A View to the Past with an Eye to the Future: The Reform Movement Celebrates 60 Years of Camping
by Jerry Kaye
This summer marks 60 years of Reform Movement camping. This Shabbat, July 21st, we will mark this milestone at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. But the real celebration is focused on the influence of camp on generations of Reform Jews.
Born in 1952 on the shores of Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camping system has grown in leaps and bounds. The URJ now operates 13 camps across North America with specialty programs focused on the environment, special needs, Israel, sports, leadership and more. Our camp and Israel programs now serve more than 10,000 campers each summer.
But these metrics aren’t what matters most for the future of the Jewish people. As the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s study CAMP WORKS: The Long-term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp (2011) showed, “summers at Jewish camp create adults who are committed to the Jewish community and engaged in Jewish practice.” The relationships and ideas that are nourished at camp represent the real vitality and impact of the past 60 years of Reform Jewish camping.
Take OSRUI as an example. The acres have grown from a mere eight to over 200; the facilities have expanded from a few buildings to a full campus. And activity choices have expanded dramatically.
But it’s still the people who have made the difference over the years. Campers have gone on to become rabbis, Jewish educators and cantors, as well as congregational leaders, taking their rightful places in the world of Jewish leadership.
One example is Daniel Shapiro who spent years as a camper, counselor and then unit head. He is now the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Ambassador Shapiro will tell you that the many years that he spent at OSRUI were crucial to his understanding of Jewish life and to his love of Israel.
Possibly the most famous URJ Camp alum was Debbie Friedman z”l, who started in the early 70’s as an enthusiastic young woman dedicated to changing the face of Jewish music throughout the world. She spent years as a counselor teaching our campers to “Sing Unto God.” Debbie’s commitment to OSRUI didn’t end when she moved on to sharing her music in every corner of Jewish life. She always identified OSRUI as her home as she created Hava Nashira, the songleading and music workshop that now welcomes nearly 250 camp staff, cantors and music teachers from every corner of North America. Jeff Klepper, Debbie and I mentored those new to Jewish music as well as seasoned musicians. Debbie returned to Oconomowoc whenever called to create a concert or just to teach children the splendor of liturgy.
That’s what camp is all about – it’s about creating an environment where Jewish youth can find a spiritual home. The most important place at camp is not the arts or sports centers, it is a simple log on the ground with a youngster on one end and a caring rabbi or counselor on the other end, learning together to love Judaism.
The future holds great promise for Jewish camping as we create new relationships with congregations, collegians, synagogue leaders and parents who all come together to celebrate the uniqueness of a camping movement that found its roots on the shores of Lac La Belle some 60 years ago.
Jerry Kaye is the Director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.