In this week’s D’var Torah, below, veteran camp educator Natalie Blitt writes about the awesomeness that is the Shabbat of staff week at the overnight camp. The picture she paints is worth the read, because of her insightful appreciation for what happens at camp and her gifts as a writer (check out her books!).
We all have our own distinct memories of camp, our own favorite moments. And tonight I will be missing my favorite t’filah (prayer) experience of the year. Friday night t’filot at camp are beloved by many, often for the feeling of community and the beautiful views as we sit on the lower Kikar for one of the few times a week we gather together as an entire camp. Friday night of staff week is, almost always, different. We are in an enclosed space – for many years the Ohel Yitzchak synagogue, for the last 17 summers, with a much larger staff, the teatron – and the majesty of the experience is about its raw propulsive energy. We gather tightly together even when there is room to spread out and sing, channeling the passions and longings of the core of our staff as late adolescents and emerging adults. They know the words and the music and their pent up energy for the summer pours out of their mouths and bodies. We have gathered one of camp’s secret gifts: a collection of amateur percussionists whose enthusiasm belies their limited skillsets. The voices rise to a crescendo. Throughout the service recently arrived staff members enter the back door and are greeted, almost always, by nods and waves because even their best friends don’t want to leave their seats for a moment. It is magical and inspiring.
That energy of staff week is an energy of love and longing, and also of promise. A promise for the summer to come, for the reality of taking responsibility for hundreds of children in a few days. It is, for all of us, an opportunity to step back into our camper years and childhoods, to appreciate being unencumbered as we are aware of how fleeting that is. I can’t wait to experience it again next summer.
Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director
Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week by educational consultant Natalie Blitt. From Skokie, Illinois, Natalie has spent eight summers on staff. She studied English at McGill and Journalism at The University of King’s College. She’s an education consultant for the iCenter, working to make Israel education an integral part of Jewish education. She is also the author of the young-adult novels The Distance from A to Z and The Truth About Leaving, as well as three middle-grade novels. Natalie and her husband, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, have three sons.
Staff Week Shabbat: Reflections on Parashat Beha’alotcha
by Natalie Blitt
This Shabbat is my favorite Shabbat at camp.
Today, the Friday before the campers should have arrived, would have been a busy day. The Mercaz – where counselors come to plan their programs and look for inspiration – would have been full. Cabin staff – from wide-eyed junior counselors to senior counselors, Israelis and Americans – would be gathering in small groups around our round whiteboard tables, sketching out plans for the first day of camp, the first night, cabin rituals and ice breakers. The various Roshei Eidah would be popping in to check on their staff’s progress, give guidance and sign off on their ideas. There would be jockeying around the computers against the walls and the ethernet cords that hang from the ceiling, complaints about the printer being jammed (the printer is always jammed), and reminders about deadlines and supplies.
The building would feel alive with ideas (some good and some that need to be “reshaped”) and we’d be discussing what values we were trying to impart, what we know about their campers developmentally and how we imagine they’d react to these ideas. And out one set of windows, we’d be able to see the waterfront staff setting up the inflatables (“Blob” and “Blueb”) and checking the boats, while out the other, we’d watch people rushing across the kikar. And then a calm would begin to descend as we’d kick them out of the mercaz and they’d return to their cabins to get ready for Shabbat.
There’s a special community that is formed during staff week, a feeling of newness and possibility, but that Shabbat is extra special. While all week they’re planning for the campers’ arrival, that Shabbat is for the staff. They are not looking into the future to when the campers will arrive; they’re focusing on themselves.
This Shabbat, they would be feeling grateful to be at camp, to be with their friends, people they’ve wanted to become friends with, and a whole new group of people to discover.
This is the Shabbat they would need, a Shabbat where they can rejoice in being leaders, without the immediate worry about the actual children of Israel they will be responsible for.
This week’s parashah, Parashat Beha’alotcha, has elements that feel particularly familiar to those of us who’ve experienced living through the last four months in this global pandemic. The children of Israel are in the desert, and nevermind the signs and wonders they’ve experienced, the Torah they’ve received, they are tired and feeling sorry for themselves.
But this Shabbat, the Shabbat that should have fallen during staff week, a different part of the parashah stands out. In chapter ten of Numbers the Torah’s description of the process of picking up and moving, division by division, feels a lot like camp. Countless times every summer, we gather by eidah, with our leaders at the helm: on the kikar for Friday lunch, when they sit by eidot for the pizza picnic lunch; or during all camp experiences like the Zimriyah or Rikkudiah (song and dance festivals) or a musical, when they march in together as an eidah, their rosh eidah at the head of the column, their counselors keeping them together.
But there are also the moments of greater responsibility when we gather like this. When we do fire drills or severe weather drills, when we practice for the events we pray will never happen. They hear the siren and gather in their meeting place, and each staff member – whether veteran or new, junior counselor or rosh eidah – is responsible for the campers they lead. They count them off, double check, and triple check, and even when it’s a drill, there is a sense of the importance of this moment.
This Shabbat I think about the staff that should be at camp, that should be having a last experience of not being in charge before their charges come and the heavy work begins. The work they would have done this summer would have challenged them and seen them grow immeasurably. Thankfully, next summer, we will experience the Shabbat of staff week again, and they will experience the responsibilities of being leaders of the children of Israel again.