I love being a congregational rabbi. I love that I get to get up every morning to teach, study, mentor, comfort, and inspire. And I love that I get to do it all in the context of strengthening the synagogue, the core institution of Jewish communal life. The only thing I love more than doing that sacred work within the four walls of our temple is when I get to pack my bags for two weeks in the summer and move my rabbinate north to the idyllic setting of Great Barrington, MA and the URJ’s Eisner Camp.
The contrast between my rabbinate in Westchester County, NY and life at Eisner is striking. The weather is more pleasant! The dress code is more relaxed! And the camp’s Faculty and educational staff embrace an ethos of “be flexible because things change at the last minute” that engenders a dynamic sense of creativity that isn’t always feasible in our highly-planned-in-advance home congregations.
But the best part of being a rabbi at camp has nothing to do with all of the ways in which the camp routine is different from congregational life. Just the opposite. The best part of being a rabbi at camp is the deeply meaningful sense of continuity that exists between my work during the rest of the year, and my experience here at Eisner. Although the audience and setting is different, the mission is fundamentally the same. Just as at home, we are seeking to bring progressive Judaism alive for the next generation by empowering campers to name and embrace for themselves the core values and traditions of the Jewish People.
From my vantage point, I am positioned to experience camp from many different perspectives. I’m a camp parent: our daughter, who will be 8 later this summer, is in K’tanim (Eisner’s youngest bunk unit), and our 4 year old son is a day camper here. I’m a faculty member – part of the staff responsible for the camp’s daily program. But I also think of myself as a guest here. I’m only up at camp for two weeks, not the entire summer. And when I’m not working, I’m free to walk the grounds and take in all of the other magic that campers are experiencing.
And every day I am struck by how extraordinary this place is. Not just because kids are having fun (they most definitely are!), and not just because that is happening in a Jewish context (it most definitely is!). But what I am really struck by is what a transformative experience it is for me to be able to spend time in a space whose entire communal value system is in sync with the values that I carry as a person, as a husband, as a father, and as a rabbi. At the end of the day, this is the reason my wife and I want our kids to grow up here. And this is the reason I encourage my students from my synagogue to come here. To put it simply: camp reflects the values that we dream of.
I am deeply, deeply moved by the camp’s work (along with their URJ partners) during the last few years to make Eisner even more welcoming to LGBTQ campers and staff. And I marvel at how Eisner spent a good deal of last summer exploring with campers the question of bullying, and what it would mean to build a community that eradicates it. From that project grew an Eisner initiative we call “Be the One” that empowers every member of the camp community to be a change agent as we seek to strengthen ourselves, our camp and its community, the environment, and our wider world.
It’s not just that Camp Director Louis Bordman and his uber-amazing team are doing extraordinary work (they are!). It’s that their work is my work. There is an extraordinary sense of synergy between the project that is camp, and the ongoing work of my congregational rabbinate. And it is such a gift for me to be able to be a part of both, as I enjoy the unique opportunity to bring the wisdom and best practices of one space to the other.