Union for Reform Judaism will be closing down their summer camp for teen leadership development: Kutz Camp, in Warwick, N.Y. (photo from onehappycampernj.org)
It’s that time of year again – when it’s too cold in Winnipeg sometimes to go to synagogue. For many folks, this never happens! For others, they never intended to go in the first place. Others would like to attend, but aren’t well enough to leave home when it’s frigid.
Once, my twins, age 2, wanted to go to a Shabbat family service when the temperature was ridiculously cold. With wind chill, it was below -40. We bundled them up, got outside (we don’t have a garage), seat belted them in and, though the cars were plugged in, car #1 wouldn’t start.
Our hands were stiff with cold as we took off our mitts, got the twins out of their car seats and into the other car, and then? Car #2 wouldn’t start either. Dang.
We grabbed the kids, rushed back indoors, and they screamed. No services. What would we do? We streamed a service from my parents’ Virginia congregation online. The screaming stopped. The kids were transfixed.
Sometimes, streaming services at home is the only answer. However, it’s not the same as being there. No one knows whether you stand up and sit down. And if you sing along? You’re all alone doing it. If the streaming has a hiccup, well, I’ve been known to give up. (I’d only “give up” in person if my kids disrupted things.)
So, it’s fair to say that technology offers amazing benefits, but it’s not being there in the flesh. There are rabbinic discussions on why streaming doesn’t fulfil certain mitzvot and, of course, it certainly doesn’t abide by the traditional things you can “do” on Shabbat.
Why bring this up? I recently learned that the Union for Reform Judaism will be closing down their summer camp for teen leadership development: Kutz Camp, in Warwick, N.Y. In the press release announcing its reluctant close, the Reform movement noted that, in its 54 years, the camp has been a living laboratory. Some of the best and most innovative Reform Jewish experiences happen there. However, today’s teens seek experiences closer to home, and at different times during the year.
As a camper for two years and a staff member for one, Kutz offered me the opportunity both to learn a marketable skill and to wrestle deeply with Jewish music, texts and tradition. The marketable skill, song leading, allowed me to earn money teaching music at summer camps, at religious schools and in adult education classes for years. It helped cover expenses during my undergraduate and graduate degrees. It offered me a great deal of joy and spiritual meaning. I helped create kid communities who sang their way right through services together.
I also joined a program called Torah Corps, which allowed me to study and learn Torah and commentary every camp day with other similarly motivated teenagers. It was a meaningful endeavour, and it gave me an opportunity to feel less alone about my passion for both Jewish text and prayer.
The people who attended Kutz Camp over the years went on to be real leaders, not just in their congregations, but also in the larger Jewish community and beyond. Every so often, I hear a name pop up and I remember someone from summer camp. These are people who make change in the world far beyond a single summer experience. For instance, Debbie Friedman (z”l), the famous song leader and Jewish musician, got her start at Kutz Camp.
Dr. Andy Rehfeld, the newly appointed president for the Reform movement’s seminary and graduate school, HUC-JIR, was an admired mentor and song leader of mine at Kutz Camp. For years, I toted around cassette tapes that recorded the entire NFTY Chordster, an encyclopedic “real book” for Reform Jewish song leaders. I used a Walkman, boom box and car stereo. I learned every single melody that Andy sang into that recording.
When I Googled Andy’s name, three or four other names from camp popped up – all are now rabbis, cantors, educators or other leaders. Kutz Camp was an incubator. It attracted teenagers from all over the United States, Canada, England, Israel and elsewhere. Through Kutz Camp, I had contacts all over the continent (and beyond) for quite awhile. When I went far away from home to attend Cornell University in upstate New York, I wasn’t alone! I went with several dear friends from camp.
I’m sad that Kutz Camp will close. It’s sited in a beautiful place, though the buildings were falling down even when I was there, around 30 years ago. However, just as online streaming has changed our options when it comes to attending services or Jewish learning online, it has also taken away the need for some families to send their kids away to camp.
But those face-to-face leadership incubators – Jewish summer camps – are priceless. I met people from all over the world at Kutz, just as I knew teenagers who did the same at USY, Habonim Dror and other camps.
We give up some things when we stay home. Maybe it’s the casual exchanges at shul that we miss. Or that we can’t hear everyone singing harmonies around us in the Kutz Camp congregation. Or perhaps it’s missing a lifelong friendship or even a spouse you might have met at camp. Sometimes, it’s just better to be there in person. (Assuming your car will start!)
Joanne Seiff has written for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.