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How would you define Holy?

by: Aaron Selkow

July 26, 2013

Dear Camp Families & Camp Friends:

After our First Session campers departed with their families and before hundreds of Second Session children descended on Camp Harlam, we worked with our staff members to rest, recharge, retrain and return to our early summer form with renewed enthusiasm. During that time, I held a session with our counselors and leaders that asked each person to ask “The Big Question”.

“The Big Question” was meant to be about anything that, when answered, could help a staff member feel better prepared to do an excellent job at Harlam, feel more deeply connected to the camp community, or help them lead others towards a successful summer. My commitment was to read them all and answer them as best I could.


There were some remarkable questions, and I’m already working to come up with (and then share) the answers. Of course, some folks asked about things that could be more easily addressed, while others probed for insight into more philosophical and complex concerns. No question was irrelevant, although some might take years to fully answer! Many questions stood out as representative of our staff’s intelligence, depth, talent and willingness to improve and enhance their role as leaders of our children.

One question resonated a great deal for me this week and is something that I wanted to talk about with our community during our Friday night Shabbat service at Chapel on the Hill. The question came from Noah Diamondstein, one of our counselors and a songleader. He asked:

“What makes camp holy and spiritual?”

Although I will be thinking more and talking more with Noah and others about this question as the summer unfolds, I have some feelings about this that I thought would be good to share with our campers, staff and even those that are outside our “camp bubble” this Shabbat.

I understand Noah’s question to be asking, in principle, what it is about Camp Harlam that is more than just a Jewish place; more than a Kehillah or community of nice people; more than just a sum of all the parts here. He may be asking what it is that – above all other things – sets this place apart as an environment within which being just good, or trying just a bit, or even doing pretty well is not enough. In fact, it may be that Noah – like so many people here – expects much more from Camp Harlam. He may think that there’s something here that’s bigger than just having fun, larger than some good times and cool programs; in fact, he may be suggesting that here – maybe above most any other place on earth – we have both the opportunity and the obligation to sanctify this community and all that goes on here as truly holy. It suggests that there’s a higher power, or a bigger-than-me kind of thing happening. And I’m sure, knowing Noah, that this must directly tie to Reform Judaism and life, learning and actions here at camp that are meant to use Midot or values, practice and prayer and lots of other tools to introduce and reinforce some awesomely huge ideas. He may be talking about how Camp Harlam can be somewhere that people live in a way that is extra-special or even righteous.

So if I’m on the right track of what Noah may have been asking, I am about to be bold and suggest that I have the answer.

What makes this place holy is you.

Don’t misunderstand my answer to mean that the camp’s mission, the philosophy, the Reform Jewish ideals, the training, the activities, the traditions and the rules don’t have anything to do with giving us structure and a place to make holy. And don’t think that I’m saying that by simply being present you create Camp Harlam as a holy place. But please do hear me say that your actions, your dedication, your connection to each other, your responsibility, your effort and even your questions about what’s going on here can all be the answer to how we keep this and grow this as a really holy and special place.

A place where we don’t stand for bullying. A place that we will heal those people that may hurt. A place where you should never walk alone. A place where you can explore your spirit. A place where you can take risks and try new things. A place where you can get outside your comfort zone as well as the air-conditioned zone and appreciate the joy of being away and separated from a screen or your school life or even your home identity that you want to re-form into something else. This can be the place that is all of those things and more, which I see as especially holy.

But it can be that way only if and when each person appreciates their means of making it so.

Camp Harlam was not built by the Torah or by prayer alone. Camp Harlam was not improved by reading a handbook or attending a learning session. This amazing camp did not start traditions because God handed us a tablet with the rules of Macabbiah or the directions for building a GaGa Court. Everything here has come to be because of the leaders that we all can be, and the way that we can all make this place as holy and incredible and unique and as much in our own image as we want to.

So Noah, I don’t know if I’ve gotten you the answer you were looking or hoping for. And maybe I’ve left you and many others with more questions than you had before. But I want to thank you for reminding me that you, and each and every person seated with you in that exquisite place that we come to each week to welcome Shabbat, looking off into the Mahoning Valley, that unless we ask The Big Questions, we will never have any answers.

Shabbat Shalom,


Any questions, feedback, suggestions or thoughts? Please contact me at

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