Why you should send your rabbi to summer camp

Want to enhance your synagogue?

Then send your rabbis, cantors, educators and youth professionals annually to work at a Jewish summer camp. Not as vacation time, but as a two-week professional development and personal renewal work experience. Your clergy and staff will come back refreshed and renewed. Your congregation will benefit from new creative ideas, inspiring music and energized staff.

Every summer my wife, Michelle November, and I lead a delegation of 40-some people from Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. For two weeks I serve as rabbinic faculty dean, assisting the young rashim (unit heads) with their programs, leading creative services, sitting in staff meetings, and engaging campers and counselors in deep discussions about Judaism, God and spirituality.

The days are long, the work is continuous, and by midnight we fall into our beds exhausted.

Even after our own children have matriculated out of camp, we still go back summer after summer. Without exception, each summer I return home reinvigorated, ready to inspire our congregants in the Jewish new year. Our synagogue leadership notices the renewal of my spirit; my clergy partners talk about how I return fuller, with new insights and an enhanced vision.

Why send synagogue leaders and staff to camp?

Beit T’Filah amphitheater at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where Rabbi Paul Kipnes goes every summer with his wife and a delegation from his Southern California synagogue photo/courtesy urj camp newman

Ask the rabbis, educators, cantors and youth directors who go to camp. They understand why it is so critical. I asked them, and their answers are below.

(Note: Each mention of “synagogue” or “congregation” also refers to organizations and wherever these Jewish professionals serve the Jewish people.)

Collegiality: We spend time with colleagues who inspire us as we engage in idea-sharing and problem-solving. We connect with and build strong relationships with new colleagues, and partner with and learn from them. We gather some of our best inspiration from other Jewish professionals during our time at camp.

Jewish incubator: Every summer we gain new perspectives and sharper tools to address the challenges Jewish communities face. At camp we experiment in a proven incubator where the next and best Jewish trends develop and take shape. By being there, we more quickly move these ideas from research and development into our congregations. Camp serves as an especially rich testing ground for ideas about youth engagement and presents 24/7 opportunities to practice talking with young people about things that matter.

Best of Judaism: We are exposed to the best of Judaism on multiple levels: community, prayer, creativity, music, Zionism, art and more. We discover and learn new Jewish music that inspires hearts and souls, which we can bring home for Shabbat services and into our religious schools. We also compile a treasure trove of stories to educate our congregational youth and families during the year. Camp is an exciting place to experience living, loving Judaism.

Deepened spirituality: We experience Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical amazement, leading us to reconnect with our inner neshamah (soul). We find the Holy One in the outdoor Beit T’filah (prayer space) and experience evocative Shabbat ruach (spirit). These experiences prepare us to better serve the Holy One through our work.

Creative t’filah: We experience and experiment with creative worship services, which we use to enhance services back home. At camp, the Jewish spiritual future is happening in the present. We need to keep up with it!

Jewish role modeling: Meeting Jewish youth from around the region, we demonstrate to them that we can be fun-loving role models, trustworthy confidantes and real people (who wear shorts). Kids learn that being a rabbi, cantor or educator is what you teach, not what you wear.

Spending time at camp, enjoying recreational pursuits and taking in nature’s beauty has far-reaching benefits — physically, mentally and professionally. photo/flickr

Relationship building: At camp, we build deeper connections with the youth we serve at home in a different, deeply spiritual context. By extension — before, during and after camp — we build relationships with their parents. Nothing beats a relationship built at camp!

More kids to camp: Our presence at camp inspires more temple kids — especially younger ones who live a distance away — to come to camp. Many parents are more apt to send their children when they know that the rabbi (or other Jewish professional) will be there to watch over their kids. (My first day, pictures of temple kids that I text to parents and post to Facebook help ease the transition.) In fact, in the first six years since I started coming to camp, we increased our synagogue camper and counselor delegation from four to 40.

Ensuring the Jewish future: At camp we inspire kids to live Jewish lives by providing loving examples. As these young people grow up, they become the leaders of our Jewish community; our presence at camp perpetuates the cycle of Jewish leadership. In fact, many of us became Jewish professionals because of the experiences and informal interactions we had with engaging Jewish leaders when we went to camp.

Professional growth: At camp, we step out of our comfort zones in various ways so that we, like the campers, grow as a result. When we are assigned to a different unit and need to develop comfort connecting with a new age group, when we are asked to help create a service involving only the arts,and when we stumble upon a counselor crying from frustration, we stretch ourselves in new directions. We learn more than we teach, especially when we listen carefully.

Rejuvenation: We all need safe places to shake off the pressures of work and regain energy. At camp, we renew our own creativity. We restore our optimism about the Jewish people. We regain broader perspective, enabling us to see the forest. We revitalize from rabbinic burnout.

Of course, camp is also fun. But going to camp is so much more: It transforms kids, rejuvenates Jewish professionals and enhances our institutions.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is the rabbi of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas and writes a blog titled “Or Am I?” This piece is also on www.paulkipnes.com.