By Lisa David
Earlier this week, Harlam hosted a community visitor day in partnership with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the non-partisan social justice arm of the Reform Jewish Movement. We welcomed congregational and community partners from our region to camp for a day of learning and sharing strategies for nurturing in our youth the desire to make their world, and ours, a better place.
One element of the day was a staff panel, which featured three of our outstanding staff members sharing their own stories of activism, direct service, and what experiences in their development led them to advocate for and create change. One staff member shared their journey from a student who bore witness to the tragic events in Parkland to a leader in the March for our Lives movement and now the founder of a non-profit that works to provide support and amplify the voices of underserved community members, as they seek change in their communities. A second shared their story of moving from a suburb to an urban public school, which sparked their desire to address inequity that they observed in their school community, resulting in them running for student council and establishing a range of direct service programs to serve community members in need. A third talked about facing inequity in their urban home community and using their privilege and education to help support community organizations as they reviewed proposed legislation to determine the impact and lobby for change. All three spoke about how their families, their schools, their youth group programs, and their camp experiences helped them down this path of action. They talked about how, at Harlam, the formative experiences of thinking about others in their community, acting with their heart, or pushing through challenges helped them to realize the power they had to do good in their world, both locally and in the broadest sense.
What struck me when sitting through this panel, humbled by all these young adults had accomplished, was that the day was certainly about preparing our youth for leadership and taking action in their future, but was also as much about inspiring them to speak up right now. These are today’s leaders. These three staff, and many of their peers, are quite literally shaping our children and our world.
While I’m proud that our Professional Staff has years of training and experience, and that we spend all year trying to create the best and safest systems, programs, protocols, and policies, once we arrive at camp, it’s our Leadership Team and staff who really run the show. While I can speak to a group of kids about what we expect of them at camp, only when their (much cooler, easier to relate to) 19-year-old cabin counselor helps pick up trash as they walk through camp, or speaks with great respect to each child in the bunk, or models strength by being vulnerable and showing true emotion, do our kids really understand and integrate what it means to embody the values of Harlam. When a trusted near-peer role model compliments a camper for the way they comfort a friend, or when a camper learns from their counselor about a new band or book, our children may discover who and how they want to be. And, when on a Friday night, after a Shabbat meal of fried chicken and sweet kugel, our counselors push together the tables, roll up their sleeves, warm up their voices, and use all of their emotional and physical energy to make the Chadar Ochel (dining hall) shake, as they bang tables and sing Hebrew songs with great spirit and authentic joy, our children learn that it’s fun, and cool, to be Jewish. While our staff do make mistakes – who of us doesn’t – their youthful optimism and the seriousness with which they take their role help them use those as opportunities for learning.
I learn each day from our staff. I am amazed by the work that they do caring for your children (and mine!). I am inspired when I see how deeply they care, both about the work they do here and about the work they do as students and as activists and as leaders. I share this with you because I have the privilege of observing how hard they work each day, and how wonderful they are as role models, and because I am excited for you to hear your child’s stories about the people who have changed their lives, and our world.
A first session parent recently wrote to me the following:
Neither of my daughters are big risk takers. But I recently sent each of my girls a letter and asked them, amongst other things, to “tell me something I would be proud of,” and both of them responded with different, detailed examples of things that they had tried for the first time and were proud of themselves for doing and that they learned they enjoyed. One of my daughters went into great detail about several things she had done for the first time, that she knew I would be proud of, and she was really excited herself. And today I got an email from my daughter with a long list of things that she had done at camp that were far outside her normal comfort zone. We couldn’t believe she had done those things.
I couldn’t be more grateful to the staff who create the kind of environment at camp where my girls are appreciated and loved for who they are, while simultaneously being pushed to go outside of their comfort zone and try new things. This camp environment is so far beyond what we could have ever imagined for our girls – and we couldn’t be more appreciative for everything you and your staff do to make it happen.
As we transition into the final two weeks of our session, I remain excited about more sunny days, out-of-camp trips, and Maccabiah (Color War). And, as importantly, I look forward to those in-between moments, when our counselors help our campers feel truly seen, when they coin a new funny nickname for a first-time camper, when they demonstrate creativity by inventing a new game on a rainy day, and when they comfort a camper who may be missing home. The empathy, compassion, and leadership our staff model, those qualities that they embody that provide support for your child through the highs and lows of camp – may it inspire each of our campers, and all of us, to take action to improve our world.
Shavuah Tov (Have a Good Week)!
Lisa David is serving in her third summer as Camp Harlam’s Director after 15 years as a professional in the field of Jewish Camping. She is a former Harlam camper and staff member, and a proud parent of 3 Harlam campers.