What does it mean to choose? How important are our decisions? Choosing can range from what to wear, to what to say, to how to live our lives.
In our Torah portion, Re’eh, God places before the Israelites blessings and curses as they are about to enter the Holy Land. Blessings will come to the Israelites if they follow His commandments and curses if they don’t.
But God doesn’t say that we must follow His commandments. He gives us a choice. Everything we do has a consequence. God is saying that we can live our lives how we want to, but our decisions will have an effect, not only on us, but also on everyone around us. Following the commandments can impact each and every day of our lives.
I’ve now spent 33 summers at camp, where I’ve served as a member of the rabbinic faculty for a few weeks. I get a chance to meet wonderful people who love kids, work with all ages of campers, help deal with staff, counselor, or camper issues, provide leadership to experiential Jewish learning programs, discuss God or prayer or Israel or Judaism with kids across a wood bench or lying on a field of grass, and pray under the stars. I see kids make choices every day, which connect their personal lives to their community. Unencumbered by the usual distractions of earphones, iPhones and iPads, there’s a genuine opportunity to deal with real human issues in a close and warm manner. Choices are genuine here, not filled with peer pressure.
No matter what kind of camp, there’s something unique and special and almost inviolate about taking city kids out and away from their usual environments, to a place where the beauty of nature is not a page in Wikipedia but part of every day. Perhaps it is being out of doors that sustains the comfort of campers’ choices. Being near a lake, hiking in the woods, getting splashed in a canoe or kayak, dreaming alongside a mountain or stargazing from the top of a hill refreshes the soul for all of us, and especially our kids. Camp is a place where kids can be themselves, feel safe, explore what’s in their hearts, and be accepted for who they really are. And they learn that actions have consequences, that words have meaning.
It’s not only a safe place to explore issues about God and faith, but also
a living laboratory where our traditions and values are lived and breathed and cherished as a normal way of life ‘round the clock. Highlights of research show that kids who have spent time at Jewish sleep-away summer camp are: 30% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 45% more likely to attend synagogue; 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles; 55% more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel.
Just as God was framing the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land, offering this young and growing newly freed people the adult choice between blessings and curses, kids come to camp prepared to make choices how to spend each day. And we must commend their parents who affirm the mission of Jewish Camping: to help children and young adults develop their personal identities, to experiment and grow their Jewish connections, to develop a greater sense of self and independence, to build community, to bond with Israel, to foster self-reliance and greater self-esteem.
At Camp Newman we live the Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim – based on the principles of community, acceptance, and role-modeling. We strive each day to recall that all are created in the divine image. Each of us has unique gifts and talents. We are fortunate to be part of a community that discovers and praises the blessings of every individual.
Rabbi Israel of Rizhin once asked a student how many sections there were in the Shulchan Arukh, the code of Jewish Law. The student replied, “Four.” “What,” asked the Rizhiner, “do you know about the fifth section?” “But there is no fifth section,” said the student. “There is,” said the Rizhiner. “It says: always treat a person like a mensch.” Camp is a place to help make mensches.
About the Author:
Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein, University Synagogue, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Rabbi Morley Feinstein grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles and attended Beverly Hills High School. He attended the University of California, Berkeley where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors.
Ordained in 1981 at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Rabbi Feinstein served as the assistant and first associate rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. From 1987 to 2002, he served as senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in South Bend, Indiana. During his tenure there, he received Indiana’s highest citizen honor – The Sagamore of the Wabash – from its governor for his efforts in promoting peace and justice. Named a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, Rabbi Feinstein brings his deep commitment and passion for Torah, filled with energy, a zest for learning, and his love of music to his sacred work. He has devoted time for thirty-one summers teaching at the camps of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Feinstein serves on the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders and is the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
He is married to Dr. Margarete Myers Feinstein, a historian and professor at Loyola Marymount University. They are blessed with four children – two sons, Aaron, a physician; Ari, a Jewish Educator; and twin daughters, Eliana and Renata, seventh graders at Paul Revere Charter Middle School.