A Lifetime from Israel to Kutz

Lisa "back in the day;" courtesy Lisa.
Lisa “back in the day;” courtesy Lisa.

[NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement is celebrating its 75th! In recognition, eJP invited 4 NFTY alumni – representing 4 different decades – to share their thoughts on the influence NFTY has had on their lives.]

By Rabbi Lisa Tzur

I have often joked that I am the poster child of the URJ. (Ironically, my picture does appears on one of the NFTY Israel posters, distributed over a decade to Reform congregations in North America!) As an alumna of NFTY, I’ve had the privilege to work in five of the URJ summer camps and NFTY in Israel programs. I attended a junior year study abroad program in Israel sponsored by the URJ, and studied at HUC-JIR, where I received rabbinic ordination in 1997. For two years I served our movement full time as the URJ liaison to the Liberal and Progressive congregations in the UK. I’ve attended almost every URJ Biennial and NFTY Convention (except when the convention conflicted with giving birth to a child…) and have always been a staunch supporter of the movement and its prophetic values.

But the truth of the matter is, I really could be the poster child for the movement – not because of what I have accomplished, but because of who I have become due to the influence of so many mentors and friends. The rabbis, cantors, Jewish professionals, friends, and colleagues that I’ve met throughout my years in NFTY and at URJ Kutz Camp have nurtured me, sustained me, and brought me a sense of peace, comfort, support, and wholeness.

For the past 36 years, I have spent numerous summers in our camps teaching creative and performing arts by interweaving teachings from our tradition. Each summer is a unique experience. Some years I teach Judaism through music; some years through Israeli dance. In recent years, my love of yoga, movement, healthy eating, and exercise have informed the classes I choose to teach. Recently while on sabbatical in Israel (spurred by the untimely death of my mentor, Debbie Friedman) I re-dedicated myself to writing new musical settings to liturgical and biblical texts, and spent part of this summer bringing those new melodies to the community.

This year, I was once again reminded about the value of this sacred community. I knew that as our family transitioned back to living in the US, camp would play a vital role in our re-integration into the country. Instead of leaving Israel and arriving back to our home base in San Francisco, we planned to travel directly from Israel to Kutz.

Exactly two weeks before the journey, I stumbled while spending time at the Dead Sea, and broke my leg in multiple places. In Israel, my friends and family rallied around me and assisted in every way possible to insure that my needs were fulfilled until my last moment in the country.

Likewise, and unsurprisingly, the camp community thoroughly prepared for my arrival. Despite the fact that the housing is very limited and pre-assigned, the leadership team rearranged the faculty in order to provide me with wheelchair accessibility. They rented scooters and golf carts, unpacked my kids, and stocked my refrigerator. As I scooted around the campus, campers and staff alike made sure that I could enter and exit buildings safely, participate in programs, teach when I was feeling energetic, and sleep when I was exhausted. I knew that camp would be a cathartic place to be while in transition and rehabilitation, but I did not count on needing the community to take care of me. Due to the love, caring, and support of the community, I was able to serve as a productive member of the visiting faculty.

These past two years in Israel with my family have been spectacular in so many ways – and from the very first time I arrived in the country twenty-six years ago, I felt “at home.” It took a quarter of a century to understand that my relationship with, devotion to, and passion for Israel stems directly from my love of Jewish camping. When I step into one of my camps, I feel immediate connection. I am a part of this place. I am a member of the community and a part of its history. So too when I step off the plane in Israel – the moment I put my feet back on the ground, I am home. I feel as if I stood at Sinai with my people as they accepted the responsibility of creating sacred community. I’m confident that my relationship with Israel would not be as profound if I had not experienced the bonds of Jewish camping from a very young age.

In my role as the chair of the URJ Kutz Camp Committee, I have the honor of returning “home” every summer to continue to watch generation after generation of NFTYites learn the value of creating strong Jewish identities, gain a passion for Jewish learning, and learn the meaning and importance of building a community based on common values. As we work toward celebrating the 50th year of Kutz, I have deeply committed myself to the work of re-envisioning the physical space in which our program occurs, and I am proud that so many of our alumni are renewing their interest in this sacred place. I am so grateful that I have the privilege of teaching, learning, and growing with the Kutz community, and I hope that my commitment will inspire others to give back to this special place that so many people call home.

Rabbi Lisa Tzur graduated from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 1997 where she was a Steinhart Fellow specializing in informal education. For thirteen years following her ordination, Lisa served two congregations in Arizona. She has an extensive history working with multiple URJ camps and currently serves as the Chair of the Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. A certified yoga teacher and an avid Israeli dancer, Lisa is a co-founder of Positive Jewish Living®. She lives in two time zones, traveling back and forth to continue her musical career in Israel, composing, recording, and producing accessible new liturgical settings as half of the Israeli-American musical duo “Micha & Lisa” whose debut album will be released Chanukah 2014.