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Camping, Canoeing, Cavorting: Lessons Learned in Nature

Camping, Canoeing, Cavorting: Lessons Learned in Nature

Group photo of about two dozen adults standing on a river bank wearing kayaking gear on a sunny day

For our second year, my husband and I ventured to upper Michigan with 21 other happy campers (including Rabbi Bruce Elder!) from Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL.

On last year’s trip, I learned that what you might worry about in anticipation of an event isn’t always what you should have worried about. Last July, my concern centered on whether I’d keep up with three daily four-hour canoe paddles (no problem at all), but that was supplanted by my surprise collision with a sandy underground bees’ nest on day one. Lesson learned: Wasted worry breeds wasted time.

New year, new lessons.

1. Campfires are beyond awesome.

If you ever attended summer camp as a child, you may already know this. If, though, like me, you were once a young camper but took so much for granted in the moment, the reminder is energizing. Sitting in the dark with no distractions inspires conversations of openness, candor, and warmth. Controlled, safe fires captivate, and community builds effortlessly.

2. Vulnerability facilitates bonding.

For some, setting up a tent isn’t simple, but that encourages others to join the effort. For others, preparing a meal is challenging, but that draws in fellow campers to help. For many, paddling for hours on a river with natural obstacles can cause a bit of angst, but the security of knowing there are 10 other canoes and a kayak’s worth of other community members nearby changes the dynamic.

3. Positive leadership is palpable.

Throughout the three-night, four-day communal experience, different people rose to lead the group. As each person stepped up – whether to motivate everyone to get moving for the day’s adventure, or to inject humor in an appreciated moment, or to command the attention of morning coffee-cravers, or to instill us with the special spirit of Shabbat or Havdalah – the sharing of leadership was gentle, seamless, soothing, and important.

4. Communing with nature never gets old.

City life can be thrilling, invigorating, dynamic, and oh-so-busy. Standing beneath a starry sky in relative silence while inhaling the forest’s aromas and listening to the sounds of unknown animals scurrying around is a gift – especially when you have no schedule to meet and no immediate goal except to be.

My fellow campers and I began this year’s summer excursion as 23 individuals, but we left as a team. I don’t know if this will continue to morph like Brigadoon, with a slightly-altered-but-always-amazing new community forming only once a year, but I do know that the shared feelings and values that were apparent in the moment will be felt beyond the campground.

In this troubling time, both in our country and throughout our world, I hope to draw on these lessons. I will prescribe for myself more fire-pit times, the comfort of knowing that when I feel vulnerable there is an opportunity to bond with others, the pleasure of appreciating affirmative leadership, and the reminder that precious nature exemplifies mystery and beauty.

It reminds us about what we can appreciate but perhaps never fully comprehend. It affirms that there is a vastness much larger than any one of us. 

Kerry Leaf is the director of North American board engagement and development for the Union for Reform Judaism. She partners with exceptional lay leadership from congregations throughout the United States and Canada, facilitating their work with URJ staff, partners, and affiliates to strengthen congregations, promote audacious hospitality, engage our youth, and work towards tikkun olam (repairing the world). Kerry also served as past president of five non-profit boards, but her most challenging and rewarding volunteer presidency was of her former synagogue. She is currently a member of Am Shalom and Congregation Hakafa, both located in Glencoe, IL.


Kerry Leaf
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