Jewish Camp, Our God Journeys, and Adding Faith to Our Checklists

June 7, 2023Ruben Arquilevich

We’ve been doing lots of counting. Last summer, when campers, staff, and faculty embraced as they left camp, we began the countdown to summer 2023. The extra challenges of managing a pandemic these past few years have cast a light on the ways we count gratitude as communities step up to support each other in unprecedented ways. For those of us who have attended camp before, we count down the days to being together, arm in arm, face to face with our camp friends, teachers, mentors, and heroes. I came upon a piece that I wrote years ago, inspired by one of the great gifts of Camp – “Helping Us Feel Closer to God and the Value of Faith in our Professional and Personal Endeavors.”  

The sentiments apply to all our URJ camps and immersive experiences. As I contemplate how God manifests in our lives, I’m struck by the value of faith not only in God, nature, and other unknown universal forces, but also by faith in each other as we all strive for a life filled with meaning, purpose, and joy. I’m struck by the opportunity to continue to create a more just, whole, compassionate, and sustainable world – beginning with our own growth and our leadership as REDI (Racial, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) champions. While we have endless checklists, how can we remember to add faith to the top and bottom as holy bookends? 

“URJ camps help us feel closer to God.” This is how I opened my dialogue with our 2013 leadership staff at our annual spring retreat. You can imagine the response. Even some of our rabbinic students felt uneasy about this language and its timing as the opening conversation. “God talk” is scary for many of us. It is not common language and many of us are just not comfortable with the term “God.” We have a long history of struggling with this concept – after all, the term “Israel” means to “wrestle with God.” As Reform Jews, we do not strictly define God, so the sentiment of “closer to God” might feel foreign. Yet, struggling with God is a central pillar of Reform Judaism and our URJ camp community. 

I have also struggled with God language, only having reached a level of comfort with it in recent years. While I profess no single definition of God, I have come to appreciate the belief in a source of life, meaning, and purpose beyond our individual lives; Judaism and God play a role in this narrative. I have come to embrace God through life and death moments, daily tribulations and accomplishments, tears of joy and sorrow, and the mysteries and miracles of life. 

At camp, one only needs to take a stroll to bear witness to godly moments: friends sitting under a tree, sharing their greatest fears and hopes; campers shouting, “We love being Jewish!”; a group of children engaged in deep conversation about life; reconciliation and deeper understanding after a conflict; and Shabbat ruach (spirit) as staff bless their campers. 

Camp is ripe for feeling closer to God because we believe the most when we feel the connection. Camp’s 24/7 Jewish living provides endless touches of inspiration, feeling, and emotion. At camp, we are not only unplugged from the distractions of technology but are also plugged into the sacredness in each other. 

We recently completed the Counting of the Omer, the period of counting the days between Passover (freedom) and Shavuot (receiving of the Torah). The mystics believed that we needed to meditate during the 49 days leading up to Shavuot to be “worthy” of receiving the Torah. That we needed to acquire certain manifestations of God and certain emotional attributes: Chesed - loving kindness, gevruah - justice/restraint/awe, tiferet - beauty/harmony/compassion; netzach - endurance, fortitude, and ambition; hod - humility; yesod - foundation; and malchut – nobility and leadership. To receive the Torah, we need to focus on how we are to be in the world. 

The Talmud states that, “by the breath of children, God sustains the world.” The opportunity to wrestle with God in a community of peers, mentors, and role models without judgment is one of camp’s greatest gifts. I call this our “God journeys.” We celebrate millions of hours of Jewish immersion at URJ Camps every year. During these hours, we get to travel our God journeys. 

I concluded my conversation with our leadership staff by saying, “over the weeks ahead, as you prepare for summer, you will learn many how-tos and you'll work on programs. Remember to take the time to prepare yourself emotionally and... support your staff, campers, faculty, and campers’ parents... helping us all connect with God.”

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