By Aaron Selkow
About ten years ago, I watched as a song leader at camp led campers and staff through an inspired session, shifting from folk music to prayer, from an old ballad that I was surprised the campers even knew, to a spirited rendition of a Dan Nichols classic. As I was getting ready to leave to go and observe something else at camp, the campers’ shouts for one more song that they demanded to hear were finally answered by the leader as she began to play…I thought I would stay just long enough to hear what all of the anticipation and euphoria was about.
I never heard the song before, but it was still familiar. The chorus that they sang at the start included a refrain that punctuated the clever lyrics that followed, telling a story that the campers and staff were obviously connected to and one that even a washed-up camp junkie like me, just standing around, could feel energized by. “In the place where it’s summertime forever…” I stood there, kind of mesmerized. “The feelings that I get, Stars in the Sky, And I will not forget, the summers of my life…” I was unconsciously responding to the call of that song, to harken back to summers past, to remember the moments of friendship, fun, togetherness, ritual, tradition, all the different aspects of camp that we had always associated with those 3 or 4 or 7 or 8 weeks of the summer, never to exist once we left through those gates. But the song that captured me on that day was more than lyrics written by someone trying to win the Zimriah of a Color War long passed. It was a prayer. “Summertime Forever” is a prayer.
As our Carmel campers have shared with us tonight, this particular Shabbat offers us rich learning from ancient teachings. It’s here, in Va-et’chanan, that we are introduced to prayers that are centerpieces for our tradition. Growing up connected to Jewish community at camp but not so much anywhere else in my life, it makes sense to me that a prayer introduced in a Torah portion often read in the summer has become one element of Jewish liturgy that resonates for me. I can remember, as a young camper, reciting the Sh’ma each morning as we lined-up in front of a flagpole ready to be sent into the Dining Hall for breakfast. This central credo of Judaism that we’re commanded to recite each morning and night, affirms our belief in God – or what some might consider being a higher power than themselves, something or someone that influences their lives that’s beyond their own control or vision – and when we begin by saying the word, Sh’ma, meaning, “Hear,” we’re giving ourselves the chance to be open to what life and spirituality may present to us. As a child, I watched a counselor that I admired cover his eyes as he recited the Sh’ma, so I do the same. I stand with my hand over my eyes, listening, thinking, remembering, praying.
Here at Harlam, we began some time ago the ritual of Siyum l’Yom – closing our day – by singing the Sh’ma together, gathering in communities small or large wherever our camp day might end to be sure that we fulfilled this mitzvah, and to allow for at least one more moment of thoughtfulness or reflection, a pause before we prepare to close our eyes and allow our dreams to be built with the architecture of what happens here each and every busy day. Before we could imagine what might be in store for us tomorrow, we invite ourselves to hear once more what it was that we accomplished and what we loved today.
But let’s go back to that other prayer that is also inspired by love. Not the explicit love of God or Judaism necessarily, but the love of summers at camp where we can connect to God, and where we can connect to Judaism. We don’t have to imagine who might have written the prayer we know as, “Summertime Forever” – it was Matt Stamm. I saw him here at camp on Sunday. He was right up there, at the Rosa Brown Eisendrath Chapel on the Hill. He came back to camp, through those gates, to the same place that inspired him to write it.
Like the Sh’ma, Summertime Forever as prayer calls us all to hear. We begin to sing the lyrics of Matt’s song and we open ourselves up to hear the sounds of friends, a campfire, the trust and support of others, the laughs heard in a bunk at any hour, of Havdalah. We can hear our counselors or a best friend; we can hear the sounds of love at camp. The love of each other, the love of a big crush, the love of our staff, the love of the traditions, the love of Jewish community, the love of our families for giving us this chance to be here – one that we anticipate with butterflies in our stomachs each time we return. We implore these things that we may now be able to hear from our summers at camp: “Don’t stop, and don’t stop, and don’t stop.”
Ten years ago, when I heard Summertime Forever for the first time, I wasn’t at Harlam yet; this place was still a world apart. I was visiting a camp somewhere far from Kunkletown when I heard Matt’s words. I don’t remember where it was. Maybe Ashville, North Carolina. Maybe Palo Alto, California. Maybe it was Oxford, Pennsylvania, or Lake Delton, Wisconsin. I don’t know where it was, but if you want to know whether there’s proof that Camp Harlam is truly the greatest camp on earth, ask yourself this:
How many camps have a prayer written by one of their own that other camps think is so good that they use it, too? Pretty cool, right? I may have heard Summertime Forever for the first time far from here, but I’m proud to be here now. I’m with you, in this place; I hear you. I hear what Camp Harlam means to you. And may we continue to recite this prayer to always feel these words here: “Send my love to all my friends, and I’ll see you when summer comes again.”
Aaron Selkow is URJ Camp Harlam’s Executive Director. If you’re wondering what this new role means for our former Camp Director, Aaron suggests that you close your eyes and picture the best job that anyone who loves camp and Harlam could imagine… that’s it. 🙂 When he’s not beating Galil campers in basketball at Gil Gluck court in the summer, Aaron and his trusted sidekick, Apollo, live in Philadelphia with Ann and Lily.