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What Loving a Wild Turkey Taught Us about Ourselves

What Loving a Wild Turkey Taught Us about Ourselves

One of the wonderful benefits of Jewish summer camp is the opportunity to experience the beauty of nature that surrounds us on the campgrounds. Here at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Institute, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, WI, our setting allows us to see plenty of flora and fauna. We weren’t terribly surprised, then, when a small flock of wild turkeys showed up at camp. After all, Wisconsin is one of the top five states for wild turkeys!

One of the turkeys was particularly persistent in trying to make camp his home. The madrichim and chanichim (counselors and campers) bestowed the name Felix upon him, and he became our beloved mascot.

But wild turkeys are, of course, wild. Eventually, for the sake of safety, Felix had to be removed from camp and resettled in a more turkey-friendly environment. He has been safely relocated to a more rural area of Oconomowoc, where he will live out his days with his turkey friends.

Though he is sorely missed, here are some lessons we learned from Felix’s time with us, and the legacy he has left behind:

  1. Love all creatures. The Hebrew word for “turkey” is hodu, short for tarn’gol hodu – colloquially, “thankful chicken.” Just by being who he was, Felix indirectly taught us about gratitude. At camp, we discuss the important roles we each play in taking care of the earth and its inhabitants. We believe that creating a strong camp community where others are treated with respect, regardless of how different we are from one another, helps to build mensches (good people).
  2. It’s cool to be wild – occasionally. Sometimes we, like Felix, just need to let loose and enjoy! Camp staff are experts in bringing on the fun. This summer, for example, our madrichim made up a song to the tune of “Uptown Funk,” changing the lyrics to be entirely camp-themed.
  3. Don’t get your feathers ruffled over small things. At camp, there are plenty of opportunities to see the forest for the trees (literally). Sometimes, we need to remember to take a step back and appreciate the beauty of the forest. Living among 10 other campers also teaches real-life lessons in cooperation and conflict resolution.
  4. Even if you can’t fly, you can soar. Wild turkeys like Felix are mostly flightless, but they can reportedly jump to heights of up to 55 feet. Our campers, though young, are mighty in ways should not be underestimated. They are learning how to make the world a better place.
  5. Labels are fine for food, but not for people (or turkeys). Just as people might look at Felix and make certain assumptions about him because he’s a turkey, so too does our society tend to try to put people into neat little boxes. At camp, we are proud of our strong and diverse community, where everyone is loved and accepted. All participants are encouraged to realize their true selves and to feel comfortable in their own skin.
  6. A simple visit can put a much-needed smile on someone’s face. Campers never knew when or where Felix might show up, but they always appreciated his presence when he visited. Sometimes all it takes to make someone’s day is a kind word or a friendly interaction.
  7. Gobble, gobble, gobble – make your voice heard. What you have to say is important. Felix had quite a loud gobble (and sometimes made his presence known at inopportune times, like during services!). Campers are always encouraged to engage in lively discussions that allow them to bring forth unique and thoughtful viewpoints.
  8. Remember your friends, even when they’re not nearby. Though Felix is now off in the wild with his fellow turkeys, he will always be treasured as an honorary member of this summer’s camp community. We even gave a tribute to him during a recent Shabbat. Like Felix, campers have spent this summer making an impact on one another, and they have begun to build lifelong friendships. We know they will remember one another fondly throughout the year and look forward to returning next summer to see one another again.

Who knew a turkey could teach us so much? We’ll always remember you, Felix!

Mandy Herlich is the director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, IL, and Rabbi Alan Cook serves Sinai Temple in Champaign, IL. This summer, they served on the faculty at URJ Olin-Sang Ruby Institute, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, WI.

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