by Rabbi Barbara Symons and Rabbi Ron Symons

We are writing to you in this special joint article from our modest room at URJ Camp Harlam, where we are now serving as faculty for two weeks of vibrant Jewish learning and living with 500 campers and another 200 staff in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. This is the seventh year that we have served at Harlam in this way.

Our connections with URJ camping run deep. When Ron was entering 7th-9th grades, his parents sent him to the URJ Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, MA. As the child of a NYC public school teacher, Ron appreciates the sacrifices his parents made and the investment his Temple Emanu-El of Lynbrook made in him.  Barbara attended the URJ Kutz Teen Leadership Academy, in Warwick, NY, for two summers.  Ron did for one summer as well (not the same summer).  Barbara traveled to Israel with NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) when she was in high school, and Ron worked on staff at Camp Eisner before going to SUNY Albany. We both served as group leaders of NFTY in Israel tours while in college and at rabbinic school. We also served on faculty at the URJ Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, MA, for some of its earliest seasons as a URJ Camp.

We share all of this autobiography in order to impress upon you that we would not be the adult Jews, the Jewish parents or the rabbis we are today if it were not for these foundational experiences. We have been raised by our URJ/NFTY camping experiences.

But, this article is not about us, it is about our children.  Our three children have followed us to Crane Lake and Harlam Camp throughout the years. It always made sense. They enjoyed the activities, they thrived in the relationships, they learned independence (even though we had a close watchful eye), they absorbed the music, the prayers and the lessons at deeper, longer-lasting ways than we. They followed us, and we were thrilled.

And then our kids grew into adolescence. They developed diverse interests and wanted to pursue them in other Jewish settings.  We were thrilled and have invested in the future of the Jewish people by providing them with outstanding summer experiences.  In fact, this past summer, our three children attended five URJ summer programs. Allow us to explain.

It was a Sunday late in June when we dropped Aviva (entering 11th grade) at JFK airport so that she could travel with 60 of her closest Camp Harlam friends to Eastern Europe and Israel. She experienced for herself the epic story of the journey of the Jewish people. Together with NFTY friends from across North America, she began her adventure in Europe, exploring more than 1,000 years of our rich European Jewish heritage. and appreciated the beautiful community and culture our ancestors created and its virtual destruction during the Shoah—Holocaust. With the Czech Republic and Poland as an introduction, she arrived in Israel with an intimate understanding of the importance of Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel in our time, and was ready to enjoy four wonderful weeks discovering her personal connection to our people and our history.

By the way, we saved for a long time for this trip. We cashed in our Passport to Israel account that we had opened through the Agency for Jewish Learning. We graciously accepted generous scholarships from NFTY and our Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

We left the airport and went directly to drop Ilana (entering 10th grade) at the Kutz campus. The NFTY Leadership Experience is designed for students who are looking for a challenging, intense program. As a participant in this program, she had the ability to choose her classes, and create a schedule that best fit her and her needs. Ilana picked Torah Corps: Jewish Studies, where she met rabbis and rabbinic students who introduced her to an adult world of relevant Jewish learning that can come only with all encompassing experience of Jewish camp. Ilana says that it changed her whole life plan! (A year earlier, Aviva majored in Temple Youth Group Leadership and has been applying the lessons she learned to all aspects of her life and most directly to NFTY-Pittsburgh and as President of TEDY, Temple David’s senior youth group.)

It was just five days later when Micah (entering 7th grade) left for the 6 Points Sports Academy. An avid baseball fan and player, we sent Micah to this newest of URJ camps because we know that it is a place where young athletes are trained for life. They offer campers intensive, high quality athletic instruction, and individual attention. Athletes live in state-of-the art facilities, under supervision of positive role models while learning life lessons on and off the playing fields in a Reform Jewish setting.  Micah returned from 6 Points with rubber wristbands celebrating how he grew in most of the values of areas of the camp:

  • Community – Kehilla
  • Respect – Kavod
  • Courage – Gevura
  • Compassion – Hemla
  • Diligence – Haritzut
  • Humility – Anovah

Guess what?  He can’t wait to go back.

And now, Ilana and Micah are enjoying their first night back home in their Harlam bunks. Nestled in the foothills of the magnificent Pocono Mountains in rural Pennsylvania, URJ Camp Harlam provides the finest in recreational and educational activities for Reform Jewish youth. Established in 1958, Camp Harlam has developed a strong tradition of success and excellence based on a highly skilled staff dedicated to the spiritual, physical, social and psychological well-being of each child. We’re particularly proud of our open and inclusive communities that are sensitive to the needs of interfaith and diverse families.

The Camp Harlam family consists of smaller communities within junior camp, senior camp, and the Machon (Counselor in Training) program. Junior and senior camps are further broken down into units based on a child’s school grade to create a more intimate and age-appropriate experience for our campers.

Throughout it all, we have saved and invested, accepted scholarships from Federation, synagogues, Camp Harlam’s Consecration gift certificate and NFTY in Israel’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift certificate because we know that there is nothing worth investing more in than our children… to invest that they will invest in their own relevant Jewish identity and the relevant Jewish identity of our grandchildren.

Just as others invested in the next generation of Jewish involvement when we were young, so do we in our children and invite you to join with us by sending your children to Jewish camp and Israel experiences. Each of us will be happy to share more stories with you. Each of us will be happy to help you discover funding sources. Each of us will be happy to spend the summer with your children at our Jewish camp home.

Rabbi Barbara Symons serves Temple David, Monroeville, PA, and Rabbi Ron Symons serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

Originally posted on Temple Sinai’s blog