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Camp Harlam: Where FAMILY Becomes Family

by: Dan Pliskin

Dan Pliskin is the parent of two Harlamite sisters, “uncle” of a Harlam counselor, Vice Chair of the Harlam Council and a proud alum of the  URJ’s GUCI, where he spent nine summers, eight with his brother, Larry.


At Camp Harlam, we strive to create a place “where friends become family.”  We do a lot of intentional work to create a camp environment that is an open and safe “kehilah kedosha,” a holy community, one that fosters all types of positive relationships among campers, staff and faculty.  Our campers participate in programming designed to facilitate a family feeling at camp, from long standing traditions like Carmel-Chavurah Day, in which we pair our youngest and oldest campers as “buddies,” to a relatively new activity that brings our older K’far Noar campers together with their younger Kineret counterparts in a similar way.  And a big part of the effort is simply encouraging people from different places and backgrounds to treat each other, and aspire to be treated, with love, acceptance and respect.  In other words, the goal is for them to become like family.


But Camp Harlam is not just a place where friends become family.  Although sometimes unnoticed and definitely underappreciated, camp is also a place where FAMILY becomes family. This was one of many insights I reflected on during a recent Shabbat spent at Camp Harlam.

My focus on family relationships at camp came to mind in part because of a recent New York Times column on siblings.  Also, a few years ago, my friend and fellow URJ camp alum (Goldman Union Camp Institute in our case, in the lower Midwest), Amy Gorodetzky Nefouse, wrote on the subject of siblings at camp.  Amy, who has three younger brothers, all of whom went to camp with her, pointed out that camp is a unique place for siblings.  It is often the first place in the world where siblings live together without their parents or grandparents around.  It can be a place where they begin to establish their own direct relationships with each other.  At camp, they can learn to look out for each other and take care of each other, they share a profound, common experience together, and they can gain a different perspective on one another.  At camp, they come to know each other a little differently, and hopefully, appreciate each other a little more.

Like the other URJ camps, Camp Harlam has many related family members inside its gates ready for these interactions – sisters and brothers, cousins, blended families, kids raised as siblings and cousins, and occasionally parents (usually faculty or staff) and their children.


So I was very moved on this recent Shabbat at Harlam as I sat back and watched camp work its magic.  Our entire community came together for Erev Shabbat services, dinner, a rousing song session and Saturday morning services. I personally saw many, many family members – siblings, cousins, parents and children – intentionally find one another, not just to say “Shabbat Shalom,” but to check in with each other, to really embrace each other, to talk to each others’ friends and counselors, and ultimately to  deepen their relationships.  I saw the pride and love on their faces when, for example, their sister, Lizzie, read at services, their cousin, Miriam, chanted a line of the week’s parsha, their brother, Joel, carried the Torah, or their sister, Mikey, showed her ruach (spirit) in song session.  No parent was present to tell them what to feel and how to convey or acknowledge it; they simply felt that pride in their family member, they expressed it to them and the whole community bore witness.  FAMILY becoming family.  It was a beautiful sight. And the foundation of a beautiful relationship.  Just between the two of them.

 Dan Pliskin is the parent of two Harlamite sisters, “uncle” of a Harlam counselor, Vice Chair of the Harlam Council and a proud alum of the  URJ’s GUCI, where he spent nine summers, eight with his brother, Larry.

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