Growing up in an interfaith family made it even more complicated to figure out what being Jewish meant to me. Even though my mom didn’t convert until soon before I became Bat Mitzvah, she and my dad did everything they could to create Jewish experiences for us both in and out of the home - we never missed Christmas with my mom’s family, but we also never missed Passover with my dad’s family, a single night of lighting Chanukah candles, or a day of Sunday School unless we had a really good reason, like a LOT of snow.
Each of those individual moments and experiences made Judaism feel different and interesting in a good way, in a way that was special, and they gave me answers to the questions I had and that others were asking me. But Judaism still felt like something I did at my grandparents’ house, or at temple, or in front of the Shabbat candles. It came to define me, because at the time, I used it to understand myself in contrast to the people around me. Judaism was something I loved, but it wasn’t something I felt.
Then I went to camp.
The 613 mitzvot, or commandments, found in the Torah can be split into three categories: chukim, or decrees, are laws without clear reason, which differentiate us from other groups. Eduyot, or commemorations, inspire traditions held by Jews past, present and future. The Torah portion Mishpatim, or judgements, is named for the third group, the ethical laws that just sort of make sense, and make up what most of us would consider the basics of a moral compass. All together, these laws create a set of values that teach us what it means to be Jewish and to live Jewishly. The time I spent learning about them and living them at camp is what taught me what it meant for ME to be Jewish.
At camp, Judaism isn’t just something you learn about for an hour a day and then put into practice at Friday night services. It becomes a way of life, an opportunity to wrap yourself in layers of tradition, values and culture, until it’s impossible to believe that before you got there, Judaism wasn’t a vital thread woven into the tapestry of your life the rest of the year.
We lived our Jewish values in every interaction. We learned to treat our cabinmates with kavod, respect, and when there are disputes, we were reminded that each of us is made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. Through cabin bonding programs, we learned the value of building a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.
Suddenly, Judaism wasn’t just something that made me different, it was something that connected me to millions of people around the world, and, more importantly, helped me discover the role Judaism could play in my everyday life. Camp had transformed me. In my parents’ words, I came home much more enthusiastic about Judaism and having Jewish friends. I made them learn the words to camp songs so we could sing along in the car. I brought that enthusiasm to holidays and when we went to temple.
Camp is powerful because it removes the extra noise of day-to-day life—there’s no homework, no soccer practice, and you’re not being pulled in other directions, unless you're deciding between spending Shabbat at the pool or the sports field. Without those tensions, you’re able to take a breath, relax, and see the beauty and holiness around you—in the physical space, in the community you’re building, and in yourself.
In the book of Genesis, when Jacob awakens from a dream about God atop a stairway to heaven, he says “God was in this place, and I did not know it...surely, this is none other than a Beit Elohim, a house of God.” The first time (and the second time...and the third time…) that I felt like I was part of something that was truly special and bigger than me was during services in our Beit T’filah, our camp sanctuary, sitting on a wooden bench, watching the Indiana sunset through the trees, singing prayers surrounded by my friends and nature. Even as I struggled with whether or not I believed in God, I began to see the holiness all around me.
My time at camp taught me that when the summer ends, it’s up to each of us to find God in the rest of our lives - it might be a shout, it might be a whisper, but it’s there for us if we seek it.
Finding people and places that help you set aside time and space for the things you value is the truest way of saying Hineini--“here I am”—and learning to be your best self. When we’re not at camp, it’s much harder to carve out even a few hours in a busy week, but Shabbat gives us the opportunity to take a break and reconnect with ourselves, our families and the things that matter most. Opening yourself up to that blessing is the first step to receiving it.
Camp taught me that Judaism is all about finding the community that helps you do just that, and I feel so blessed to spend Shabbat here with all of you.
In her role as one of TBE's Youth Engagement Specialists, Leah Finkelman helps to coordinate and oversee informal Jewish experiences, including youth group, gender-based social and emotional learning, Shabbatonim and TBE's Jewish Camping Initiative. Through the Jewish Camping Initiative, she connects families with regional Jewish overnight camps and spends her summers visiting TBE students at camp. She credits her love of Judaism and of building Jewish community to experiences like NFTY and 13 summers spent as a camper, counselor and musical director at Goldman Union Camp Institute, the URJ's camp in Zionsville, Indiana.