Traveling Our "God Journeys" at Jewish Summer Camp
“Camp helps us feel closer to God.” With this sentence, I opened my dialogue with the summer leadership staff of URJ Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish sleepaway camp, at our annual retreat. As it turns out, even some of our rabbinic students felt uneasy about this language and its placement within our opening conversation.
God-talk is scary for many of us. It is not common language, and many of us are simply not comfortable with the term “God.” We’re not alone in this discomfort, and in fact, the Jewish people have a long history of struggling with this concept – after all, the term “Israel” means to “wrestle with God.” As progressive Reform, Jews, we do not strictly define God, so sentiments such as “closer to God” might feel foreign. Yet the belief in God is a central pillar of Reform Judaism.
I, too, have struggled with God language, and it is only in recent years that I’ve reached a level of comfort with it. While I profess no single definition of God, I have come to appreciate the belief in a source of life, meaning, ultimate issues, and purpose beyond our lives, and I feel that Judaism and God play a role in this narrative. I’ve come to embrace God through life and death moments, nature, silence, children’s laughter, daily tribulations and accomplishments, tears of joy and sorrow, and the daily mysteries and miracles of life.
At Jewish sleepaway camps, one only needs to take a stroll to bear witness to Godly moments: friends sitting under a tree, sharing with each other their greatest fears and hopes; campers shouting “We love being Jewish!”; the sounds of laughter, joy, and glee around every bend; pausing to reflect upon sunsets; a group of children engaged in deep conversation about life and its purpose; the embrace, support, and healing from community as campers deal with loss and difficulties at home; reconciliation and deeper understanding after a conflict; a real apology and forgiveness; Israeli staff and Israel culture; Shabbat ruach (spirit), with staff blessing their campers; arms around each other at night as campers gaze upon the stars and sing the Sh’ma.
Camp is ripe for feeling closer to God because we believe the most when we feel the connection. Camp, because of its 24/7 Jewish living in community, in nature, under certain values, provides endless touches of inspiration, feeling, emotion – joy, sadness, conviction, gratitude, awe, love. At camp, we are not only unplugged from distractions of technology; more importantly, we’re plugged into the sacred in each other as Jews and human beings.
We recently completed the Counting of the Omer, the period of counting the days between Passover (freedom) and Shavuot (receiving of the Torah). The ancient Jewish mystics believed that we needed to meditate upon the 49 days leading up to Shavuot as a way to be “worthy” of receiving the Torah. They believed we needed to acquire certain manifestations of God, very human characteristics, certain emotional attributes: chesed (loving kindness), gevruah (justice/restraint/awe), tiferet (beauty/harmony/compassion), netzach (endurance, fortitude, ambition), hod (humility), yesod (foundation), malchut (nobility, leadership). During the Omer period, the Jewish people were becoming a nation, filled with laws/rules/things to know. To receive the Torah, however, the greatest gift, it was less about what we knew and instead about how we were to treat each other as human beings and how we were to be in the world.
The Talmud states that “by the breath of children God sustains the world.” The opportunity to wrestle with God, in a community of peers, mentors, role models and without judgments, is one of Jewish summer camp’s greatest gifts. I call it our “God journeys.” We celebrate more than a million hours of Jewish immersion at Camp Newman every year, and I know that other Jewish summer camps do, as well. It is during these hours – some formal but mostly informal – that we get to practice the aforementioned manifestations of God. They are very human, and they help us connect to God and to travel our God journeys.