by Michelle Shapiro Abraham
When I was 15 years old, my father died suddenly. When I showed up at the gates of URJ Camp Swig a few months later, I was still in deep mourning and denial. It was my third summer as a camper there, and though I couldn’t imagine not returning, I also found that I was unable to jump in to camp life. The leadership at Swig made a decision that profoundly impacted the way I view the world now.
Michelle and David Plachte-Zuieback had taught stained glass at Swig for years, and I knew and felt comfortable with them. It was decided that if there was a service or program that I couldn’t handle, I could simply go to them and they would call the unit heads and let them know where I was. As a result, I spent hours that summer sitting in their studio, listening to their music, watching them cut glass, and creating my own art. Michelle and David gave up hours off, the camp leadership bent their own rules of program attendance, and my counselors explained gently to my friends what was happening so that I didn’t need to. Camp Swig fulfilled the mitzvah of “comforting of the mourner” in a way that I could not have imagined – and forever impacted the way I view Jewish community.
I now have the honor of visiting many Jewish summer camps in my work as a camp consultant. I am often touched by the intentional Jewish environments that are created, love brainstorming with the camp leadership new techniques and strategies, and enjoy watching kids have fun while learning and living Jewish life. However, I am most profoundly touched by the stories that aren’t in our reports or included in our studies – stories of how the leaders of these camps go far beyond what is written in their vision statements to create truly caring Jewish communities.
In my visits this summer, one staff person shared with me that around 10 years ago, they had a young camper who showed up without enough clothes. Her counselors noticed and soon came to realize that her parents simply didn’t have the money to provide everything that was on the packing list. When her laundry was returned to her the following week, it was stocked with new socks, sneakers, and sweatshirts with a note letting her know that they were hers to keep. The camp senior staff continued this each subsequent summer that she joined them. They not only gave her parents scholarship money so that she could attend, but also provided her with dignity and comfort. It was a quiet gesture, but it made all of the difference to this little girl, who successfully made her way through the camp system, from camper to counselor and beyond.
I have sat with staff people who were “raised” by their camp – who learned much-needed self-confidence in their bunks and were even given somewhere to live in the “off season” when they had nowhere to go. I have heard stories of camp directors bringing together shiva minyans, creating special jobs, and giving money from their own pockets when needed. They are not always successful, and I have also heard the stories of attempts that failed to help, or rules that simply could not change. However, I am amazed how many times the leadership found a way to do, if not to do everything they wanted to, at least something.
When we talk about the impact that Jewish summer camps have on the Jewish future, we often talk in large numbers and percentages. Indeed, it is wonderful to see the proof that we are reaching our youth outcomes. Anyone who has worked with me will tell you that I am a “junkie” for these numbers – I love to count the returning staff and analyze the data from the camper surveys. But as I head to pick up my own children from Jewish summer camp, I am reminded of the individuals whose lives – not only their Jewish identities – are profoundly impacted by their summer home.
I deeply hope that my children will never need the help that I did back at Camp Swig. I am grateful to know, however, that if they do, they are part of a Jewish summer camp community that can support and comfort them. Jewish values indeed aren’t just what we teach; they are what we live.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, MAJE, works part time as the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J.,m and as a Consultant with URJ Camps, Foundation for Jewish Camp, and other synagogue and worship initiatives.