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How We’re Changed For Good at Camp

By Lisa David

As the session winds down, and our days together in Kunkletown are few, our campers and staff begin speaking wistfully about their time together and the time remaining. We count one last Shabbat together, one last song session, one last banquet – everything, down to the final “yellow meal” or job marked off on a job chart, is imbued with meaning and purpose as we face the reality of saying goodbye to this place and this summer. Moments from just a week ago become the storied history of the summer of 2017. We sing about Harlam as a place where it’s “Summertime Forever,” and prepare to leave our summer home to return home. And while there is much to look forward to in being reunited with family and friends, screens, and plush, carpeted bedrooms, it is also hard to say goodbye.

A faculty member relayed to me a story with a beautiful image that seems fitting in these final days of the summer. He observed two of our lifeguards – young men, one from Israel and one from England – sitting on the side of the pool early one morning before swim instruction was scheduled to begin. They knew they needed to jump into the water, but were hesitant to do so, bemoaning (loudly) the temperature of the water, the temperature outside, the fact that their bodies had not yet woken up to greet the day. They were laughing together at their fear and hesitation, encouraging one another to just go ahead and jump in. The solution they found was to hold hands, count down from 100 to 0, and jump in together. The image of two young men, strangers from distant parts of the world brought together in this place, holding one another’s hands and prolonging a challenging reality as long as possible, seemed fitting (and incredibly heartwarming) at this moment in time.

As I observe all of this, I keep thinking about how protected our children are here. With recent, troubling events in our world, the fact that at Harlam the sun is shining (well, not today), and the days center entirely around our children and their happiness and entertainment, should bring comfort. However, our mission is not only to create an escape. It is not only to create an alternate reality, where holding hands is the norm. Harlam is not only about the 300 acres in the Poconos and the things that happen here, it is also about what is sparked and cultivated inside of each of the people whose lives are forever changed by their experience here. It is about nurturing opportunities for kids to become the best version of themselves, and to take that version with them to face, and change, the world. It is about being changed, as they say, for good.

I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to see how children are changed, for good, here at Harlam. I have seen them learn new and practical skills, as they lived independently and took responsibility for the environment around them. I have seen them gain confidence, as they took risks and tried new things. I have seen them enriched by the people around them, those similar to and different from them, taking away new friendships as well as new insight about themselves. And I have seen them experience pure, unadulterated joy, as they flew across the zipline, rolled down from Chapel on the Hill, or sang songs, swaying, with their arms wrapped around their friends.

As a parent, sometimes it is difficult for us when our children grow and change. When my own daughter returned from a session as a Carmel camper, I was stunned when she appeared taller, wondering how she could have changed so dramatically, so quickly, without my knowledge (I try to keep my distance while we are at camp together!). On Sunday, when you pick up your child, some of the changes you see may be striking, and some may be subtle. Their stories may feel silly, and you may not always feel in on the joke, but know that these moments touched and shaped them.

After the season is over, we often hear stories from families about what children have brought home with them from camp (and, of course, about the things they don’t bring home… our lost and found collection is a sight to see!). Children teach parents their favorite songs, show them notes written by friends on the final night of camp, and proudly show off their woodworking and art projects. But some of the stories that make me feel most proud are those from parents whose campers ask their families to light Shabbat candles or say the blessings before (HaMotzi) or after (Birkat HaMazon) eating meals together. To know that all of these internal changes and behaviors are connected to and strengthen their Jewish identity is what we always hope to accomplish. To see our children inspired to bring light, warmth, hope, and gratitude into the world; this is truly our purpose.

I imagine that you, too, are counting down the days until you are reunited with your child. Thank you for allowing us to learn and grow with and from them, and for partnering with us to help create the next generation that will change our world, for good.

Lisa David is the Director of Camp Harlam. This is her 14th summer at camp.

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