October 22, 2019

How Learning From the Rosebush Impacted Summer Camp Appreciation

CSU Channel Islands, the temporary home of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp for the summer of 2019. Courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple

This week, the Jewish calendar presents us with a powerful emotional contrast from which I hope we can all find deep meaning and renewed inspiration. 

I learned a powerful insight about the Hebrew month of Av during a recent visit to Eden Village Camp, an organic and sustainable farming Jewish specialty camp located in Putnam Valley, N.Y. Eden Village dedicates a small plot in its garden to be representative of each of the 12 Hebrew months. For Av, it grows rosebushes to signify the “thorns” of destruction, commemorating the mournful fast day of Tisha b’Av (the ninth day); and the comfort of the rose “bud,” representing the celebratory, traditional Jewish day of love on Tu b’Av (the 15th day). 

This living, breathing “calendar” illustrates the creative, intentional Jewish learning made possible at camp. In addition, for this week in particular, the garden presents an important reminder for the challenging times in which we find ourselves: even the most heartbreaking and difficult circumstance carries within it the promise of renewal.

I felt the sharp duality and contrast represented by the rosebush while visiting camps last month in Southern California. In particular, while walking quietly through the Camp Hess Kramer site in Malibu, consumed and destroyed by the wildfires last November, one could feel the pain of all those deeply connected to area camps Hess Kramer, Gindling Hilltop and JCA Shalom. And yet, imagine the great comfort visiting those three camps operating so successfully on rental sites only seven months later, creating intentional and joyful Jewish experiences almost without missing a beat! 

Losing one’s camp to destructive fires necessitates new thinking and new approaches. In conversations over the past few months, it was clear that the challenging circumstances faced by the California camps led to profound innovation and the expansion of adaptive capacity. Additionally, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles deserves much credit for immediately providing reassurance, guidance and incredible financial resources to help ensure camps operated successfully this summer. 

Renting part of a college campus, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps found ways to create a central outdoor gathering place, separate and distinct from the rest of campus. Nearby, a secluded (and powerfully emotional) prayer space was created featuring sacred remnants recovered from the fire-ravaged Malibu sites. Makeshift signage displayed in the cafeteria reminded visitors that this college campus had been transformed into their special summer home.

Other area camps I visited this summer displayed creative, open-minded, and inventive solutions to their own challenges and opportunities. 

Havaya Arts, a high-quality specialty camp in only its second summer operating at the University of Redlands, rotates its campers through a variety of locations across the beautiful campus to inspire their artistic expression and their Judaism from several perspectives. Finally, URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, housed on the Cal Lutheran campus in Simi Valley, temporarily hangs science-themed mezzuzot — with magnets — on their dorm “bunks.”

Consider how camps address the growing field-wide challenge of retaining college-age counselors. During my visit to JCA Shalom Day Camp in West Hills, I met a high-performing counselor who had spent two, two-week sessions working at JCA Shalom’s overnight camp, followed by working the remaining weeks at the organization’s day camp, where he could spend evenings with his family preparing for his move out of town. 

When long-established models aren’t taken for granted — and when we are open to exploring new approaches — benefits accrue for all. 

May we each find inspiration and strength in the resilience, agility and creativity demonstrated by those camp communities — especially by the camp professionals and lay leaders — dedicated to continuing their (and our) holy, vital work.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.