With the people

Getting off the bimah and into the community

In Short

Camp offers clergy and layleaders a chance to interact with their congregations in fun, authentic ways that are hard to recreate elsewhere

“I’ve never played roofball with a rabbi.”

These were the words that a 9-year-old camper said to me as we threw a ball onto the roof of one of the bunks at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Crane Lake Camp. For the uninitiated (which I was until recently), roofball is a game that involves throwing a soccer-type ball onto a slanted roof and then jumping to catch it and throw it back up – it’s a camp favorite. The camper made his comment with a mix of surprise and fascination that a rabbi would join in playing this game with them. It was a similar reaction to the one I received from several campers when I went flying down one of the inflatables on the lake, landing a little more quickly in the water than I had expected.

Over the past week alongside these activities, I’ve supported a round-robin hockey competition, refereed flag football, run the line for a game of soccer, helped clean bunks and learned a variety of new card games. I’ve also taught lessons about Mussar (Jewish ethical values), helped a variety of kids prepare for prayer services and practice for B-Mitzvah and offered remarks in several prayer settings. And this is just a small taste of what I’ve been up to. This is what it means to be a rabbi and part of the faculty at URJ’s Crane Lake Camp – and I love it.

When I think about my formative Jewish experiences, without a doubt the decade I spent attending Jewish summer camp was the most important. There is no denying the power of a camp experience. Campers and their parents (a category I am now proud to be in as well) know that nothing can truly match the impact of living in this immersive environment. I feel so lucky that I still get to go to summer camp.

Over the last decade, I have served on faculty several times at three different camps. I’ve always enjoyed the experience (after all I keep coming back for more), but this year has provided a different model for my involvement and it’s one that I hope others will emulate. The faculty group of which I am a part has fulfilled the usual roles that rabbis, cantors and educators play at camp; but this year, Lauren Chizner, the director of Jewish life at camp, has put in place a schedule that allows us to step into a wide array of roles we don’t usually get to inhabit – in sports, at the lake and even just hanging out with a bunk of kids on a rainy day.

I love that the campers get to see us in a variety of settings and places where they wouldn’t usually expect to find a rabbi, cantor or educator. While of course they know that this is a Jewish summer camp, I think it serves as a reminder that Judaism can be present in every area of their life. We remind them of that, because I can’t get away from the fact that for the camper, I was playing roofball as a rabbi. From his reaction and subsequent interactions, I think that the experience is breaking down some of the barriers that people, especially children, can sometimes feel exist between themselves and the religious figures in their lives. (And it’s also true for the counselors; where we get to be a part of the team with them – refereeing sporting events, putting on trivia nights and having a Barbie pool party).

I don’t want to be a rabbi that people relate to solely as a person who stands removed from them on the bimah. I don’t even want to be related to simply as a prayer leader or educator. I want people to be able to relate to me as a person who can share in community with them and join them on their life’s journey. For clergy and educators to do this I think it is so important to allow people an opportunity to meet us in 3D – to see all sides of us. I think that this allows us to build much closer relationships and, by extension, it allows for a closer Jewish connection.

Jewish summer camp is a transformative experience for everyone who has the opportunity to share in it. My time at Crane Lake Camp has allowed me to be a rabbi by playing roofball, by joining in with activities and by simply being with the campers. While it has been an immensely positive experience for me, I am convinced it is also transformative for the campers and their counselors. I have been able to connect with more of them in a deeper and more real way than in previous years. And by extension I hope this will both strengthen the campers and counselors’ connection to Judaism and also give them permission to relate to their clergy and educators back home in a new way.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the senior rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Mass.