Let My People Go … to Camp

By Aaron Selkow

This week, we celebrate the Passover holiday, typically a time when families come together to enjoy a seder filled with remembrance, recognition, and hope.

We recite the Shehecheyanu during our ceremonial meal, thanking God for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

At some point, we will read from our ancient story to harken the call to oppressors to release us from bondage, to allow us to proceed together into Israel, and to redeem our freedom. We ask Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

Considering where we are right now – physically and as a society – this may have exceptional relevance.

The disruption of life as a result of COVID-19 is unparalleled in history, not to mention in summer camps like the ones I help lead. The crises faced by camps during the times of Spanish flu and polio are telling examples of fortitude that can inspire camp leaders today – but the timing and nature of this situation have rocked camps at their core.

The uncertainty we’re dealing with each day has us concerned about our ability to even make camp happen. We’re determined, we’re dynamic, and we’re clever – but if we’re being completely honest, we just really don’t know yet.

I started in a new role at URJ four weeks ago, just as our COVID-19 response was taking shape. I launched into a mode of leadership that is second nature to the camp professionals that I work with each day: days that start so early and end so late that one runs into the next; management of teams that all need to be at their peak of productivity; assessment and modeling to inform decisions with serious implications; and caring for people in authentic and transparent ways so they feel supported.

Our 15 URJ Camps and youth programs are feeling pressure from so many different sources: families needing reinforcement that the joy of camp will come; staff members from around the world that want to be sure their summer jobs are safe; volunteers and donors that want to know that their assets are secure; and an entire field of summer camps scrambling for information and comfort during this uncertain time. Our leaders finish their work each day to participate in the rest of their lives, which are also unsettled.

With all this stress, you might expect that I would feel defeated or sad; however, my most predominant feeling right now is gratitude.  

I’m grateful for the agencies and individuals that have come to the aid of our camps so far, including Harold Grinspoon and his team at JCamp180, yet again stepping to the front as a champion with the establishment of a $10M emergency fund.

I’m grateful for the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the American Camp Association for the work they are doing to raise funds, awareness, advocacy, and expertise that assist our professionals in countless ways.

I’m grateful for my colleagues and friends who continue to share, question, coach, and inspire me to keep my energy up and my optimism higher.

I’m grateful for those in our organization that appreciate our youth programs and the many staff who carry the weight of the summer on their backs while selflessly setting aside their own concerns for their jobs and futures.

I’m grateful for the extraordinary professionals I work with from our camps and programs who are passionate, creative, and dedicated; the communication and partnership with our leaders translates into a regenerative power source for me as I push forward.

I’m grateful for the families, campers, and staff that are planning to join camps and programs in the coming months. Right now, children are in their homes wishing for the arrival of summer to have the experiences they’ve dreamt of. Never have our camp leaders waited with anticipation alongside the children they serve to be freed from the dormancy of the 10 months of the academic year that are supposed to be a prelude to the two months at camp.

As we try to prepare for whatever the summer may look like, we recognize that the unknowns of summer amid the COVID-19 outbreak and the possible restrictions from public health concerns and government agencies are still to be determined.

Questions abound, but our directors continue to press forward with a commitment to their mission.

Our leaders appreciate that there’s more hope than ever to return to the screams of Color War, the warmth of Shabbat gatherings under clear skies, the chance to see the beauty of the world around us as we explore nature, and the pure joy generated in communities built on values, ritual, and relationships.

As we come together one way or another this year for Passover, let’s add a little something to our traditional plea to those who hold us back.

This year, let’s keep camp in our hearts and minds as we ask to be let go. Let us return to simpler times, to the rolling hills and dusty trails of our sites, to refresh ourselves through the discovery, growth, and peace that we’ve found in these special places for generations.

Join me in this refrain: “Let my people go … to camp!”

Aaron Selkow is the deputy director for URJ Camps, NFTY & immersives. He is the former executive director of URJ Camp Harlam, in Kunkletown, PA.

First published on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog; reposted with permission.