5 Life Lessons from Jewish Camp Counselors

May 26, 2015Isabella Merritt and Miriam Levy

There are few experiences more exciting – or intimidating! – than going off to sleepaway camp, whether for the first time or the tenth. Though it may seem that everyone has been attending camp forever, first-timers are not alone. Every single camper once was a newbie, too, trying to find their place in a vibrant, lively, and close-knit camp community, and we – the counselors and staff – are there to help. It’s our responsibility to ensure that everyone finds a home away from home at camp, and though it’s a tall order, we learn just as much from campers as they learn from us.

As seasoned staffers of URJ Camp Kalsman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Arlington, WA, we’re happy to share five of the most important lessons we’ve learned from our experiences. So far, camp has taught us…

1. How to make meaningful Jewish connections

On the first day of camp, when we ask our campers what they’re most excited about, we frequently hear answers like swimming and hiking and making new friends; never do we hear “developing my Reform Jewish identity. Though most camps have trails to hike and pools to swim in, not all can foster the development of a Reform Jewish identity. Of course our campers want to hike and swim and make friends, too, but they choose to do it at a Jewish summer camp.

Why? Because they (and we) can have just as much fun climbing and swimming, all while building our Jewish identity – sometimes without even actively realizing it! The camp experience creates stronger connections and lasting, meaningful relationships, both to one another and to Judaism.

2. How to look on the bright side

Camp is an unpredictable place, and sometimes, long-awaited activities get canceled at the last minute because of weather or other unforeseen reasons. It’s heartbreaking to have to explain to campers why they cannot participate in an activity they’ve been looking forward to – whether it’s fifth-graders whose pool time has been cancelled or high schoolers whose big off-camp trip has been called off.

As counselors, we try to make every single activity the best and most fun, which can be daunting, frustrating, and tiring… but also rewarding. It’s taught us that there’s always a silver lining, if only we look for it, and the same is true in the real world. Good things can come from the most unexpected places – and it always pays to look for the positive side in life.

3. How to create holy communities

An important goal of Jewish summer camp is to create a k'hilah k'doshahk'hilah k’doshahholy community , a holy community. One summer, we noticed a significant lack of cohesion among high school campers, a majority of whom had been best friends for years; the rest were trying to figure out where they fit in. In an environment where lifelong friendships and memories flourish, and no camper should feel excluded or separated.

That’s why, as counselors, we spent a lot of time fostering conversations and activities to promote the development of a k'hilah k'doshah, which resulted in a dialogue that helped us discover what “holy community” meant to us. We learned that a true k'hilah k'doshah not only embraces the idea that everyone is unique, but also recognizes that individuality as essential, leveraging each member’s special qualities to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We came away not only having accepted what is different about each of us, but knowing that we must seek it out and learn from it.

4. How to resolve conflict

One of our core values at camp is chesed, kindness. When people live together in close quarters, disagreements are bound to arise, and this value can get pushed aside when conflicts emerge. As counselors, we witness unkind behavior more often than we would like to admit, and it’s up to us to mediate these disagreements.

The most effective way to turn a negative conversation or attitude into a positive one is to go at it with chesed. No matter the scenario or situation, approaching them with kindness usually results in more effective conversations, activities, and relationships.

5. How to be our best selves

When we arrive at camp, people only see what we present for them to see. Our co-counselors trust us, and our campers look up to us, even though they’ve just met us. Because there’s nothing we want more than to be deserving of others’ trust and appreciation, camp counselors work hard to be on our best behavior. In turn, we earn the respect of everyone at camp.

After a summer spent with kids who think we are perfect – and, for their sake, making a conscious effort to be the best people we possibly can be – we leave camp as better people. At the start of every summer, we try our hardest to be our best selves; by the end, we’ve become them.

Learn more about Reform Jewish summer camps and other youth programs – and find the perfect fit for your child – by visiting urjyouth.org.

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