A Summer of Firsts, a Summer of Shehecheyanu Moments
I’m continually amazed by the way Jewish ritual has a way of lifting up everyday moments and making them holy here at Jewish summer camp. At the end of a long day at home, we could simply say goodnight. Instead, at URJ Camp Harlam – the Reform camp in Kunkletown, PA, where I serve as the director – we wrap our arms around one another, gaze up at the stars in the sky, and sing the Sh’ma and Hashkiveinu, praying to be able to lie down in peace at night and return to life the next day.
Another ritual that lifts up a moment in time to make it holy is when we recite the Shehecheyanu – the blessing we recite the first time you do something, giving thanks for being able to reach that moment in time and marking the moment as full of joy.
Each summer, each of us at camp has the opportunity to do something new, to accomplish something for the very first time, to say the Shehecheyanu. It may be the first time you see the beauty of a shooting star in the dark night sky or the first time you gather the courage to climb the tower or ride the zip line. There will be the first time the sky opens up and rain begins to fall and you’re stuck, laughing and soaking wet, inside a building when the lights go off. There will be your first letter from home, your first cold shower in the bunk after the hot water has been used up, the first firefly that lands on your arm during an evening program.
And because you’re at camp, these moments, good or bad, will help shape you. You will learn and you will grow, and you will become the best version of yourself.
And, because at camp we celebrate that Judaism has the power to lift up these moments and make them holy, you will experience these as Shehecheyanu moments. Moments where you lose your breath because each second just feels so full of meaning, and so important, and so incredibly special.
For me, this has certainly been a summer of firsts. The first week of camp alone was filled with firsts: My first opening day as the new director of camp, my first opportunity to address camp at our opening pep rally, and my first time almost being kidnapped (don’t worry, that was just one of our evening programs!)
There are a few firsts for me this summer, however, that hold special meaning. I have the honor of being named the first female director of URJ Camp Harlam. To be a woman empowered to lead such an incredible organization, with a storied history, many generations of stakeholders, and so many opportunities and complexities, humbles me and makes me incredibly proud.
At the beginning of the summer, I was surprised by female leadership team members who had created a Jewish ritual to celebrate this first - all while wearing shirts that said "The future is female." To hear from these incredible women that I serve as a female role model, and to sing Shehecheyanu with our arms around one another, validated all the effort I have put in, all of the long hours away from my own family. It reminded me of how lucky I am to work with such incredibly strong young women. I told them: It is the present that is female, and this moment in Camp Harlam’s history would not have been possible without so many strong women and allies who have been the first to do great things.
I’m also the first alumni to become the director of Camp Harlam, and it is remarkable to me that I have the privilege to follow in the footsteps of the directors who came before me. I recall my own first summer as a camper and my own first Shabbat, first friendship, first kiss, and so many other firsts that led me here.
I recall being a cabin counselor 20 years ago, being overwhelmed during those first few days learning how to connect with kids, how to be a confident leader, and being stretched by the challenges presented here. And I recall the thrill of returning to camp as a professional staff member 15 years later, feeling so incredibly supported and inspired.
I want this summer to be filled with firsts, those Shehecheyanu moments, for every camper. I tell them: Collect these moments. Seek them out. Take advantage of the open and safe world constructed at camp so you can push yourself to try something new. Reach out to new people. Take risks you might not have imagined yourself taking. Hold someone’s hand as you walk down the hill for the first time. Dance in circles while you sing a new song at the top of your lungs. Look up to find that first falling star.
Here, these moments are holy. Here, these moments are elevated. Here, firsts will be forever imprinted on your memory, and on your heart – and they will undoubtedly help to create the best version of you.