In-person gatherings

We begin again: A Shehecheyanu moment

There is no replacing the impact of in-person gatherings

“The secret to life is not to begin, but to begin again.” A dear friend, colleague, and 30+ year leader of URJ Camp Coleman, Bobby Harris, texted me this quote at 3 a.m. the day after the Tubbs fire consumed URJ Camp Newman on October 9, 2017. This quote, by Elie Wiesel, deeply resonates with me as Jewish camps and Israel journeys will soon welcome thousands of children, teens, and young adults to their first in-person immersive Jewish communal experiences in almost 18 months since the beginning of the pandemic (notwithstanding the amazing Heller High, our academic semester abroad in Israel, that started in person several weeks ago). 

We get to begin again, living and learning through these immersive experiences that provide a vision for what we seek and yearn for all humanity. Grounded in our treasured Jewish values, surrounded by friendships, joy, awe and role models who shape our lives, we get to begin again, an ultimate Shehecheyanu moment. 

The Shehecheyanu is our blessing to God, expressing gratitude for sustaining us, for enabling us to reach a new first, a begin again moment. For URJ Camp Newman in particular, it’s not only a Shehecheyanu moment of returning to in-person year-round immersive experiences for the first time in 18 months, but it will also be the first time in nearly 4 years that the community returns home to Porter Creek.

While camps and other immersive programs have continued to engage and support our communities through virtual experiences, there is no replacing the impact of in-person gatherings. While technology and virtual connections have provided new gifts, in-person gatherings touch on all our senses, expanding, deepening our experiences. The familiar scents of our cabins, dining halls, program spaces, and nature; tasting our favorite meals; hearing music, laughter, and prayer; feeling the presence of a friend or mentor; the ability to dry each other’s tears; being alone in a sacred space; breathing in the intangibles. 

How do we take the power of this Shehecheyanu moment to begin again with greater intention? What new gardens will we plant? What new seeds will be planted in those gardens? Camps and other immersive programs, known to be our best investment for strengthening Jewish pride and connection, have purpose that transcend their places and their programs. They inspire, shape generations of young and old to discover, grow, and celebrate their best selves, and bring their best selves to create a more just, compassionate, inclusive, sustainable, and loving world. Our youth are ready to lead, follow and partner in this sacred work.  

Having just participated in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Racial Justice Campaign launch, led by the Religious Action Center with more than 1,500 leaders around the globe, including many young leaders, I am optimistic that we can take this moment to tip the hand of justice ever more towards our Promised Land.

To all the campers, staff, faculty, and the stakeholder communities that support their camps, and immersive programs, I cannot wait to see the smiles, hear the stories and laughter, and bear witness to the new generation that is continuing legacies and beginning anew–for themselves, their camps, families, communities, and the world.

In special recognition to all the camp directors and their teams, absolute heroes in our communities, as well as all the summer staff of 2021 – while this year will stretch our leadership abilities in new ways as we provide a safe and joyful summer amidst a pandemic, it will also be a legacy leadership moment of a lifetime and your name will forever be inscribed in a new book of life of the time when you lent your hand and heart to children, teens, and each other in a new way to begin again.

Ruben Arquilevich is vice president URJ Camps, NFTY, Immersives.