March 29, 2020

Camp Counselors, Educators Provide Light Amid Darkness

Camp counselors during summer camp. Photo by PxHere

I was honored to represent the Foundation for Jewish Camp at the recent United Nations General Assembly special plenary session titled “Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Racism and Hate: The Challenges of Teaching Tolerance and Respect in the Digital Age.” Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese diplomat serving as the ninth U.N. secretary-general, opened the special session by declaring that we must come together “to tackle the tsunami of hatred that is so visible and violent across the world today.” He urged us to focus on social unity.

The secretary-general welcomed Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway, who was wounded during an attack at his synagogue on the last day of Passover, April 27. The gunman killed one congregant, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, and wounded three others, including the rabbi, who lost two of his fingers. 

Who would have thought a Chabad rabbi would be addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 2019? Who would have imagined that anti-Semitism would rear its ugly head to levels unseen in the last 70 years?

Rabbi Goldstein shared the teachings of the Rebbe, reminding us that we must fight darkness in the world not with darkness, but with light. “We must flood the internet,” Goldstein said, “to encourage people to do random acts of kindness, which will bring light to the world.” He called on all of us to do our part to bring about the change so necessary in today’s world.

Today’s happy Jewish campers are tomorrow’s proud Jewish leaders — and they will be a formidable force for good.

It was truly amazing, and yet so appropriate, to have this lesson taught publically in the impressive and august chamber at the U.N. at such an auspicious time. The night of July 5 — according to the Jewish calendar, the 3rd of Tammuz — we will commemorate the 25th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. It is hard to fathom what has transpired in all aspects of our lives and in all parts of the Jewish world — and indeed the world over — during this 25-year period. So much has changed and yet so much has stayed the same. 

The Rebbe spoke of the tremendous responsibility shared by camp counselors and administrators as educators for the next generation. Education takes place in nature, on the sports field, on the lake and in simple conversations in the bunks. 

The Rebbe’s teachings are particularly relevant this summer, as I know many camps are discussing the rise in anti-Semitism we are experiencing. Camp communities — away from the everyday hustle and bustle of life — explore current events together, allowing participants to learn from one another, to test assumptions, challenge positions and develop their ability to consider their place in the world. In this way, camps play a seemingly contradictory but incredibly powerful role in the lives of Jewish young people: providing them with a refuge from the secular world while giving them the perspective, insight and strength to proactively engage with it.

I am privileged to travel across North America during the summer to witness first-hand the depth of thinking, intentionality and pride in Jewish identity that camps facilitate in Jewish young people. While the current challenges facing the global Jewish community are significant, I can say without a doubt that today’s happy Jewish campers are tomorrow’s proud Jewish leaders — and they will be a formidable force for good. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe understood the powerful impact of camp in the lives of Jewish young people and spoke extensively on the importance of the camp experience. Not only did he speak about camp, he demonstrated his words with actions. The Rebbe only left his Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn for two reasons: to visit the graves of his father-in-law and wife in the Cambria Heights neighborhood of Queens and to travel to upstate New York to visit the Chabad camps in the Catskill Mountains. 

Could there ever be a more demonstrable show of support for the importance of Jewish camp?

As we reflect on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s memory and teachings on the occasion of his 25th yahrzeit, may we at Jewish camps continue to tackle contemporary issues within their safe, supportive embrace. May camp communities not fear the darkness but continue to be beacons of light that illuminate our entire world.

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