By Valerie Weisler
If you asked me to close my eyes and imagine what Judaism means to me, I wouldn’t say Shabbat candles or challah or the bima at my temple. Instead I’d tell you about the migrash (the main field) that starts each summer with green grass and is a brown, dirty dance floor by the end of the first day. I’d tell you about the serenity I feel during Kabbalat Shabbat on a Friday night, next to my fellow counselors as we celebrate a wild week. I’d tell you about my summer camp. I’d tell you about how it feels like home.
I am privileged to have attended camp and grown up in New York, surrounded by Judaism wherever I went. I had never really experienced my religion being an anomaly until I got off the plane in Spain this past January. I spent five months studying abroad in Seville – a small, Southern city famous for their flamenco dancing. My host family was Catholic and traditional. On one of my first days there, I shared that I was Jewish, not thinking anything of it. Their faces showed shock. They responded kindly, and asked questions about Jewish traditions. But it was hard, too. It was the fun fact shared when their friends would come over, who would react in surprise and look at me as if I were a character in a science fiction film.
The Jewish community outside of my host family was not lively either – to get to the “temple” for Shabbat services, I had to send my name to a Facebook page, walk 30 minutes to a museum, find a hidden door behind the kitchen, and then address myself to a man who then led me to the small room where I’d be greeted by 10-15 others (mostly expats).
When I look back, I am grateful. Living in a world where Jewish community was more than hard to come by made me realize how lucky I am to have mine. My community has empowered me with a strong sense of Jewish identity, which I can bring with me no matter where I go. This experience also gave me insight into what it’s like for people who – unlike me – grow up in places in which Jews are a small minority. After returning from Spain, I can imagine what Jewish camp must feel like to those experiencing a Jewish community for the first time. It feels like coming home.
That’s why, when I was invited to serve as a Resource Provider for Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Educator Match Program this summer, I was downright giddy. The ability to spend my summer at camp (well, four camps around the world) is the energy boost of Jewish community I have been craving, and I’m thrilled to share my award-winning, interactive program – “From Struggle to Superpower” – with campers and staff. Though I bravely sought out a Jewish community in Spain last January, I didn’t always have this confidence: I was bullied brutally as a teenager for being shy. My Jewish community, especially my Jewish summer camp, inspired me to start a tikkun olam (repair the world) movement, The Validation Project, which is now a global youth empowerment organization. It’s so meaningful for me to share the life lessons I’ve learned through my own obstacles and provide the tools for campers and staff to increase self-confidence, push themselves out of their comfort zones, and turn passion into positive action to make their summer (and beyond) the most impactful it can be.
As I pulled up to my first camp the last week of June, I was struck by how comfortable I felt. A “Shalom!” sign greeted me as I walked into each building. People welcomed me as if I was an old friend … but this wasn’t my camp. This wasn’t my community. This wasn’t even my state! And yet, in a crowded dining hall eating dinner in a crowd of hundreds, I felt at home.
Valerie Weisler is the founder and CEO of The Validation Project, an international organization that works with 6,000+ teenagers in 105 countries to turn passion into positive action through mentoring and social justice assignments. Her self-designed kindness curriculum is taught in 1000 schools. Valerie was recently named a L’Oreal Paris Woman of Worth and her work has been featured in CNN, Oprah Magazine, Upworthy and more. Valerie was recently chosen as the United States Delegate for G(irls)20. She has also served on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s advisory board and is a recipient of the National Jefferson Award for Peace and Justice.
This piece is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series “Because of Jewish Camp.” Each week, we will be featuring personal reflections from camp parents, staff, and alumni exemplifying the ways that Jewish camp impacted their lives. Follow along all summer long, and share how Jewish camp impacted your life! Tell us your story in the comments, on Facebook, or tweet @JewishCamp using the hashtag #JewishCamp.