Camp Harlam: Working To Be Our Best Selves

By Lisa David and Stacy Rigler

In a recent eJP article, Dr. Lesley Litman remarked that “success could depend on a clear and ever-present recognition that the work of innovation,once embarked upon, does not end.”

This concept resonates greatly for the leadership of URJ Camp Harlam. Innovation is part of our history and our culture; a view that is guiding our yearlong celebration of 60 years, with our Harlam@60 initiative. The concept also guided us as we sought to re-energize our Tikkun Middot (character building) curriculum within the the immersive, youth-led, values-based culture of camp.

Guided by a pioneering spirit

Founded in 1958, URJ Camp Harlam is one of the oldest and most successful Jewish overnight camps in the U.S. Much of the credit goes to its pioneering director of 37 years, Arie Gluck, (z”l). A master of change, Arie was committed to creating something new every year: it could be a softball field or a bunk, or the Chapel on the Hill. Or it could be the first teen Israel experience for campers in North America. Arie was also committed to excellence. The desire to do your very best, to do what is needed, and to make a difference. In recent summers this effort to strive for excellence and to thoughtfully innovate was led by Aaron Selkow, Harlam’s former Director now serving as Executive Director, who took his decades of experience in the field and applied it to transform Harlam into one of the leaders in the field of Jewish Camping.

Today, we continue to be driven by this commitment to innovation and excellence. Each year we look at an aspect of our work and think – what can we do that is innovative, and where can we evolve? This summer we chose our implementation of Tikkun Middot (character strengths.)

Using a ‘hidden curriculum’

Just like we work to repair the world (tikkun olam) through our actions, at Harlam we work to improve ourselves by building desirable character traits (tikkun middot). What does this look like? Every year, we identify specific qualities to help campers “be their best selves.” For 2017, we have identified:

· Simcha – finding joy

· Achreyut – thinking about others

· Nitzachon – pushing through a challenge

· Rachamim – acting with your heart

· Bitachon Atzmi – building confidence and independence

· Tiferet – finding inner beauty and balance

· Bina – seeking meaning

Taken independently, these middot are all admirable traits. But together, they encapsulate some of the struggles and successes that describe the daily learning and experiences of our campers and staff. Each of us at times needs one of these middot to grow, to change, to connect, and to have a successful summer experience. Our staff members model these behaviors and try to grow in each of these areas as well.

As campers, staff members, and now leaders of camp, we look back and realize that it was the struggles, the opportunities to seek meaning, the relationships, and the ability to build independence that made camp transformative.

Aligning character with culture

In recent years, Camp Harlam has led the way in creating an “Open & Safe” camp culture. Some of these efforts include:

· Establishment of our Chill Zone: A sensory space that is designed to allow campers to relax and refresh their minds and bodies, and take a break from the sometimes overstimulating environment of camp. Established in 2016, the space can be used by campers with disabilities or who experience challenges at camp that make this time and space especially important when ensuring their success at camp.

· Gender Neutral Facilities: As part of our ongoing process of creating an open and safe community, we have partnered with KESHET to create a camp culture that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ youth. We have worked to change programming, policy and culture to reflect our values and create an inclusive community, including providing significant training around best practices in inclusion, accommodations such as gender-neutral bathrooms and private changing spaces in cabins, which have allowed us to successfully welcome transgender campers into the cabins of the gender they identify with.

· Mental Health First Aid Training: We may be the only camp in the U.S. to train and certify all of our counselors and leadership staff in Mental Health First Aid. The eight hours required for certification equips all of us with the ability to assess what others may need (Achreyut) and respond with Rachamim (love and compassion.)

Driven by our own desire to become the best versions of ourselves, we use middot to create the best version of URJ Camp Harlam. We have learned that when we are driven by a desire to help others (Achreyut), we can push through challenges (Netzachon) and make changes that benefit everyone. Our camp leadership uses the language of Tikkun Middot to help teach about our Open & Safe initiatives and help campers, families, and staff understand that what is good for one is often good for all.

So how does that actually play out at camp? “For me,” says Rabbi Rigler, “It means that coming to camp each summer becomes an opportunity to press reset, to re-center myself, and to focus on how I have grown and where I hope to go. It’s been a source of blessing and inspiration in my life for over 25 years.” Lisa David remarked that “camp is a safe place for people to do the hard work of developing their own skills and strengths. There is risk and challenge, but we provide support and opportunity for reflection so that each experience, successful or not, provides an opportunity for learning and growth”.

Lisa David is the Director at URJ Camp Harlam.
Stacy Rigler serves as the Director of Religious Education at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel.

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