Hineini: the Continuing Power of Eisner Camp

URJ Camp Eisner, summer 2015; eJP archives.

By Julia Tecotsky

“How was Eisner?”

Despite this question’s well-intentioned and seemingly straightforward nature, it has been one of the most frustrating and challenging for me to answer. Ever since the beginning of my Eisner experience in 2007, I have struggled to accurately respond to this question, each year’s answer more dissatisfying and seemingly inaccurate than the next. What I have recently come to recognize is that I will never be able to answer the question, “How was Eisner?” because Eisner is not an experience isolated to the weeks spent at 53 Brookside Road. Even long after the summer comes to a close, Eisner is not a thing of the past. The skills, values and knowledge we develop at camp are only as meaningful as the lives we live once we leave Eisner’s gates. To truly understand Eisner’s impact, we need to stop asking, “How was Eisner?” as if the experience has come to an end, and instead, start asking, “How is Eisner?” because the experience of camp extends far beyond Great Barrington. It weaves into our homes, classrooms, synagogues and in my case, Eisner came with me all the way to Ecuador.

After graduating from high school in the spring of 2016, I decided to take a gap year before going to Oberlin College, where I’ll be starting this fall. At the end of last summer, I returned home from my first year on staff at Eisner, said goodbye to all of my friends who were heading off to college, and patiently awaited my flight to Quito, Ecuador’s capital and my home for the next three months. I stayed up the entire night before my flight, partially because I am a frantic, last minute packer, but mostly because I was reading through my old journals, notebooks and letters, in the hopes that my past self might provide my current self with some insight. I stumbled upon a journal entry from July 5th, 2008 which reads, “I am so nervous, but my counselor said being nervous is okay, so that’s what I’m telling myself.” I ripped out this page and it stayed with me for the next 8 months.

In Ecuador, I lived in a neighborhood called Villa Flora, a busy area in the south of Quito where I worked in a local kindergarten. I spent my time there assisting the teachers with their lessons and writing English as a Second Language programs for the students. Just like my campers at Eisner, the students filled me with joy, energy and understanding, and in moments of uncertainty, they were an extremely grounding presence. Guided by my desire to expand my understanding of the world, its people and myself, I embraced my time in Ecuador with open arms, unfolding that July 5th journal entry from time to time.

I spent the second half of my gap year in Washington, D.C., interning in the Government Affairs department of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for LGBTQ individuals. In D.C, I had the unparalleled opportunity to work alongside dedicated lawmakers and activists whose values aligned with mine and whose lives were dedicated to seeking equality and justice for all people.

I could write an entire story in which I outline how and why all of the lessons I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had at Eisner encouraged me to pursue the gap year I did. But what I’ve come to realize is at the heart of my Eisner experience, the thing that has motivated me since my plane landed in Quito is the idea of being present. Hineini. Here I Am. This concept is not just something we talk and think about at Eisner, it is something we internalize and put into action. For me, being present, embracing the Jewish teaching of Hineini, and living my Eisner experience outside of camp’s gates meant taking a gap year. For others, it means something entirely different, and that is what makes this teaching so holy. At Eisner, we are united in our commitment to living out the value of Hineini while celebrating the fact that there are variations in each person’s understanding of what is means to be “here.”

I encourage you all to take a moment today to contemplate why you’re here and allow yourself to be present in whatever it is that draws you to this holy place.

Julia Tecotsky is a second-year staff member at URJ Eisner Camp.

This was originally presented as a speech at Eisner and Crane Lake’s Stakeholders’ Assembly on July 15, 2017.