by Dara Gever
“Summer” is the smell of cold pool water on hot concrete, the taste of barbecue (although, as a vegetarian, I prefer grilled cheese), the feeling of the hot sun after months spent trapped indoors. “Summer Camp,” for many of our Temple Beth El kids, means building and strengthening Jewish identity through innovative programs.
I am a firm believer in summer homes. I have gone to sleep-away camp since I was eight years old and was a camp counselor for one summer. This is why I am thrilled that the summer abodes of many of our Beth El kids are at Jewish camps. Since this is my first full summer as a “Charlottean,” I experienced three incredible Jewish summer experiences for the first time: URJ Camp Six Points, Mecklenburg Ministries In Our Own Backyard interfaith camp, and URJ Camp Coleman.
Sports and Judaism—I never imagined how well they could go together until I experienced the magic of Camp Six Points, my first camp stop of the summer. I was honored to have been invited to serve as visiting faculty member for URJ Six Points Sports Academy, which uses the sparkling (and air conditioned) facilities of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. I joined several Charlotte campers for a session in which enrollment exceeded 200 campers. According to the staff, they had more campers in that single session than they did in all the sessions combined just a few years ago, when the camp first began.
Even though the Six Points program promotes a non-conventional approach to Jewish education, this camp converged with Jewish learning in a very traditional way: Jewish learning was frequently centered around meal offerings for the day. The staff and campers participated in song session in the chader ochal (the cafeteria), prayers before and after each meal, and a special Shabbat dinner complete with Challah and candles at the end of the week. Every morning at breakfast, three or four staff members would perform a skit to act out a “Jewish Value of the Day.” Once that Jewish value was taught, the campers could earn bracelets with the Jewish value printed on them as a reward for exemplifying that particular trait. While I was at camp, we learned Jewish values of Community, Loyalty, and Compassion. When kids exemplified these values, they earned respect from their counselors and coaches in the form of bracelets. I loved taking pictures with our Temple Beth El crew at Six Points!
I was also fortunate to be able to spend an entire week with the Mecklenburg Ministries “In Our Own Backyard (IOOBY)” Interfaith youth camp, directed by Jason Williams. Three Beth El teens, Abby Levinson, Darien Lewis, and Arthur Valdman, participated in the camp along with 17 other rising 9th-12th graders of different faiths. The religions represented by the IOOBY participants ranged from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’I, and Unitarian Universalist.
The teens spent the entire day in the sweltering heat experiencing “A Walk in Their Shoes,” a simulation of what it’s like to be homeless. We visited the Bahai Temple, meditated with a Buddhist monk, did Yoga at the Hindu Center of Charlotte, learned about Unitarian Universalist teachings and celebrities, experienced a Catholic mass, participated in Muslim prayer during Ramadan, and ended our trip at Temple Beth El Shabbat services. In between visiting all of these incredible houses of faith, we did community service projects around Charlotte. The IOOBY teens volunteered at “Sow Much Good,” a community organic garden; we helped the volunteers at Freedom School Field Day; we sorted clothes at the Crisis center and sorted food at Second Harvest Food Bank. Our mode of transportation to all of these sites was the public bus system, so that we could experience first-hand the challenges of poverty in Charlotte. At the conclusion of camp, the teens prepared and presented an interfaith service for their parents in which each teen told the group how the different visits to religious centers and community service projects had an impact on the group. It was so touching to see how the next generation of leaders demonstrated a level of compassion and understanding that allowed them to celebrate their differences and create a strong bond that united these teens–not in spite of their different faiths, but because of the differences in their beliefs.
The last stop of my summer camp swing was Camp Coleman, which I visited for one day with Rabbi Judy and Max Wallach. Jewish tradition teaches that when you visit the sick you take away 1/60th of the illness. It also teaches that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy (of God speaking to us). And Shabbat is 1/60th of the World To Come. We would add, after spending Shabbat at our Reform movement’s Camp Coleman, that Coleman is also 1/60th of heaven. Our 21 Charlotte kids who attended camp Coleman this summer would agree.
Rabbi Judy and I visited Camp Coleman today to hang out with our Charlotte and Temple Beth El campers. Marlene Rosenzweig and Lori Handler put together gift bags for our kids that we handed out after lunch.
After mandatory optionals, where kids are required to make tough choices between playing in the lake, swimming in the pool, or eating fresh chocolate pita baked over a fire by the Israeli staff, among many more options, Rabbi Judy and I taught the 53 rising 10th graders, known as the Coleman Chalutzim. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer with a festive balloon and cookies while overlooking Lake Shalom. We had a great debate as to whether 50 years ago they would have made the choice to give up working a summer at Coleman during their college years to register African Americans to vote and to teach at Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964. They understood why, as Jews, they might do this mitzvah of fighting for civil rights.
We are so proud of our 21 incredible kids who chose Coleman, the 24 who chose Camp Six Points, and the 3 who represented Temple Beth El in the Mecklenburg Ministries interfaith youth camp. Our community and our movement are blessed to be able to offer so many different opportunities for engagement for our youth during the summer. If you are looking for the perfect Jewish summer experience, do not hesitate to ask our clergy or educational staff!