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How Jewish Summer Camp Gave Me My Whole World – and How I’m Giving Back

How Jewish Summer Camp Gave Me My Whole World – and How I’m Giving Back

Songleaders dressed in white playing guitar and singing on an outdoor stage at URJ Camp Newman looking out over Shabbat services attended by campers

It was June 2008 when my mom asked me, “Rachel, are you sure you want to miss your high school graduation?”

I told her, “Yes!” and that was it: Instead of walking across the stage in Washington, D.C., I was on a plane to California for staff week at URJ Camp Newman. I was just 18 years old, guitar in hand, and I knew only two people at camp – but I couldn’t have been more excited.

Little did I know, that decision would change the rest of my life.

How did a teenager from Northern Virginia end up at a summer camp in California? It started with losing a regional board election for NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, which led me to participate in the URJ Heller High study-abroad program in Israel instead. It was there that I met a counselor who thought Camp Newman would be the perfect fit for me.

I wasn’t sure about it – I’d already planned to attended URJ Kutz Camp – but when I got home, I received a call from (now-Rabbi), who tried to persuade me.

It worked. I was hooked.

I already knew missing commencement was the right choice. I never felt like I fit in at my high school. The only times I felt like myself were during my temple youth group days and at NFTY-MAR regional events. Other than that, high school was the last place I wanted to be. I wanted to be at camp – where, little did I know, I would find the best where, little did I know, I would find so many of the best parts of my life.

My best friend

Just three days into staff week, Amy and I bonded almost instantly. We had so much in common, from our love of being in NFTY to being loud, outspoken ladies. People often thought we were sisters because our personalities were so similar – and we even looked like twins. She’s still my best friend and, seven years after we met, was my maid of honor at my wedding.

Valuable life lessons

I had no idea how I would be pushed and challenged during my next few summers on the Camp Newman songleading team. Before I came to Newman, I thought I walked on water; I admit that I had a giant ego. Thank goodness for the head songleaders, who brought me back down to earth and trained me to be much more welcoming and collaborative. I give huge credit to Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel (of Beth Israel San Diego) and to Rachel Mylan (now an early childhood educator in Chicago and HUC-JIR grad) for knowing how to deal with a teenager like me. Truly, they helped me to become both a better songleader and a better person.

Invaluable songleading experience

The experiences I had at Newman helped me to become a touring Jewish music educator and songleader. These days, I travel all over the United States  helping various communities and synagogues build their music programs, teaching adult and teen leaders alike how to song lead.

The connections I made at Newman helped me reach this capacity of work, giving me the tools and lessons I needed to succeed through working with Alan Goodis, Dan Nichols, Rick Recht, Rabbi Noam Katz, Elana Jagoda, and so many other incredible musical artists. All these people became my mentors, and I can still count on them to help me and advise me today.

The love of my life

In 2012, during my last summer at camp, I achieved my dream of becoming head songleader, working with a truly incredible team of songleaders about whom I couldn’t have been more excited. And then it hit me: I fell head over heels in love with the woman who is now my wife. We fell in love that summer while she was a rosh (unit head) and I was head songleader. We got married November 15, 2015, and I couldn’t be happier.

URJ Camp Newman gave me everything I have today: my wife, my best friend, and people I can always count on for anything. I am extremely grateful for the experiences I have had there.

How I'm giving back

Recent California wildfires devastated Camp Newman’s physical space. Following this tragic natural disaster, I feel that it is my duty – and my honor – to give back to the camp that has given me the world. This is why I have put together a special online URJ Camp Newman Benefit Concert.

You’re invited to join us on URJ Camp Newman’s Facebook page for this Facebook Live event on Thursday, October 26, 2017, at 9:30pm EST (6.30pm PST). The event will feature my fellow songleaders Jason Mesches, Charlie Kramer, and Josh Goldberg, singing classic Camp Newman songs as well as new ones. You need not be a Camp Newman alum to take part!

Join us as we come together virtually to sing, laugh, cry, and more. It is our hope that this concert will help raise more funds to build a bigger and better Camp Newman. Together, we are #NewmanStrong – and always will be.

To donate to URJ Camp Newman’s fire relief fund, visit  

Rachel Wolman is a traveling songleader and Jewish music educator. She works with all kinds of Jewish institutions and movements, including NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, BBYO, and the Association of Independent Jewish Camps. She lives in Richmond, VA, with her wife, Rabbi Ahuva Zaches, who leads Congregation Or Ami

Rachel Wolman
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