Camp Swig counselors and CITs, summer 1975. (Photo/Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff).
Camp Swig counselors and CITs, summer 1975. (Photo/Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff).

The lasting impact of a 1975 Camp Swig visit to San Quentin prison

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A San Quentin inmate with a swastika tattooed on his hand greeted our class as we stepped off the bus outside the prison. It was 1975, and we were 30 counselors-in-training from Camp Swig in Saratoga out on a journey. (Camp Swig is now URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.) As you can imagine, this was no ordinary field trip.

Our visit to the notorious maximum-security prison was organized by human rights advocates at camp who wanted to provide a memorable experience for our class of rising high school seniors.

In a step well beyond the usual camp simulation program, this very real “hands-on” experience was intended to open our hearts and minds to the issues of criminal-justice reform and the death penalty. This intention was very much in keeping with the social action themes that dominated camp programming in the 1960s and ’70s.

So with equal measures of excitement and trepidation, we toured the prison grounds, including the execution gas chamber, met with a group of Jewishly identified inmates and, indeed, stepped out of our own lives that day.

That visit to San Quentin was 46 years ago, but we still talk about it!

Recollections of that day, and the impact it had on our impressionable 17-year-old minds, dominated the discussion at our CIT class reunion in August 2020. We all agreed that it was the most “out of the box” event of our collective years at camp.

But we also recalled how our camp experience in general — with its programming focused on reliving the struggles of the Jewish people and the values we strived to uphold — planted seeds of understanding: The world is bigger than each of us; it is unfinished; there are people who are connected to each other who are working to heal and repair it.

For many of us, it was at camp where we first understood that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is more than just a phrase; it is a moral imperative, perhaps the most enduring and relevant expression of our Jewish faith.

It’s no accident, therefore, that so many members of our CIT class, and so many of our camp peers and counselors, have invested their lives in either the helping professions, or in social justice work.

We have made an impact as elected officials, supported nonprofit work as volunteers or professional activists, promoted social change through academia, healed bodies and souls as health care professionals, and inspired the next generations of Jewish menches as rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish communal workers.

It was at camp where we first understood that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is more than just a phrase; it is a moral imperative

We are overwhelmed by the degree to which the value of tikkun olam motivated our career choices.

The discussion at our reunion, which went on for more than 3½ hours, inspired an idea: Why not explore further the impact camp has had in the life and work of its alumni? Why not shine a light on the important work we are doing, and engage in meaningful conversation regarding the social-justice issues we are tackling today?

Perhaps by gathering and contemplating how we developed our moral commitments, and by lifting up the achievements of camp alumni, we could find a way to inspire the next generation of campers at Camp Newman and Jewish camps around the country.

As we look forward to our “third act” in life, we wish to find a way to “give back” in gratitude for the role camp has played in all our lives.

That is how our August reunion gave birth to Legacy of Tikkun, an online speakers series featuring camp alumni who share the ways camp influenced their moral commitments and the ways those commitments are expressed in their life choices.

Each event features a panel of two to four camp alumni, and each has a thematic thread relevant to an area of current events (based on the work of the participants).

In May, for example, the first Zoom panel featured professor Jack Glaser of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and retired Judge Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Their topic was “Race and the Criminal Legal System,” a recording of which can be accessed here.

Of note is that Jack is the son of Rabbi Joe Glaser, who was instrumental in the ’60s and ’70s in bringing social justice to the forefront of Reform Judaism, through his leadership in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and later as head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In the months ahead, Legacy of Tikkun panelists will discuss a cornucopia of themes that animate their work, from “Empowerment and Equity” to “Allies and Strategists for the Oppressed” to “Paths for Addressing Health Crises.”

The full schedule can be viewed at legacyoftikkun.org or by joining the Legacy of Tikkun Facebook page.

It is hard to measure the lasting impact of that CIT visit to San Quentin, just as it is difficult to assess the long-term impact that Jewish camping has on thousands of campers every summer.

If, however, the commitment of Legacy of Tikkun organizers and participants is any indication, it is deep and it is lasting. Please join us!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff
Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff

Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Stockton.