The Stranger Within Your Camp

havdalah crane lake camp panoramaMy sermon this Shabbat on parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

After each of the four summers that I attended URJ Camp Harlam, I’d get a terrible case of laryngitis. By my final summer as a camper, it was so bad that the only noise I could make for a week was a honk. This wasn’t just from screaming cheers during color war, or staying up all night talking with my bunkmates. It was actually because I, previously the quietest child in my family, talked for the entire two-hour drive home to Philadelphia. I told my parents every last detail, stories that I thought were hysterical, and that they likely didn’t understand, many of which I still remember today.

For example, one summer, we had a British counselor named Sarah, and there was a running joke where campers would try to get her to say “to-mah-to” so that they could make fun of her accent. By the end of the summer, she would say, in an exaggerated American accent, “to-may-to.”

One evening, while we were camping, our counselors decided to make banana boats: basically a s’more, stuffed in a banana, wrapped in tin foil, and cooked over an open fire. They got really hot, and Sarah was put in charge of warning us. She made each of us raise our right hand and repeat after her, in a proper English accent, “I will not touch my hot ba-nah-nah boat because it will buhrn my tongue.”

I don’t know why I still remember this, but it still makes me laugh, every single time I think of it.

Now, you are probably thinking: Rabbi Berkowitz has run out of sermon ideas, and is now just telling silly camp stories. I assure you that is not the case. I told this story because I wanted to explain to you tonight how international staff have become an integral part of the fabric of URJ summer camps. This is important for you to know, because the current administration is considering doing away with the J-1 visa program, which would affect international au pairs, as well as international staff at summer camps.

The attack on the J-1 visa program is part of a “Buy American, Hire American” initiative in the White House. Encouraging us to spend our money on American products and American workers is a noble and admirable goal. However, doing away with the J-1 visa program would be detrimental to our summer camp programs, are an essential component to fostering Jewish identity and a relationship to Israel in our young people.

For starters, I’m not sure how many camps would be able to stay open without hiring international staff. Sadly, with the rise of the unpaid internship, fewer and fewer American college students choose to spend the summer being a camp counselor, let alone work in the kitchen or tending the grounds. But there are plenty of international candidates who would happily make thousands of gluten-free pancakes a day, teach arts and crafts, or supervise 12 eight-year-olds for eight weeks, in exchange for a subsidized trip to the U.S.

More importantly, however, having international staff at camp provides an important opportunity for cultural exchange. As the Jewish community becomes increasingly diverse, it can be incredibly moving for campers to relate to Jews from all over the world. It helps both sides to see that Jews around the world are very different, or in some cases, very similar, to them. Last summer, Crane Lake Camp hosted two Jewish girls from Uganda as counselors. How incredible it must have been, on both sides, for these counselors to interact with campers of color, who rarely see an adult Jew who looks like them?

Not every international staff member is Jewish, which means that often, we are teaching young adults from around the world about Judaism and Jews. As we experience global spikes in anti-semitism, one of the best things we can do is give people from other faiths and other nations a positive experience with American Jews.

For those staff members who are members of the tribe, meeting Jews from around the world gives both campers and counselors a different perspective on what it means to be Jewish, whether the staff in question comes from Europe, Australia, Africa, or Israel.

Having Israeli staff on camp is particularly important, and not only for the reasons you would think. Yes, Israeli staff teach our campers about real life in Israel, and introduce them to the language and culture of their spiritual homeland. They teach Israeli music and dancing, and design celebrations for the camp-only festivals such as Yom Israel Day. They also spend eight weeks with our children, building relationships that can long outlast the summer. One of our Israeli counselors at Camp Harlam later served as a staff member on our NFTY in Israel trip, and we came to know him as our protector. When there was an incident of hate near the camp in Pennsylvania, he kept watch on the porch all night so that we could feel safe. When there was an attempted bombing during our travels in Israel, he gave us a very real perspective about what it means to live in Israel and to be constantly under threat.

But there is yet another side to the Israeli staff coin. As a rabbi on faculty, I now realize that, as much as we want our American Reform Jewish kids to meet real live Israelis, it is imperative that Israelis meet real live American Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is often disparaged, and even discriminated against, in Israel. This may not seem like a big deal here, where there is friendly competition between all the denominations. But in Israel, where the line between synagogue in state is blurred, this distaste for Reform Judaism can have far-reaching implications. Israel is a country where many secular Jews allow an Orthodox rabbinate to dictate what is permissible in both public and private spheres. The rabbinate controls not only what goes on at the Kotel, but also marriage, divorce, and conversion, all of which have implications for citizenship, the equality of women, and the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

You might be aware that, for nearly three decades now, Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center have been fighting for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, a plan for this space was agreed upon by all parties. But in June, the project was suspended. The rising tension came to a head when the chief rabbi of Jerusalem reacted to protests by calling Reform Jews, “evil,” an “abomination,” and “worse than Holocaust deniers.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned that such statements had the power to incite violence, as just over a week ago, he and two major Reform leaders in Israel received death threats from an Orthodox man in B’nei Brak.

We need secular Israelis to see—and to tell their families and friends—that Reform Judaism is not an abomination, or a joke, but rather a valid and vibrant way of practicing Judaism. And I would argue that that is something that happens at URJ summer camps more than it happens anywhere else. It doesn’t always mean that they stop being secular—in fact secular Judaism in Israel can look very similar to Reform Judaism in America—but it might mean that the sight of a woman in a kippah or holding a Torah scroll won’t seem foreign to them anymore. It might mean that they see a positive Jewish identity blossoming in a child of intermarriage–something the Orthodox rabbinate currently renders legally impossible, such that an interfaith couple could only be married abroad. It might mean that they decide to read from the Torah for the first time themselves, and realize that doors that the Orthodox rabbinate closes for them might yet be opened. And that might mean a change in how they think, feel, speak, and vote.

Whatever it means, it won’t happen if the J-1 visa program is canceled. There is so much going on in the world right now, and we are all fighting battles big and small. This is an opportunity for us to make an impact. After Shabbat, and after Selichot, I hope that you will contact our senators, the President, and the Secretary of State to let them know how important it is for us to continue the J-1 visa program, so that we can continue to have international staff at our summer camps.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the famous passage listing all the people that Moses is speaking to in his final address: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

While clearly Moses was speaking about a different kind of camp, his words remind us that, when something really matters to us, we need all hands on deck, regardless of status. Whether they are scrubbing pots in the kitchen, teaching our children to swim, or making sure they don’t burn their tongues on hot banana boats, the stranger within our camp is an essential piece in the summer camp puzzle. And when we welcome them into our home and our hearts, we give ourselves the opportunity to become a part of their Jewish story as well.

Shabbat Shalom.





“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!