This post 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.
Rabbi Skoff is the product of many summers of Jewish day camp and overnight camp. He attended Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Sadly, his very first counselor passed away last week, and Rabbi Skoff shared these words with his counselor’s family. His thoughts remind us of how very special the role of a camp counselor can be.
To My Counselor… 45 Years Later
By Rabbi Joshua Skoff
On my first day at Camp Ramah, my counselor Stan Lacks handed me a brush and soap and told me it was my turn to scrub the toilets as part of nikayon, the daily cleaning of the tzrif, the bunk. Shaped like the Wheel of Fortune, Stan had fashioned a nikayon wheel listing every boy’s name and every cleaning job in Bunk 5. He spun the wheel, and the world’s least desirable task fell on my shoulders. I survived my “ordeal.” But, what I remember most vividly is Stan sitting us on our beds on the first morning and saying “gentlemen, this is the metatay, the broom, and this is how you are going to clean your tzrif.” Some of the returning “veteran” campers grumbled at having to sit for this most basic of lessons. But Stan was teaching all of us a larger lesson: “We’re a team, and we start on the same page. Do the basics well, because if you don’t master the basics, you’ll never learn to work together on anything else.” My first life lesson from my counselor.
Stan was my first counselor at Camp Ramah. It was the 1970’s and I was 13 years old. It was my first time away from home. Stan made me feel I belonged, that I could be myself. Is this trivial? No, it is critical. And, when it is done right, it is essential. We all need, at that age, at any age, to feel worthy, to feel validated, by someone NOT of our family, someone not formally tied to us by family bonds. It is important to hear someone outside the family circle say, “You’re alright.”
When we want to prove that someone is important to us, we fall back onto the terminology of family, “He is like a father to me, a brother.” Such comparisons are unnecessary and unwise. Stan was not my father or my mother, my brother or my sister. He didn’t need to be. It is as if we do not recognize the importance, the value, the uniqueness, and the magic of another important relationship: He was my counselor.
I learned that he lost his father at an earlier age. It just came out one day in conversation. I watched how he said it and then saw him go back to the rest of his day. It was my precious chance to learn about real life, about real loss, not in a cemetery, not in an intimidating environment but in a safe one, filtered very gently by someone I trusted.
Stan yelled at us if we were back late to the bunk at night and was exasperated if we were too noisy during Tefillah. He was incredulous when we put our already-chewed gum on our plate to save for after lunch, or when someone would place the table forks underneath their armpit on a hot sweaty day. He cheered for us on the baseball field and whenever we did something together as a group. He tucked us in every night and woke us up individually each morning. He found out about an almost unheard-of ballplayer that I liked, named Scipio Spinks, and would wake me up by whispering “Josh, Scipio Spinks is here.”
Every single night of camp, Stan sat in the middle of the bunk with his flashlight on reading us English stories, American Jewish stories, political satires, comedy writings, Woody Allen, Elie Wiesel, and The Jerusalem Post. He taught us about causes and ideas that we should work for. He wanted us to think. We were his congregation, and he was our rabbi, every single night.
A counselor at Jewish camp teaches their kids. All the time. Modeling, influencing, and guiding behavior. The looks you give, the way you praise, your criticisms, your tone – your campers will remember it for the rest of their lives. I did.
I now have a congregation of 1700 families; I am a rabbi of 28 years. Stan was my counselor more than 40 years ago and yet, all of these memories are still right in the forefront of my mind, they’re right here in me. We are tempted to call it camp trivia, but no trivia about people is trivial. Stan was not my father or my mother, my brother or my sister, but Stan was related to me by a shared intensive experience at a formative time of my life. Of course he was related to me! He was my counselor at Camp Ramah.
On that last day of my first summer, as Stan was disassembling the bunk, he took down that nikayon wheel off the wall, the wheel that he had made, the wheel that had mercilessly sentenced me to toilet cleaning on the first day.
“Do you want this?” he said to me.
I took it.
I still have it.
Lailah Tov, Stan.
-Joshua Skoff (Ramah Poconos 1973-85)
Rabbi Joshua Skoff is the Senior Rabbi at The Park Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio.
Edited and republished with permission from Rabbi Skoff.