Latest Updates from Camp  An Interview with Rabbi Elisa Koppel

An Interview with Rabbi Elisa Koppel

Various images of Elisa at Harlam and with Harlam friends over the years

Rabbi Elisa Koppel is a true Harlamite. For 35 years, she has been connected to camp in meaningful ways. Currently, Elisa serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE as its Director of Life Long Learning, and recently she made a commitment to support the Harlam@60 efforts by becoming a 1958 Club member at the Rikudiah Judge level (click here to learn more here about the 1958 Club). Harlam’s Development Director, Judith Friedman, wanted to learn more about Elisa and why camp is so important to her.

Judith Friedman: What is your Camp Harlam story?

Rabbi Elisa Koppel: When I was 10, I went up to my parents in the fall and told them that I was going to URJ Camp Harlam that summer. Fortunately, they agreed. And I loved camp from the first moment. Family legend has it that my parents snuck back to the bunk after they dropped me off to peek in and see that I was okay and saw that I was happily playing cards on someone’s bed and laughing. That was 1983 – I was in Sharon 1. And it was great. There was no question in my mind (or my family’s) that I’d return each summer. I did NFTY In Israel (shout out to Harlam Safari Number 9!) after Chavurah, and then took a summer off to do Urban Mitzvah Corps in NJ. It was actually because of Harlam that I went to my first NFTY event – the regions then known as JFTY and PAFTY were having an event at Harlam the same weekend. At the last minute, because something on television had reminded me of my camp friends, I decided I had to go. As I was entering college, I returned as a counselor for three years. One year with Arava and then two with Carmel. We had such a great community as a Carmel staff in our own little “kibbutz” on camp. Years later, as a rabbi, I moved back to the region and had the pleasure of being on faculty. Becoming a judge for the Zimriah at Maccabiah (Color War) was honestly one of my career highlights.

What is your involvement with Camp Harlam today?

Some of my best friends are my camp friends – that’s the number one involvement. Also, as a rabbi in the region, I make it a priority to send kids from our congregation to camp. We are lucky to have scholarship funds available and we send a good number of kids to Harlam. We have Harlam visit our congregation each year for a “Camp Day.” We also can visit camp each summer. Though I haven’t been on faculty since I returned to the area, I’ve come up for the BBQs (they’re called “Community Cookouts,” and all the congregations are invited) and other programs. I love that I have a career that lets me go to camp in the summer to visit.

What is it about camp that made you decide to invest as a donor?

Without camp, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Camp gave me the confidence to be myself and the ability to explore all sorts of facets of that. In addition, it made me love Judaism in a different way than temple or my family had. It made me realize that Judaism could be vibrant in all sorts of ways. And I met all these cool people who were rabbis – it was in large part because of camp that becoming a rabbi seemed possible in the first place and seemed like something I wanted to do. It was also where I learned to write programs, which are really the same as lesson plans, as a counselor. And when I learned how powerful it was to help individuals through sad moments and celebrate with them in happy moments. When the Harlam@60 campaign started, there was no question in my mind that I wanted to give. And when I thought about the fact that if I had kids of my own, they’d be going, so I wanted to make up for a small part of the tuition I’m not paying to camp.

Why was the specific effort to support Harlam@60 and the Arie Gluck Capital Fund appealing and important to you?

Arie Gluck was my camp director growing up. I learned so much from him over the years. He was truly a special person. I fondly remember when I learned that his granddaughter was going to be our camper. We had a staff meeting with him and all the cabin counselors sat in a big circle. He asked who her counselors were, and my co-counselor and I timidly raised our hands. He nodded approvingly, smiled, warned us not to let her wander off, and clearly told us that she shouldn’t get any special treatment or be allowed to visit him. It was such great role-modeling and helped to teach me about boundaries. Being able to honor his memory currently is powerful. I also wanted to honor the memories of those who are part of my camp story who have passed away in recent years, especially Rabbi Vicki Tuckman (z”l), who was my classmate in rabbinical school and who was really helpful to me in personal ways when I was on faculty when she was at camp.  

Also, I wanted the t-shirt.

What are your hopes for the future of Camp Harlam?

I hope that camp continues to be a place where traditions and innovation go together. The facilities should change with the times, but still look and feel like camp. And, most importantly, where every generation gets to understand the idea that a day is a week and a week is a month and a month is a year….and of living 10 months for 2…and that friends really do become family.

How did camp help you become the person you are today?

In so many ways. I was nerdy as a child – I always had friends, but I was never one of the “cool kids”. And I never really had the confidence to break out of my shell and so I spent a lot of effort trying to fit into a mold that probably only existed in my mind. At camp, I truly found my people and realized that being a little bit weird was more than okay. I saw that I would not only be accepted for who I was but embraced. I could be myself and not have to apologize for it. Camp helped me to accept myself and to be proud of who I was. That didn’t happen all at once, or even within my first summer, but over the years, camp was a huge part of getting me there. For the record, I’m still totally nerdy and weird, but I got to the point where my quirks are some of my favorite things about myself. I also learned so many skills! From how to cure homesickness to how to plunge a toilet. Also, how to appreciate the ridiculous (we did a lot of that as Carmel staff, including planning a theme day around a potato, just to be silly. I still have the t-shirt).  And, especially, how to have friends and be a friend.

What are some of the values that you learned at camp that you still feel play an important role in your adult life?

Being on time means being five minutes early. Clean up your schmutz. You must try things before you say you won’t do them or don’t like them. That Judaism is fun, challenging, and part of so much of life. That Sesame Street songs are just as great as a teen and as an adult as they were as a small child. That friends really matter. And that we never know what influence we have on another person, and it sometimes takes us years to realize the influence they had on us.

How is camp different from when you were a camper?  How is it the same?

The food is so much better now. As are the facilities in general. Maccabiah no longer ends on Friday night. There is PowerPoint instead of songbooks. The curriculum is much broader and age-appropriate. But the schedule is mostly the same, the feeling of camp is the same, and the experience of camp is a constant.

Why do you feel that camp plays an important role in the lives of Reform Jewish children today?

Camp is such an important part of the Jewish experience for so many of our young people, and the kids who go to camp “get” Judaism in a totally different way than their peers. I see that a lot as a Rabbi/Educator. And it is a major connector. When I find out someone goes to or went to Harlam, I feel a bond with them. We have a shared language and shared memory. And that helps create the present and future of the Reform Movement.

Anything else that you’d like to add?

I love camp!!!

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