Changed for the Better
“Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
Because I knew you,
I’ve been changed for good.”
These lyrics floated through the full bitan (amphitheater) where all the chanachim (campers) at OSRUI crowded in for Oconomostock, an all-camp talent show. The boy playing the keyboard, whose nerves were not noticeably shaken, belted out these lyrics from Wicked. (I love that we have all been touched by this musical midrash on The Wizard of Oz.)
Having arrived to camp just two days before, I had no idea what a wonderful whirlwind that Tuesday would be. This summer I serve as segel (faculty) to Gesher, an eidah (unit) of almost 80 chanachim who are rising 7th-9th graders. The identity of Gesher has formed around especially powerful and fun field trips including working at the Green Power Garden while learning about the benefits of the Torah laws of agriculture, volunteering at a local food pantry, spending a day in the Wisconsin Dells and—for the first time this year—going to Madison, Wisconsin to lobby state senators and representatives on the issue of hunger.
For days leading up to this visit to Madison, the chanachim worked with Barbara Weinstein, Legislative Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. With her, they forged a deeper connection to ancient and modern Jewish teachings about the issue of hunger. They explored ways to take these teachings and use them effectively in conversations with legislators. She taught them about the importance of telling their own personal stories and how powerfully effective they could be when trying to garner support for this important issue. She then exposed them to hunger prevention legislation that required more politicians’ support. I have rarely seen as gifted and motivating an educator as Barb. By the time she finished with them, they had beautifully polished and personal presentations to bring to the legislators on Tuesday.
That sunny morning, after tefilot in the outdoor chapel and bagels on the bus, we arrived at the capitol building in Madison. In meetings with Senator Christopher Taylor and Representative Brett Hulsey, the students spoke eloquently and at times quite movingly about their experiences with hunger. One camper shared the difficulty his father had keeping his cabinets stocked with food after being unemployed for over two years. The legislators were visibly moved by this and other parts of the campers’ presentations. These congressmen challenged us to take our messages back to our local aldermen, county boards and mayors of our home cities to continue making a difference.
As many of us know, Jewish camp can change our lives for the better. It gives our youth an opportunity to experience life outdoors with wonderful friends, role models and programs– on their own terms, but with a Jewish lens. At OSRUI, between swimming, horseback riding, experiencing and leading inspiring tefilot, learning Ivrit, and spending time with cantors, educators, rabbis and Israeli shelichim, our youth develop a strong sense of who they are and who they want to be. This year, the chanachim of Gesher realized the power of using their voices and their Jewish heritage to improve our world. I am quite sure that this experience not only changed them for the better, it changed them for good.
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago and is one of the faculty members in Gesher this session.
This entry was originally posted on RJ Blog.