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What Jewish Experiences Impacted Your Life? Take Our Survey!

What Jewish Experiences Impacted Your Life? Take Our Survey!

Image taken from the back of an outdoor sanctuary space with a rabbi on the bimah at the front and showing the backs of the heads of campers with their arms around one another

I often say that I owe my life to my summer camp director – but I don’t mean it in a “he saved my life” kind of way. Rather, when I look at the path my life has followed, the major pillars of my identity are rooted in the lessons I learned at camp and the relationships that started there.

As a young kid, I was actively involved in many types of Jewish activities. I grew up in an amazing synagogue; attended religious school and Hebrew school; celebrated Shabbat with dinner and candle-lighting, services and Israeli dancing; I spent countless summers at a local Jewish day camp. I have fond memories of playing in my family’s sukkah, frying latkes at Hanukkah, and running through the halls of our synagogue with friends.

Some of the most poignant memories, though, began at URJ Greene Family Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Texas. That first summer at age 9, camp was about being away from home for the first time. I climbed the alpine tower, sang under the stars, and made new friends over s’mores and the campfire. I experienced my first independent connections to Judaism.

As I got older, summer spilled beyond the camp gates into the rest of the year. The first time I flew on a plane by myself was to attend a camp friend’s bat mitzvah. Camp taught me how to navigate conflict (may God bless the counselors who guided us through the drama of being eighth-grade girls). I learned that I could still have an amazing summer even when faced with the disappointment of getting passed over for color war team captain.

While in college, I worked part-time for camp as a recruiter, and it was on one of those visits that I learned about a new job opening that sounded like the perfect fit.

As the youth director for a Reform synagogue, I turned my passion for being a camp counselor into a marketable, life-changing skill. Just a few years later, I attended a conference for Jewish youth professionals, where I met my now-husband. Our paths collided, literally, at the top of the stairs as we tried to both say hello to one of our camp directors. One of my sweetest memories is dancing the hora with my camp friends at our wedding.

For me, camp gave way to youth group, which turned into leadership opportunities. Camp built resilience and curiosity. Camp inspired my trip to Israel, confirmation, my career, my marriage – all the contours of my adult life. And through it all, the relationships I developed at camp have sustained a deep, abiding love for Reform Judaism.

While certainly special to me, my story is not unique. Jewish summer camps, youth groups, and travel experiences have impacted thousands of lives and influenced the vibrant, dynamic Reform Judaism of today. I am grateful to the parents, teachers, counselors, friends, and yes, camp directors, who shared my classrooms, cabins, and heart.

When you think back on your life, what milestones have led you down your current path? What key moments and experiences have shaped the person you are today? Your career path? Your social network? How have those things been informed or influenced by Reform Jewish practice, experiences, or community?

The Union for Reform Judaism is launching a new study to better understand how youth experiences like summer camp or other organized Jewish youth activities can produce lasting impacts on the lives of adults and how this impacts the Reform Jewish community as a whole.

Whether you were a camper at a Jewish summer camp, an alum of NFTY or another Jewish youth movement, or had no formal or informal Jewish experiences at all as a kid, your participation in this study will help us understand, measure, and shape the experiences and outcomes of the Reform Jewish community.

Tell us more about your personal experiences with Judaism: Take the survey, and share it with friends, too!

Elena Paull is the assistant director of youth communications and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism. She grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX, and is a proud alum of URJ Greene Family Camp and NFTY. Elena met her husband, Andrew, at NFTY Convention and currently lives in New York City.

Elena Paull
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