Camp is Life
Rabbi Cassi Kail
“Camp is life. The rest is just details.”
I spent ten days in August on faculty at Camp Newman. As I drove up the coast of California, inching closer to Santa Rosa, I felt both my excitement and my nerves rising. I had the pleasure of serving as faculty at Union of Reform Judaism camps before, both at Kutz Camp and Crane Lake. I was a song leader at Camp Ramah in the Poconos when I was in college. I knew how wonderful it is to be part of a camp community, but I also knew this summer would be a different experience.
It wasn’t just the discrepancy in choreography between east and west coast camps, or that each camp has a personality all its own (which of course they do). It wasn’t just that Camp Newman was new to me, or that this was the first year the camp would be held at its Porter Creek location since the devastating Tubbs fire which engulfed it in 2017. After a year and a half of zoom classes, mask wearing, and social distancing, I knew that our kids needed camp more than ever.
From the moment I arrived, Camp Newman was filled with excitement and joy. Campers—many of them arriving at camp for the very first time—got out of their cars and looked around at their home. Their expressions of uncertainty soon transformed into ones of comfort as they made friends, settled in, and played frisbee. Campers were accepted for who they are—their gender and sexuality, their upbringing, their ethnicity. This gave them the room to express deep questions about their identities, religion, God, Israel, the past year, and the future. With all the music, prayer, and dancing, the creative programs and art, the moments I loved most were those spent in deep conversation with campers, colleagues, and staff wrestling and exploring what matters most.
I was only at camp for ten days, but that time was filled with transformation. One camper overcame his fear of heights, climbing to the top of the tower. Another gained independence, by asking a friend to show them how to make the best camp oatmeal possible. One camper dressed the Torah for the very first time, and another proudly read Torah for her entire session. Each of them grew in confidence.
When I arrived at camp, I was excited and a bit nervous, not knowing what to expect. So too, were all our first-time campers. And yet, each of them was able in their own way to engage meaningfully in the magic of camp.
In just a few short days, we will all enter a new year. Rosh Hashanah is often called Hayom Harat Olam – the day the world is born. Each new birth comes with both excitement and trepidation. It takes courage to begin a new year. After all, the last two did not exactly turn out as planned. It takes strength to hope and dream, adapt and create—especially after already living through so many months of the pandemic. But then again, we grow most when we allow ourselves to fully embrace all the blessings before us. This summer I may have taught campers about prayer, faith, Jewish identity, and Israel, but they taught me about the power of embracing the moment. They taught me the meaning of the words so often quoted in our temple community, “Camp is life. The rest is just details.”