By Rabbi Chuck Briskin
“How many of you are first timers at Camp Harlam?”
I raised my hand. It had been fifteen years since I was a first timer at a camp. It was a strange and unsettling feeling.
For fifteen of the past 18 summers I had served on the faculty at Camp Newman. This summer, because of a move from Southern California to the Philadelphia area, I and my youngest son (also a first time Harlam camper) were no longer the vatikim—camp veterans. Instead we were rookies.
Truth be told, I was actually a bit nervous about being a first timer at a camp. I was used to being with the same group of faculty friends at Camp Newman. This year I would be a new faculty member with a group of cantors, educators, and rabbis all of whom have been coming to camp together for many years. I wondered how I would fit in and be accepted.
I was used to the culture of Camp Newman. How easily would I adopt the new culture of Camp Harlam? Would I know the songs and its customs?
How long would it take me to find my way around? What would my living accommodations be like? Will I enjoy the work here as much as I did at Camp Newman? All of these thoughts and more swirled through my head as my son and I made the ninety-minute drive from home to Harlam.
And, for the first time in a very long time, I was nervous about going to camp.
Within hours any lingering uncertainty quickly melted away.
This is part of the magic of Camp Harlam, and I believe all of our URJ camps. They help make first timers feel like camp veterans. They make us feel at home from the moment we drive through the gates.
As a first timer at Camp Harlam, I was living in a world of comparisons. While Camp Harlam and Camp Newman are different in some ways, they are more similar than not. Both are beautiful places where children are cared for and grow as Jews under the gentle tutelage and strong leadership of a large cadre of camp professionals and staff. Both camps perpetuate Jewish values and instill middot (positive character traits) throughout the day. Both are places of unbridled joy.
At both camps, banging on the tables during birkat ha’mazon—the blessing after meals—is a tradition. So is the custom of wearing white on Shabbat and walking from their cabins to their sacred prayer spaces. Both have beautiful outdoor prayer spaces that accentuate the best features of their particular settings. In those spaces there is resounding joy. After Shabbat dinner, children raise their voices during a raucous song session, then dance afterwards.
After just a few days I realized that there are far more similarities between these camps than there are differences.
My time as camp faculty has reminded me powerfully just how close knit our URJ camp communities can be. This connection was made powerfully on my first day at camp when I learned that Camp Harlam has adopted and adapted the Camp Newman ritual of staff holding talitot over the heads of campers during the Hashkiveinu prayer on Friday nights. Last Shabbat when we sang hashkiveinu, I returned spiritually to Camp Newman. The Harlam ritual was similar in some ways, different in others, but just as meaningful.
On my first day I had the opportunity to teach the two oldest units about this ritual that is such an enduring part of Newman’s culture. In that one powerful moment I was able to bridge two camps, two cultures, and show how closely connected we are despite the distance between our camps.
My faculty stint is coming to a close and next week I will be visiting Camp Newman for the Hagigah Festival, where my oldest son (who is still a camper there) will be performing. Two camps, two homes, so many shared values and traditions. This is what Harlam and Newman provide for my family. I trust this is what all of our URJ camps provide for all our families.
When I go to Newman next week to visit one son, and return to Harlam in two weeks to pick up my other son, the words “Welcome Home” that will greet me as I drive through the gates will ring loudly and authentically. How blessed am I, and how blessed is our family to have two camps that we can truly call home.
Rabbi Chuck Briskin just completed his first year as Senior Rabbi of Shir Ami Congregation in Newtown, PA, and his first year as a member of the faculty of Camp Harlam. He was a long time member of the Camp Newman faculty over the seventeen years he lived in California.