Lessons in Leadership

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By Aaron Selkow

Eight years ago, I arrived at Harlam having already spent more than One Thousand, Seven Hundred and Fifty days living at camp. And during that time, I went from a 5-year-old child to an adult – a professional, a husband, a father. My time at camp is the thing that helped me along that path more than anything else. Camp is where I developed a sense of humor, where I made some of my biggest mistakes, where I learned to take care of myself, it’s where an only child found sisters and brothers for the first time, and it’s also where I developed the confidence to try to lead others.

And that’s my thing: I try to lead. But every day, I’m reminded of how much more I need to learn about leadership and this summer has been no different. With camp as my classroom, I want to share with you what I’ve learned recently that may help to inspire you to seek your own opportunities for growth this summer. And this lesson should be shared here – as I stand in this very spot at the Rosa Eisendrath Chapel. This structure was built in 1965 in Camp Harlam’s seventh year, and we’ve called this spot Chapel on the Hill for more years than I know, gathering here each and every Friday night of our summer to bring in Shabbat…as long as it’s not raining too hard. 

Rosa Eisendrath was the wife of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the first President of the UAHC, which is now known as the URJ, or Union for Reform Judaism. The URJ is who we are, as part of the Reform Movement and North America’s largest community and network of affiliated Jews, synagogues and Youth Programs. Rabbi Eisendrath remained the leader of the URJ until he passed away in 1973 – thirty years of dedicated work that saw the growth of Reform Jewish life and organizations in the US and Canada. Fitting that I would mention him today as we welcome his eventual successor as the President of the URJ, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, to Camp Harlam for his first-ever Shabbat experience here in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains with the greatest camp family on Earth. Welcome Home, Rick.

But the Chapel does not carry Rabbi Eisendrath’s name. Instead, it is named for Rosa. Let me tell you why.

It was 1963 and Rosa was suffering from a prolonged illness. At Rosa’s request, Rabbi Eisendrath reached out to members of the faculty at Hebrew Union College to ask for anyone that could spare time to report to a nearby hospital to give blood. I suppose the hope was that teachers and students might be able to easily aid Rosa and others in need of blood transfusions. As the story goes, one person showed up. Just one. That was Rabbi Martin Rozenberg, who I’ll share more about shortly. As a sign of her gratitude, Rosa insisted that the Eisendrath’s make a gift in his honor to whatever cause he chose. He chose the Chapel at Camp Harlam that was nearing construction. With the support from Rosa and Rabbi Eisendrath, along with money donated by Joe and Betty Harlam, this beautiful, iconic, sanctuary was built and stands today. Rosa Eisendrath, modeling Acharayut – thinking of others – helped to provide our camp with its most symbolic and sacred space. She passed away, sadly, before seeing the Chapel completed. But Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, in a statement of great Kavod – or respect – saw through to the establishment of Rosa’s legacy here at Harlam. A camp that he had helped to start in 1958. But we don’t see his name. Only Rosa’s and the Harlam’s. Leadership.

Who was the HUC faculty member that took the time to help the sick, and in turn was able to turn this gift into an awesome space we get to enjoy each Shabbat of the summer? That was Rabbi Martin Rozenberg. The same person that would be assigned to a student pulpit in Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the 1950s – just 30 miles from here – and while there, would meet Joseph and Betty Harlam, congregants of that small synagogue. Joe and Betty were active in the Reform Movement, even known to Rabbi Eisendrath for their involvement and generosity. They had landed in Hazleton after emigrating from Germany, and they were interested in helping to support Jewish youth despite having no children of their own. Joe was impressed by Rabbi Rozenberg; the Rabbi’s vast scholarship and deep knowledge of and connection to Judaism and Israel inspired Joe. They became close friends. Close enough that Joe convinced Martin to move with his young family to Hazleton after completing his studies to become the Rabbi at Beth Israel Temple.

Now you have the background: Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath is running the Reform Movement and wants to help open another URJ Camp. Joe and Betty Harlam are living in Northeastern Pennsylvania, have the capacity to make a gift, and want to help Jewish children. And Rabbi Martin Rozenberg and his extraordinary wife, Estelle, are now living in Hazleton and they are connected to both Maurice and Joe. It’s around 1957. There’s a little basketball camp running on an old farm in Kresgeville, Pennsylvania and it’s available for purchase. Well, you already know what happened.

A gift of $50,000 was made, and along with other funds and support, The Joseph and Betty Harlam Camp took over that land and 60 years later we are right here, in this moment. Maybe the most pivotal player in that process is Martin, Joe’s Rabbi and friend, Rabbi Eisendrath’s faithful student and colleague. And Martin doesn’t just make sure that Harlam can open in 1958, he went a step further to personally see to its establishment. He moved his family from Hazelton in June 1958 to this site. He lived in that building, right over there, that we now call the Radio Shack, and he got to work. He had already helped to recruit many of the campers that came for the first summer, and as the Director of the Educational program here, he applied his vision to make this a special, intentional and successfully immersive place for Jewish children to find themselves and each other. He beleived in teahcing the children here day-by-day. He spent the first two summers on-site, full-time, and he made some of his Rabbi friends come along, too. These individuals all came together to start something that would be bigger than what they could even imagine – now 15,000 kids and staff have spent a summer here at URJ Camp Harlam – and they all played a unique role. No person more important than the other. Leadership.

Here we are, on Shabbat. Celebrating our faith, sharing the experiences of our personal growth and development as individuals and as part of this amazing community. And while the structure of camp gives us leaders to lean on and follow – your CITs, your counselors, our Leadership Team, the faculty, the Professional Staff – we have to know that all of us are leading. All of us are part of making camp what it is, and what it will become. We are all unique. We all have strengths. We all care about where we are. And the leader that will bring us into the future is certainly not me. Or Lisa. Or even Rabbi Jacobs. Just as we stand here tonight on the shoulders of the giants that built Camp Harlam – Rosa and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Martin and Estelle Rozenberg, Joe and Betty Harlam – you will stand on our shoulders to move us forward. You will carry us into the next evolution of camp, when you will build new buildings and spaces, when you will help new campers and staff make their way here for the first time, when you will teach us about Judaism, about faith, about Middot, and about ourselves. 

Just a few days before our First Session began this summer, we welcomed Martin and Estelle Rozenberg back to camp a short time after each of them had celebrated their 90th birthdays. It had been more than 30 years since they had last visited, and 60 years since they spent that first summer here with their young children. We gathered in front of the Welcome Center – now named in their honor – to celebrate their impact and legacy at Harlam. With their family, friends, colleagues, congregants and students on the edge of their seats to hear what Martin would say after a career of more than 50 years, immeasurable influence on countless individuals and families, now finally willing to be recognized at the very place that he felt was most representative of his leadership. I listened and waited for Martin to say, “Thank you, here is why I did what I did.” Or, “We built Harlam because…” I expected an inspirational statement. And while I was wrong about what he might say, what he did say was deeply inspiring.

Martin lifted the microphone to his lips and the first words that came out were not about himself at all. Or about Estelle. Or his family. He wanted to talk about Joe Harlam. He insisted that we all understand that it was Joe – and the others, like Joe’s wife, Betty, and Rabbi Eisendrath and his wife, Rosa – that were the reason we had come together on this day. He never mentioned himself. Not once. Here we were in the presence of one of our camp’s most significant leaders, and his message to us was one of Anavah – of humility. Leadership.   

I am awed by the leadership of Martin and Estelle. And of Rosa and Maurice. And of Joe and Betty. And of Rabbi Rick Jacobs. And of Lisa David. And of so many others here. But to be clear, I see a lesson to learn about leadership all around me, seated on every bench or wall of this Chapel. Within this very space we have the unique and talented leaders of our community, for today, for tomorrow, and forever. May we all learn from those who have come before, while still feeling the sense of power and of responsibility to be the leader we want to be.

Aaron Selkow is the Executive Director of URJ Camp Harlam. Aaron lives in Philadelphia, PA with his wife, Ann, daughter, Lily, host student, Xinping Xie, and their gentle dog, Apollo. This is Aaron’s 8th summer at Harlam, and his 25th year working in the nonprofit Jewish communal field. He once ran another Jewish camp…but we’ll leave that story for another time.