By Aaron Selkow
As URJ Camp Harlam’s Executive Director, and on behalf of our entire Professional Staff and volunteer leaders from our Council, I would like to thank you – each and every person that has been a part of our anniversary efforts through Harlam@60 – and hope you will indulge me while I try to inspire you to make sure that tonight’s Weekend Banquet will not be the last time you invest your time, energy and love in URJ Camp Harlam.
In his memoir, “Cheesesteak: The West Philadelphia Years,” Bob Levin spent a few pages talking about his only summer at camp, surrounded by fellow Jewish kids and led by a larger-than-life Director. Bob and I share that connection in some ways – we both grew up spending summers at camps in this area – both of us are Philadelphians, and we both graduated from the same school. We also share in common the experience of walking on hallowed grounds in Kunkletown – or if you prefer, Kresgeville – slogging through the tall grass on the fields after a few too many days of rain, shifting through the woods filled with maples, oaks and pines wondering why you turned right instead of left, and looking out from the top of that hill into the Mahoning Valley as we do on Friday nights. But in Bob’s time, this was Camp Tacoma, not Camp Harlam.
Though the property he was on was the same as where hundreds of us have gathered for our Weekend Celebration, he missed out on something that might have changed his life forever: a summer at Harlam. For some time, I’ve been asking myself, “What was different?” to try to understand how Bob’s time here and our time here could be so dissimilar.
Over the course of the last year, as our Planning Committee, Professional Staff, Council and others worked tirelessly to create and celebrate so many different ways to mark our 60th year, I, too, took on a project to explore and reclaim our camp’s history. Maybe in that effort, I would find the secret sauce that has made Harlam different and successful for this long. As you walk through and become lost in the images that engross you in our new Harlam Gallery, you might think that within those snapshots and stories the answer might lie.
Admittedly, the effort to find answers to this Big Question first drew me to the conclusion that it must have been the leadership. It had to be Menchie Goldblatt, who closed Tacoma and sold the land but ultimately took on the role as Harlam’s first camp administrator. Or Joe and Betty Harlam, of course, who we cheer about and will forever be indebted to for their initial investment to help buy the property (then they helped us build the first pool, then the Rec Hall, then the Eisendrath Chapel on the Hill.) Or it had to be Rabbi Martin Rozenberg, whose relationship with Joe contributed in untold ways to the details coming together, and more importantly, to the establishment of the Jewish educational vision of camp as the on-site partner to Menchie in those first few years. Or it was Arie Gluck. Of course, Harlam is great because of Arie. He built it from the ground up, added and formed and led with passion and dedication that secured Harlam’s reputation and impacted so many in the 38 years of his tenure. It had to be all about one of these people, or I could tell you about others as well.
When we came together at the Alumni Memorial Grove with so many friends remembering friends during our Harlam@60 Weekend – listening to stories of relationships and great moments – it suggested to me that the uniqueness of this place may actually just be about the people. You listen to the names of those lost, uttered with reverence – Marika, Alan, Jeff, Vicki, Dov, Mitch, Scott, Holly, Alan, Goobie, Gil. Adam, Larry, Erin, Jyl, and on and on and on. It’s the people that make it special here. When you’re surrounded by old friends, having a reunion of laughter and tears, it’s very easy to be tempted by that explanation. It’s what our campers today say, “It’s all about the people.”
But I want to share with you what I’ve learned to be the real answer to, “What makes Harlam better?” What is it – if it’s not the soil, the little piece of sky over our heads, or the dark water of the Lake – that we are so proud of and are so determined to preserve?
As hard as it can be to accept at times, what camp is all about is, in fact, camp. It’s not the people that alone make it great, despite the fact that they are the force that brings this place to life each day. It’s the institution that attracts great people and helps them to grow and share and learn and in turn, they contribute to the evolutionary cycle of camp’s existence. And it’s not the leaders that make Harlam what it is, yet their vision and teaching have everything to do with us staying the course and keeping the lights on. But camp is not about Menchie, or Arie, Jack or Frank, nor me. Not even Lisa, who brings the unique combination of talent and testament as both an extraordinary face to this team of professionals along with being living proof that Harlam actually works. I believe this because I know what happens when camp becomes about us. It’s not about us. It’s about camp. We are merely the stewards and our time here – your time here, my time here – should be but a moment in the life of this institution. Our commitment as campers, CITs, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, donors, and other stakeholders matters so much, but that commitment is most valuable when it’s to Camp Harlam. Because the moment it shifts to being about us first, we’ve lost sight of why we’re here.
Sixty years ago, Camp Harlam was founded to serve the Jewish community as a place to live, to learn, and to love being Jewish. It’s that mission that we are on today, it’s that cause that gets us up in the morning to feel the thrill of this experience, and deep down – beneath our desire to drive this effort, or to be with our friends – we know that camp thrives because camp is simply that good. It’s so good. It’s pure. It’s real. It allows us to be our best and truest selves. And it lets us fail, in so many ways, but to do so forward and to grow from those moments. It’s the essence of Tikkun Middot – where we build character in a place that allows us to do so, not because the ground is shaped in such a way, not because we happen to be on the bottom bunk beneath someone that will become our friend. Not because a leader says, “You must feel this way; you must be this way.” Camp gives us the time, space, and context for all of the joy to run through our bodies and to remain in a corner of our mind to take out, whenever we might need it.
Harlam started in 1958, thousands of years after this land was formed. Our job now is simple: just make sure that Harlam will not be for me, not for you, not for them. Harlam must be for-ever.
Thank you to every person that helped us get to this moment. May we all go from strength to strength, and I hope you will come back, again, and again.
Aaron Selkow, URJ Camp Harlam’s Executive Director, addressed the attendees of Harlam@60’s Anniversary Weekend banquet on August 25, 2018.