Camp ended four weeks ago. The car has been long unpacked, the laundry has been done and the supplies have been dusted off and packed away for next year. Why am I thinking about unpacking still? Well, to be honest, I've been procrastinating. For the last month, a large binder has been sitting on the corner of my kitchen table. I have looked at it frequently, but hadn't been quite ready to open it and always had a reason for why I needed to wait. Too many projects to do this week. I need to prepare for a meeting. Packing again for another trip. The list went on. But, deep down, I knew why I kept putting it off. I wasn't quite ready to come to terms (and acknowledge my connected emotions) with the fact that summer was coming to a close. Fast forward to Labor Day Weekend, signaling the final days of Summer 2015. So here I am, sitting at my table and opening the binder.
More than 200 pages of rosters, schedules, game plans, programs and charts fill this binder. And yet, it can all be summarized by the single piece of paper that is inserted as its cover. On the last night of the summer, after campers have gone home and we've packed-up camp, we place pieces of paper and pens on the tables of our chadar ochel (dining hall) - one with every single staff member's name on it. Our ritual is to leave notes for our friends and colleagues, thanking them for the great job they did during the summer and recognize the impact they had on us. Truth be told, this was the thing I was avoiding the most, and I'm not quite sure why. This summer was absolutely amazing. We doubled in size as a camp. We explored, discovered, created and developed meaningful connections between science and Judaism, as well as between each other. The camper satisfaction surveys were off the charts, signaling that our goals had been achieved and the impact we had on our campers was real and evident. I even made a few new friends!
Personally, this was one of the most rewarding and difficult summers of my life. I love my job and role at camp, and I wanted to take advantage of the many opportunities for growth. I set the bar pretty high for myself, identifying a number of areas in which I wanted to grow. While helping to run camp, supervise our amazing staff and help our campers have the summer of a lifetime, I was on a personal journey. I wanted to be more intentional about my approach to designing experiences, work on my supervisory and managerial skills, and I wanted to think differently about how I interacted with others at different points of the very busy camp day. Nothing like some light lifting, right? I read books and articles, spent time with friends, mentors and coaches, and did a lot of reflecting - both in the moment and after the fact. I left the summer exhausted (as we all do), but feeling really good about my contributions to our community and what I was taking away from my experiences.
Going back to that piece of paper, I finally looked at it, eager to read what my camp family had written to me. Words of gratitude and friendship spilled off the page (and on to the other side), and I would be lying if I said I didn't get choked-up a bit while reading them. It was hard to hold off from reading them, and I am glad I did. During this period of introspection as we prepare for the High Holy Days and look deep within ourselves, reflecting on the past year and taking count of what we have learned about ourselves and others, I am smiling. After nine summers as a camper and another fifteen summers of working at Jewish overnight camps and summer programs and perpetually feeling that I over-pack, I realize that I always come home with much, much more. Every summer that I come home from camp, I unpack a better version of myself. And that piece of paper? It represents what I was able to accomplish this summer and the person I want to be.
The Home Stretch: Make It Count
...and just like that, there was one week of camp left. Summer 2015 has flown by, a bit quicker than I usually feel the summer months tend to do. We began the summer recognizing our staff as superheroes, entering training week with excitement for the potential of what would lie ahead. We built our team, identified goals and priorities and set off on a journey.
Fast forward a few weeks and countless memories later, and we have one week left on our adventure. Time moves quickly, and there never seems to be enough time to pack it all in during a day at camp. So as we enter the home stretch, how can we really make it count? How can we ensure that we are as intentional as possible in our interactions with others? How can we make time to seek out and capitalize on those special "ah-ha" moments? What can we do to help our campers wrap-up their summer with the best experiences?
It starts with us (the camp staff). This Shabbat, we have the opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to our mission, values and role. We have the opportunity to re-commit to the goals we set out to achieve at the beginning of the summer. We have the honor of being able to guide our campers through this chapter of their Jewish journeys and help them discover and explore who they are and who they want to be - while challenging them (and ourselves, walking step by step beside them) to be the best version of themselves.
At last night's staff meeting, we passed out "staff home stretch support kits" to each member of our team, with each item symbolizing something important and intended to express our gratitude for the hard work that has been ever present this summer:
Tissues: stay healthy and take care of yourselves!
Starburst: you’re all stars on our team!
Paperclip: remember that you’re a link in the chain of something bigger and amazing!
Rubber band: don’t forget to stay flexible and practice savlanut!
Band-aid: even super heroes get booboos sometimes!
Laffy Taffy: make time to laugh and have fun!
Life Savers: you are making a significant difference in our camper’s lives!
Smarties: real talk: we have some super smart people in this room!
Chocolate: sometimes you just need some chocolate to help you power through a long hot afternoon!
Cough Drops: our song sessions are chigaon…crazy…and we need to keep our throats in good condition!
Todah rabah תודה רבה – many thanks for all that you have done to make our 2nd summer an epic one! Yashar koach! Kol hakavod! Yeah!
We need to take care of ourselves and each other. We need to hold on to the joy in our work, and celebrate our successes. We need to learn from our challenges and struggles, and continue to grow as we look toward the next adventure. We need to remember to support our teammates as we journey toward the finish line. We need to appreciate how lucky we all are to have had this opportunity to help shape the future. It is holy work that we have done and continue to do. But now, for just a few hours, we rest, reflect and celebrate. Shabbat Shalom.
"Are we there yet?" As a Jewish youth professional who spends a fair amount of time travelling with groups of all ages, I've heard this question only a few times. In this week's parashiyot, we catch-up with the Israelites as they near the Promised Land after forty years since leaving Egypt. Generations have passed, and they have matured into a nation ready for the next challenges that lie ahead. They look back, reviewing where they have been, and quickly turn to the future. What are the tasks that lie ahead? What are the plans to move forward as the journey nears completion?
At camp, we mark time in different ways. While our daily schedule keeps us moving from activities to meals and everything in between, there are also specific days on our calendars. Just a few examples are:
Crazy hat day.
Yesterday was that funny period of time in the camp calendar called "Intersession." Two weeks (one session) down. Four (two) to go. We've accomplished so much, and we have more that lies ahead. What better opportunity to take a few minutes to sit, breathe, grab an iced coffee and reflect on all that we've already done this summer.
We've come a long way, from where we began. Check it out on our blog >>
Summer #2 at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy blasted off with a great sense of ruach (spirit). Our campers were busy making new friends from 24 different states and 3 countries, getting sweaty from singing and dancing at song session, learning new skills and tools, building a catapult while learning about kinetics, creating music videos, learning how to program in Minecraft, flying rockets and drones, learning about fermentation and food science, working with a doctor to study how our bodies react to exercise and activity...and the list goes on.
We've come a long way, from where we began.
Wrapping-up another book of Torah, we say "chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek" -- be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened. We have already built so much this summer as a Sci-Tech community. As we begin Session 2, let us go from strength to strength and continue to build upon this foundation as we explore, innovate, create, discover, connect and find joy as a kehilah kedoshah (holy community).
Are we there yet? Yes. We are there, and we will keep going! I'll write more later...but we're about to open the gates for Session 2!
The words we say at the beginning of our morning t'filah are quite recognizable as a blessing:
When Balam (wicked sorcerer) was hired by Balak (king of Moab) to curse the Israelites as they passed through his kingdom on their way to Canaan, what actually came out was a blessing. We interpret these words in a myriad of ways, acknowledging the blessing of community and the roles that each unique member plays. Or, maybe focusing on our obligation to be blessings throughout our daily lives. (Genesis 12:2)
While we sometimes interchange the words tents and dwellings, tents are temporary shelters that are relocatable, while we know dwellings to be a bit more permanent and sturdy. As we prepared for our second summer at URJ Sci-Tech Academy, I found myself thinking about space a lot. Not only do we approach our use of space throughout our camp season quite intentionally, we also have the task of transforming our beautiful space at Governor's Academy back into our summer home after spending 9 months away - and recreating a space that represents our values and fosters holy community.
While I would not go as far as to say that we spend our summer in one gigantic tent, it is quite remarkable to think about the transformation that occurs at both the beginning and end of our summer. Walking onto camp, it still very much looking like a school, and we work together to rebuild what we left last summer. From road signs to posters to room set-ups to supplies and then some, our leadership team and staff does it all.
But what exactly goes into our dwelling that makes it one of blessing? As I spent the last few days walking around camp, hanging out with campers and staff and watching our second summer come to life, I've gravitated towards a few answers...
Our Gesher Tzar Meod (Very Narrow Bridge) connects our main campus to where our boys and some of our leadership team lives. We took advantage of this opportunity to name it appropriately, and I believe that it also represents the journey that many of us take as we experience new things and different places. Part of the magic of camp is helping every member of our community stretch their comfort zones and experience new things. As Rabbi Nachman teaches us, the most important thing is not to be afraid as we exist in our world that sometimes looks and feels like a narrow bridge. Also: don't forget to sing while crossing it!
This summer, we gave our Livnot (Hebrew verb: "to build") period a home with the creation of our Maker Space. With a foundation of design thinking and community building, campers and staff enter this space on camp with the charge to think differently and outside of the box, design, explore, create, build, assess, problem solve and innovate. A new component at Sci-Tech this summer, it is very much still in a beta stage and we are excited to continue to add to and modify what it is and how it helps us enhance our experiences at camp. From inventing to building to creating innovative Shabbat experiences for our camp community, this place on camp is one that we can all learn from.
As we prepare for our first Shabbat of the summer as a camp community, my blessings are abundant in this place in which I dwell. Our campers are excited and empowered. Our staff is enthusiastic and innovative. Our community is holy. It's nice to be back home. Shabbat Shalom!
Balance and Training Superheroes
Balance is interaction among being, feeling, thinking and doing. Superheroes integrate those four core stages of existence amid the turbulence of the world and daily activity, and in doing so, are able to creatively solve every challenge they are faced with and create an atmosphere of empowerment and love wherever they are. - Deepak Chopra
Camp is the place I go to block out the turbulence of the world.
Camp is the place where I go to help inspire the next generation of superheroes.
Camp is the place where I learned how to hone my ability to understand, connect, love myself and others, search, appreciate, problem solve and explore.
Camp is the place where I feel the most like me.
The Sh'ma is said by Jews across the world. Whether or not we have much in common beyond our connection to the larger fabric of Jewish history and people hood, this simple yet complex statement connects us deeply with our people and tradition. Listen to it. Listen to you. Listen to us. We are one. God is one. So - even just for a moment - block out all the other noise and be one.
Think about who you can be this summer and how you can help others become the best versions of themselves. Shabbat Shalom from camp. Staff week is awesome.
Plague. Rebellion. Tithe. No...I'm not talking about final exams before the proverbial bells sound to signal the beginning of summer break. In this week's parashah, we read the story of Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32), who leads a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels, brings a plague on the people, and we see the many challenges of leadership and faith.
Following this unrest, the chief of each tribe [of the people of Israel] deposits his staff inside the Tent of Meeting. Aaron's staff brings forth sprouts, produces blossoms, and bears almonds. (17:16-26) He is appointed as Cohen Gadol, high priest. After playing #2 to his brother Moses through their journey, Aaron is recognized for his leadership - an act that is important for both the people as well as himself.
As I am packing for camp and many of my friends and colleagues have already begun their staff training at camps across the country, I have been thinking about how we can show kavod (respect) and provide validation for the hard work our staff does throughout the summer. Where do we find our "sprouted almonds" amidst the busy schedules and activities at camp? We find inspiration and gratitude in different places and at varying times. Sometimes it's during an interaction or experience we have with others, and other times we may gain it independently.
A year ago, URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy was a bunch of thoughts, plans, ideas and intentions. We then went on to create a new holy community - one for which I am extremely grateful to be a part of. While reading this piece of Torah a year ago, I was nervous and excited as I met new people and took on new responsibilities. Fast forward a year, and I am reading it again but with significant pride and knowledge that we will be continuing to add to the Torah and community that we created together. Quite the Shehecheyanu moment, indeed.
Along with the socks and bug spray, I am packing a few additional things this year. Gratitude for the talented people I have the opportunity to work with and learn from. Respect for the holy work that we get to do together, and what each one of us brings to the community. Recognition for the gifts and blessings that are abundant on our team. And a renewed sense of excitement and enthusiasm as I look forward to exploring, creating, building and discovering with my 6 Points Sci-Tech family.
Beginnings and Gratitude
[Originally posted on the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Blog]
Aaron is appointed as Cohen Gadol, high priest. He is reconfirmed through the test of the staves in which Aaron’s staff miraculously sprouted almonds. (Numbers 17:16-24)
Yesterday, I drove to a new place. In 11 days, this place will become a new Jewish overnight camp. In between these two spaces in time, we have A LOT of work to do. I am feeling incredibly blessed to be in this place, at this time, with these people and doing what I love. We’re creating a camp. We have an amazingly talented leadership team, and I am in awe of the insight and creativity that surround me. I’m developing systems and protocol and schedules that will help provide the tools our staff needs to make this place come alive and support the transformative experiences that will undoubtedly be part of this summers’ narrative for both our campers and staff. I am vastly aware of the sprouted almonds in my life. I am beyond excited, and while I’ve been here for just over 24 hours, I haven’t been able to catch my breath…until now. It’s almost Shabbat. While we will continue to dream, build and create, it will be in lockstep with opportunities to reflect, recharge and renew our excitement for the holy work we will be doing over the next week. Throughout this inaugural summer at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, we will have the ability to make magic happen. And for this first Shabbat at camp, I’m thinking a lot about how I can help our staff team be the best we can be, and how we can give some of our “sprouted almonds” to each other as we begin this journey.
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Kavanah that I wrote for the first Shabbat of Staff Training Week at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA.
All the people that we saw [in the Land] are people of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (Numbers 13:32-33)
Come with me on a journey back through time.
You and I are part of the Israelite people. We have gotten out of Egyptian slavery. We are free. Slowly but surely, we are making our way to the Promised Land of Israel, the land God promised to our ancestors. Through all those years of slavery, we have waited, and now we are about to enter the Land.
But, we can't just walk into the Land. Yes, God will lead us, but we will have to fight for it. Moses tells us that we need to know more about the Land before we enter. God tells Moses to send people to spy out the Land, to sense its strength, how fortified the cities are, the nature of the people and armies we would encounter, and to figure out how difficult the battle will be. We all have so many questions.
But, God says not just shelach, "send," but shelach-lecha, "send for yourself." Send the spies - for your own benefit, not Mine. It's as if God is saying, "Moses, your people have doubts. So, to be more confident, send people to take a look, to investigate, to learn and prepare. I am not asking for blind faith here; go and look for yourselves.
So, Moses sends out spies - not just anyone, but tribal leaders. They complete their task, and then they return and give their report. "It is a good land," they say. "It flows with milk and honey, but the cities are large and fortified, the people are extraordinary fighters and gigantic. They are too powerful for us."
We become nervous. How can we do this? We have not finished training yet. What tools do we have to help us?
Let's pause and switch story lines for a moment.
Much like our text reads, so has been the path for many of us as we came to camp this summer. A new land. Unsure what lies ahead. Many of us have come from taking exams at university or return after working our "real jobs." Some of us are new, exploring the land, meeting the people, learning the culture. We see ourselves as grasshoppers amongst giants. Others are returning home, excited to reunite with old friends and meet new ones, taking on new roles and experiencing camp in new ways. We're not sure what adventures this summer will bring, and if we are prepared for new challenges with which we will face.
How often in our own lives do we shy away from challenges? They may be difficult. If we walk around, seeing ourselves as grasshoppers worried about the uncertainty that lies ahead, we will miss out on accomplishing the dreams and hopes we have for ourselves. We must lift our heads up, see the promise that lies ahead, and the excitement of the unknown. We can do great things.
Use staff training as an opportunity to become acquainted with the people and places that make camp the special place it is. Take advantage of the time you have to refine your skills (and learn new ones). And this summer: pick your head up. Don't be a grasshopper. Rather, be a Nachshon. Take that leap. Explore the land. Meet the people. Walk with purpose. Dream great dreams. Aim higher. Look for the little things that will lift you up. Be the person you can truly become.
Adapted from Don't Be A Grasshopper by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman in Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. This is a new publication that I highly recommend for anyone that works with youth, or wants a fresh take on Torah which we can relate to our daily lives.