As a child, I attended the URJ’s Greene Family Camp in Bruceville-Eddie, Texas. From those summers, I have distinct memories of sitting in the outdoor sanctuary for Kabbalat Shabbat. The sun would begin to set behind the hills (and no, there is nothing better than a Texas sunset). There was always a warm breeze at this hour, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Along the side of the outdoor sanctuary a number of oak trees grew, with the branches reaching out over where all of the campers sat.
One moment sits as alive in my mind that it might as well have happened yesterday. At one evening service, as the camp sang the sh’ma together, I closed my eyes, felt that breeze, heard the rustle in the trees, and for the first time that I can remember felt God’s presence around me.
Having just returned from two weeks serving as faculty at our URJ’s Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, I have a giant smile across my face, because I realize that our camps are ongoing venues for moments of true encounter. I have come to believe that God is a big fan of Jewish summer camp.
A Jewish summer camp strives to meet many needs for our children. It is a place for children to experience their first inklings of independence, to develop their self-confidence and esteem, to hone their skills with a bat or a tennis racquet, to make art of out twigs and twine. And at places like Eisner, like Greene, like other Jewish summer camps, it is a place for campers to first experience that God can be a positive and personal Force in their lives. For rabbis, we go to camp to recharge our batteries, to teach Torah in fun ways, and–as I realized this summer–to tap back into those first feelings that we had that tell us that God is with us.
Sitting in Shabbat shacharit services at the outdoor sanctuary at Eisner this past week, I found myself hoping that the campers were having a moment in those services similar to the one I had growing up. I believe that nature reflects God. This was what I first experienced as a camper myself. As I looked at the campers sitting around me, many of them were looking at the beautiful nature surrounding us. Okay, maybe some of them were daydreaming; that’s to be expected. Yet, I was hoping and praying that for many, they were among their closest friends, singing and hearing great prayerful music, and taking in in the wildflowers, the blue and white sky, the magnificent oak trees whose branches gave us shade, and realizing that in that moment and in that place God resides.