A year ago in May, I was wrapping up at my job, making plans to move out of my apartment, and packing my suitcases for a trip to Israel. I was both eager and anxious to move to Jerusalem and begin my first year of rabbinical school at the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
I imagined what it would feel like to be a full-time student again and to delve into the academic and interpersonal work of becoming a clergy member. I had dreamed of going to seminary for many years, and I could not wait for that learning and development to begin.
Just days before my scheduled flight, however, I received a call from my doctor. A few weeks earlier during a standard checkup, she noticed a bump in my throat and ordered a few tests. The results of the imaging and biopsies had come back, and I had thyroid cancer.
I was shocked and scared, but in order to keep these feelings from overwhelming me, I leapt into logistics mode. In the days that followed, I made a lot of phone calls – to family and friends, to various specialists, to my school. I scheduled appointments with doctors, dealt with moving companies, and researched health insurance plans. Of course, my primary concerns were medical, related to which procedure to choose and which surgeon to pick. But when I allowed myself to relax, another concern loomed large in my head: how would this diagnosis impact my plans to become a rabbi?
The summer began, and the Facebook group for the HUC Year-in-Israel students became active. As I recovered from surgery in New York, I was bombarded every day with pictures of my classmates exploring Jerusalem together, reminders from the administration about various events, and posts asking if anyone had seen a missing water bottle or set of keys. I silenced the notifications, envious of my classmates’ shared experiences and sad to be looking on from thousands of miles away.
But just when I was feeling most alone and disconnected, a package arrived at my door. It was from Debby Shriber, director of URJ Crane Lake Camp, Reform Jewish summer camp in West Stockbridge, MA -.my childhood home away from home.
I had not been back for eight years, yet Debby sent me a blanket, stuffed animal, and staff T-shirts with our camp logo. With that package, she reminded me that I am part of a community that remains intact far beyond the summer, a family that continues to care about and support its members no matter how long they have been away.
The package included an invitation, though I know one is always open anyway, to come to Crane Lake that summer when I was well enough to visit. I went up for Shabbat a few weeks later, and when I drove through the gates, I instantly felt at home again. That Friday was the first time I went out in public with my new scar uncovered and the first time I sang or danced since my operation.
Most of all, that night at camp reminded me that no matter what, I am part of a large Jewish community and my presence there matters.
As I knew I would be, I was welcomed, cared for, encouraged to be myself and to come as I was because, indeed, that is what camp is always about. I am blessed to be part of the Crane Lake family, and, having just completed my first year of rabbinical school in Israel, I am excited to return to work there this summer.
We never know when or how we will need others to step up, but every summer at camp we build a community that is joyful, accepting, loving, and prepared to support us in ways we cannot even imagine.
Watch Chelsea deliver these remarks during the summer's first Shabbat celebration at URJ Crane Lake Camp, then learn more about Reform Jewish summer camping and find a camp near you.