I attended a secular summer camp as a child, and never expected to set foot in a Jewish summer camp. However, my rabbi invited me to Camp Newman last Shabbat for our synagogue’s annual visitor’s night, and it turned out to be an amazing experience.
Within minutes of my arrival, I got a taste of what was in store for me that evening. I bumped into my friend Judi and her teenage daughter, Aviva. When she saw me, Aviva spontaneously started bouncing up and down, singing the camp’s welcoming song, a version of “Shalom Alechem.”
This reception epitomizes the kind of unrestrained joy that consistently bursts forth at Camp Newman. Even the adult visitors kept saying things to me like, “Isn’t it great to be here?” and “Don’t you just love this place?”
I was a bit disappointed by the number of buildings and the amount of paving in what I expected to be more of an outdoor environment, but the gorgeous surroundings, including cultivated vines of table grapes, and what I understand to be acres of open space and hiking trails adjacent to the main camp compound, provide a good atmosphere.
Judaism permeates the environment. Campers start the day with the “Modeh Ani” prayer thanking God for returning their soul to them in the morning, and end the day asking God to watch other them at night. Throughout the day, they say Hebrew prayers over their meals. There is a large Mogen David on the hill overlooking the camp, as well as Jewish flags, mosaics, and murals on display.
These are the kinds of things one might expect at a Jewish summer camp, but the staff at Camp Newman isn’t satisfied with doing just the expected, or staying on the surface. I was quite moved when, during the service, the counselors each took out a tallit, held it over their campers, and blessed them with the Priestly Benediction. Clearly, both the staff and the campers receive something meaningful from the experience.
Song is used more effectively here than I have seen it used anywhere else. On Shabbat, campers sing during services, the staff sings to the campers as they arrive at the dining hall and as they leave, and campers sing together at various other times. It’s hard to describe the effect of all this singing to one who hasn’t seen it him- or herself, but it adds to the feeling of affection and connection evident among the campers and staff.
Camp leaders quote The Jewish Sector’s Workforce: Report of a Six-Community Study as reporting that “7 out of 10 young Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s attended Jewish summer camp.” Watching the teens singing, dancing, and throwing their arms around each other’s shoulders at the dance party at the end of the evening, I couldn’t help but think, if I had gone to a camp like this when I was a kid, I’d likely be a rabbi now. Whether that would have been good or bad for the Jews, there is no way to know.