#NewmanStrong: The Power of Reform Jewish Summer Camp
My older brother Mark attended URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute Camp (OSRUI), the Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, WI. Because my older brother went to that camp, and because I spent enough time with my brother throughout the rest of the year, I opted to attend another camp. But Mark loved OSRUI. Mark discovered a Judaism at OSRUI that was deeply personal to him. Mark learned how to be a leader at OSRUI. Mark learned how to work at a Jewish organization – and at OSRUI, Mark learned that he wanted to be a rabbi.
I didn’t understand. I went to a secular summer camp where we went camping, boating, and swimming. I loved camp, but it was clear that Mark felt differently about his camp than I felt about mine. Fast-forward a few years, to when I become the youth group advisor at my synagogue: One of our congregation’s traditions was an annual youth group retreat at OSRUI. I dutifully planned the retreat, and when the time came, I rode up to camp on a bus with the kids, many of whom attended OSRUI themselves.
After a two-hour ride, the bus turned on to Lac Labelle Drive, the road that leads to camp, and I began to hear the screams of joy. Our kids were so happy to be back at camp, at the place that meant so very much to them throughout their childhood.
Year after year, I brought our youth group back to OSRUI, and year after year, the reaction was the same – smiles, tears, screams of joy. I came to learn that OSRUI was the very first of the Union for Reform Judaism’s summer camps, and it held a special place of respect and honor in the Reform Jewish camping system. For a while, I thought OSRUI must be different from the other URJ summer camps.
As a Jewish professional, I have since had the opportunity to visit several other Reform Jewish summer camps and have gotten to know Jewish leaders who attended many of these camps in their youth. I now know that OSRUI is just one of 16 URJ summer camps, and I soon came to learn that people feel just as strongly about each one of these amazing camps as my youth group kids feel about OSRUI.
This week, we received the devastating news that URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, suffered significant damage in the California wildfires, and since then, all I’ve been able to think about is my time at OSRUI throughout the years.
The outdoor prayer spaces throughout the camp. The chadar ohel (dining hall), where campers and staff convened three times a day for meals, prayer, and song. Watching kids walk down the pathways of camp, sometimes laughing, sometimes holding hands. Campfires and folk songs. Kids crying on the last day of camp, knowing it would be a long time before they saw their friends and counselors again.
We are deeply saddened by the loss of 12 lives as a result of the fires raging through Napa and Sonoma counties, and we feel deeply fortunate that no one at Camp Newman was hurt. We are relieved, too, that Camp Newman’s Torah scrolls were safely evacuated before the fires.
Every single Reform Jewish summer camp plays a central role in the lives of its campers, staff and families. The passion for our camps runs deep, and the damage Camp Newman experienced this week is a devastating loss felt deeply by every person who has ever attended a URJ summer camp, or for anyone who has ever heard a kid scream in joy just because the’are driving down a road that leads to a collection of cabins and logs setup around a campfire pit.
And yet, we know that fires cannot destroy our fond, sacred memories of camp – and that Camp Newman’s traditions and practices will continue. They may need to happen in a new space, in a new place, or under the cover of new trees, but Camp Newman, as a community, will continue. It will continue not because of what will happen after the fires but because of all the good, important, and sacred things that happened before the fires.
These are the things that will help to sustain and perpetuate Camp Newman as it continues to grow and serve the Reform Jewish community, from strength to strength.
To donate to URJ Camp Newman’s relief and rebuilding fund, please visit www.campnewman.org/newmanstrong.