports-based day camp where my mom worked as a nurse, until we were old enough to go to URJ Camp Harlam. Years later, I worked at a JCC  camp that specialized in the visual and performing arts. I came home and said to my mother, accusingly, “Did you know there were camps where they do theater and music and pottery ALL DAY!?!?!”).*

I’m not the only one who realizes how amazing this is for kids who may not have been interested in Jewish camp for the sake of Jewish camp. The campers notice too. Walking with a first-time camper to make s’mores–after a forensic science lesson on arson, of course– I asked her how she liked camp.

“I love it!” She bubbled. “It’s as if they designed this place just for me.”

*By the way, URJ Six Points’ next project is an arts-focused camp. I can’t wait!


2016 Vassar Temple Founder’s Award Recipient: David Lampell

David Lampell
As most of you know it’s become a tradition for the Founders Award recipient of one year to have the responsibility, no the honor of telling you about the following year’s recipient. So the only thing that could have made me more proud than being the recipient into 2015 is that it now gives me the privilege to tell you about this year’s award winner.

And so it is with great delight that at this time I invite the 2016 Founders Award recipient, David Lampell, to join me here at the microphone.

As I spoke to people about David’s participation in the temple over the years the sense that I got from everyone is that David is just one of those people who is around all the time and especially manages to show up when something needs to get done. He is like a fixture which is there working for you, but perhaps because it is ubiquitous you might not really think about or appreciate its importance.

David got an early start at the temple as most of you know. The child of Temple presidents, in fact an individual with a long legacy of relatives who have worked tirelessly to make our temple thrive, David first got to Vassar Temple at the age of three. He was a frequent participant services with his beloved parents Matt and Muriel; when he came of age in 1964 he had his bar mitzvah on the bimah in the sanctuary above us.

From a young age he was apparently very much his own person and told his parents that there was no way he was getting confirmed; it just wasn’t his thing apparently. But his mom, astute as ever, basically gave him an ultimatum she told me: either you get confirmed or you join the Temple youth group. I can hear her saying this; can’t you? Perhaps it was to the Temple’s advantage that David took the road less traveled, because his involvement in youth group led him ultimately to be an outstanding president of that organization and then to also become NIFTY president as well as a Youth Group advisor.

As most of our teens do, he left for college, but unlike most of our teens he came back and we’re lucky he did!

Once David started to become intimately involved with the temple his energy, enthusiasm and participation knew no bounds.
As certain as I am that I’ll be able to share some amazing things that David has done, I am just as certain that his participation in certain projects or activities or committees will be left unsaid as he did so quietly and perhaps without notice. So I apologize to him if I leave out other ways in which he has contributed.

However the list of his contributions that did reveal themselves clearly are enough to speak to who David is and how essential he has been to Vassar Temple. At a leadership level David has served as an amazing Temple President , as Vice President and as second vice president on more than one occasion. Behind the scenes, as many past presidents do, he has served as advisor to sitting leaders of the Temple. I know that I was able to confer with him on occasion when I was Temple President, tapping into his wisdom.

David has served in the capacity as Chair of the House committee; he has been a constant presence during our High Holy day services, serving as head usher and basic go to guy. He is called upon on a regular basis to be our electronic consultant when this machine or that gadget ceases to function, while also offering central support with our A/V and lighting systems during innumerable Temple events. Speaking with first-hand experience, I can tell you that David was instrumental in assisting me not only as a member of the Rabbi Search Committee but as the AV consultant allowing us to connect with all of our rabbi candidates via the internet – by Skype or Google chat – and offering a set up which made it possible for the whole committee to participate.

He was behind the decision to move our temple offices to the main floor [ they had been in the basement where classrooms are now] and he was heavily involved in getting the phone system installed. David has been a participant in social actions programs over the years; not only has he supported the local mitzvah day activities, but he helped to build a black church. David has been involved as well with maintaining our memorial boards.

Perhaps one of the more philosophical tasks to which David was assigned was that of Chairing the Committee to determine what is a “family” : a deep question of a bygone era when there was doubt about the definition at least among adults; I understand that a child’s innocence led one of our young people -upon hearing of the existence of such a committee – to utter what seemed obvious, “ everyone know what a family is…”!

As a member of the Men’s Club David has taken on many tasks including helping with Sukkah building, assessing the need for roof repairs, fixing the classrooms and guiding emergency work required by one or another weather related disaster.

But perhaps there is no responsibility that David managed more confidently than any other, with his typical sense of calm, resolve, purpose and great competence then when he applied these leadership qualities to his position – over decades mind you – as the Vassar Temple Bat Meister! Yes, I have it on good authority from his delightful and ever supportive wife, Marilyn, that David has responded on an emergency basis to the temple when the alarm was set off by wayward bats triggering the motion sensors. Given the natural behavior of these little critters, of course this would happen mostly in the middle of the night. She shared with me that time and again, for more times than she can count, David, learning that the alarm had gone off, would be able in less than 10 minutes to get dressed, get to the temple, deal with the situation, reset the alarm and be back in bed! He truly is a phenomenon!

It is surely obvious to all of us how lucky we are that David is a member of Vassar Temple. He has done his parents proud and as the saying suggests the apple clearly has not fallen far from the tree.

David it is truly a privilege to be able to present you with the 2016 Founders Award. Like those who’ve come before, you serve the temple not because of the award that you might receive on an evening like this, but because your heart is in the right place and that place is Vassar Temple.

As we applaud David for his many achievements on our behalf, let us not forget the person who loans you to us, who supports all of your work , who jumps in with both feet on so many temple projects – a force of mitzvot in her own right, your wonderful wife Marilyn.

Sweet blessings to you both.

Submitted by Sandra Mamis, 2015 Founder’s Award Recipient

The Perfect Crime: “Breaking in” to Jewish Summer Camp

Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Last Shabbat, my parents sneaked onto URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. They were caught, red-handed, by the director himself, who sent them on a “tour” so that they wouldn’t be wandering around unsupervised.

My mother pulled the same move 14 years ago, when I was a counselor. That time she made it all the way to my cabin and tapped me on the shoulder while I was sleeping. How times have changed!

As an Eisner alumna–she attended camp in the late sixties–my mother has a hard time wrapping her head around the ever-increasing safety measures at camp. For her, as for many of us, camp is home, sometimes more than home is home. Nothing–not even the passage of nearly 50 years–could change that for her. How could it be that she has to sneak into–and be politely escorted out of–her own home?

Fortunately, I don’t have to pull any covert maneuvers to come home. Returning to camp year after year was one of my original motivations for becoming a rabbi, and I have been blessed to spend time as faculty at URJ Camps during many of my summers.

It isn’t exactly a “perfect crime” though, as they really put us to work! We engage the younger units in fun learning activities around themes of Mitzvot (Sacred Behaviors), Middot (Jewish Values), and Tikkun Olam (Healing the World). For the older campers (entering 8th-10th grade), we teach electives: this year mine was a social justice module called “Game of Loans.” We tutor b’nai mitzvah students, help with daily and Shabbat tefillah, and offer support to staff as they continue their own Jewish journeys.

It’s a big change to go from attending camp to teaching at camp. But even as a working adult, we still get to see some of the magic that makes camp camp: both the things that have changed and those that have stayed the same. For instance, projection screens have replaced songbooks and prayer sheets, but campers still bang on the tables in (mostly) the same spots. There are new songs (Don’t Waste the Milk and this version of L’chu Neranena were my favorite musical acquisitions), but there is also the same sense of loud, chaotic abandon that campers and staff exhibit as they sing and dance.

Young people are coming to camp from an entirely different culture than when I was a camper, but that makes it all the more wonderful to see them surrender their devices and engage with their low-tech selves: making friendship bracelets, playing make-believe (one cabin I visited was involved in a pretty intense game of “lice clinic/hair salon”), and talking to one another face-to-face.

This year was my first year as faculty at URJ Crane Lake Camp, Eisner’s neighbor, and it was incredible to see how much the camp has grown and changed in the 19 years since it became a URJ Camp. They’ve worked hard to develop their own unique identity, and, even though I grew up at URJ Camp Harlam, Crane Lake is absolutely a place I’d be proud to call home.

One thing that I loved about Crane Lake was its community culture. Some of the camps I’ve worked with are so large in population that they rarely bring the entire camp together. Crane Lake, on the other hand, has opportunities throughout the day for everyone to be assembled. Every meal is an all-camp meal, where birthdays are celebrated, lost teeth are commemorated, and clearing the table is accompanied by music and dancing. One morning, the youngest campers even treated us to a Modeh Ani flashmob.

Each morning after breakfast, the entire camp joins in a short, lively, musical tefillah that feels much like a giant song session. On Shabbat, campers can sit wherever they want at dinner, giving siblings–and synagogues–a chance to bond across their age differences. Afterwards, while the community is at Shabbat services, the entire dining hall is cleared to make room for a massive song and dance session!


Ending Shabbat with Havdalah at URJ Crane Lake Camp

Coming together as a community reminds us that we are all a part of something larger. We aren’t a cabin, a unit, a specific camp, or even a generation of campers. We are part of something that stretches beyond age, geography, and time. Camp connects us to an endless chain of people who have called camp home. And I’m grateful that, at least for two weeks out of every summer, I get to come home again, too.

Join me next summer! Visit http://urjnortheastcamps.org/ to find the summer experience that’s right for you. And stay tuned for my report from URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy!