By Tova Norman
When Brett Hausler, the assistant director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Crane Lake Camp in Massachusetts was a freshman in college, a trip to Atlanta with the URJ’s Olim Fellowship program inspired him to go into education.
“It gave me the resources to see the impact that one person or a whole group of people can have on one person or a whole group of people,” Hausler said.
On Oct. 28 and 29, Hausler accompanied fellows from his camp and four other URJ camps — Coleman in Georgia, Eisner in Massachusetts, Greene in Texas and Harlam in Pennsylvania — on a similar retreat to Atlanta, where they visited The Temple and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and to Camp Coleman, where they toured camp with Coleman counselors and heard speakers about making a difference, including Sandy Roberts, who started the famous Paper Clips Project.
“The backdrop of where we are in Atlanta fits really nicely with the theme and goals of the weekend,” said Bobby Harris, whose first 25 years as Camp Coleman’s director are being celebrated at a gala Nov. 19. “In Olim, we focus on stepping up as a leader and doing the right thing even when it is uncomfortable. What better way to convey that lesson than to reflect on the life of Martin Luther King? Atlanta, with the King Center, Center for Human Rights, is an ideal setting for the kallah.”
The Olim Fellowship, a two-year leadership training program for first- and second-year camp counselors, began 11 years ago when Harris, Louis Bordman of Eisner and Rabbi Frank DeWoskin of Haram received a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp to start the Olim Fellowship.
The past three years the program has been coordinated by Michelle Shapiro Abraham, URJ’s director of learning and innovation for youth.
During the two-year fellowship, the counselors attend kallot (retreats) with the theme “Changing the World One Bunk at a Time.” Harris said that message is what camp is all about.
“My belief is that our summer camps are here for a purpose. They are places in which we can begin to build a kinder, more just, more peaceful world,” he said. “The Olim Fellowship is a chance to really position camp in that way and to enable the counselors to view it that way.”
To apply for the fellowship, high school seniors must commit to work at camp for two summers and attend three kallot during the two years. They also meet weekly during the summer, and at the Atlanta kallah the fellows planned a special project to implement at their respective camps next summer.
“I know that this is what I’m doing for my next two summers. It takes someone who cares about camp to commit to this,” said Coleman fellow Dylan Rice, 18, of Columbus. “I knew since I was a little camper I wanted to be on staff. I just elevated the counselor experience, and a lot of my favorite counselors were Olim.”
Many of the fellows said their Olim counselors were their favorite counselors, inspiring them to apply for the fellowship.
“All of my favorite counselors were fellows,” said Julia Cutler, 18, of Albany, N.Y., a counselor at Eisner.
Austin Rich, 18, of Atlanta echoed that sentiment.
“They have a passion and drive to help you at all times and to be a role model to you,” Rice said.
Rich said he hopes he can inspire his campers in the same way. “I want to give them the passion to help others, to have an effect on someone else.”
The fellows also said the Olim Fellowship helps build their confidence as leaders.
“I feel like I have the skills to be able to talk to my superiors when something is wrong,” said Samantha Altman, 18, a counselor at Eisner.
Coleman counselor Ben Remer, 18, of Atlanta said the Olim Fellowship has taught him “how to step up and how to be a leader.”
“Step up out of your comfort zone,” Rich added.
Rice said, “How to commit to something bigger than yourself.”
Harris said the fellowship is about more than creating great counselors and inspiring future leaders. (Although it has been effective at that. At this kallah, three assistant camp directors leading the trip had participated in the Olim Fellowship: Hausler, Wilson Bear of Eisner and Sean Harlin of Harlam.)
Olim also gives the counselors a way to stay connected with their camp friends and their camps during a major life transition: from high school to college.
“The transition from high school to college is the most significant upheaval in a young person’s life until that time,” Harris said. “Through Olim, camp and their camp friends and community become the thing in their life that anchors them during this huge transition.”
For each group of fellows, sharing their camps is especially meaningful.
“There is a pride that is involved in hosting people at one’s own camp,” Harris said. “Counselors love to lead tours and talk about their camp. It gives them a rare opportunity to share what they truly love and appreciate about the camp in which they grew up.”
What: Celebration of Bobby Harris’ quarter-century at Camp Coleman
Where: Temple Emanu-El, 1580 Spalding Drive, Sandy Springs
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19
Tickets: $120 over age 30, $75 30 and under; www.campcoleman.org/celebration