I once heard Rabbi Harold Kushner teach that the function of a minyan is not merely religious, but communal. Our tradition teaches that, just as we congregate for joyous holiday occasions such as Rosh Hashanah, so too must we seek each other out in life’s challenging times, and that these experiences will help us build a genuine community.
I am drawn to the sociological function of this obligation, and I have seen its power play out firsthand. Having been a camp director for more than three decades, I have been privileged to see our campers pray, play, laugh and cry together. During these summers, I have seen young people develop a caring community with deep friendships and compassionate counselors, all in a supportive Jewish environment. These camp communities become a deeply meaningful part of their lives. Camp becomes that glue – that minyan – that builds connections that they carry with each other and which support them as they journey through childhood, adolescence and well into adulthood.
The power of our camp community to provide healing became especially evident this past summer, as our community grappled with the death of our camper, Alyssa Alhadeff, who was tragically killed in the Parkland shooting. Many of Alyssa’s camp friends, in addition to the sizable number of our campers and staff who attend or attended Stoneman Douglas and adjacent middle school, were living in the new reality and aftershock from February 14. As we headed into the summer, several campers shared that they were unsure how they would be feeling during camp. They wondered if they could ever really be happy again. As the summer progressed, they shared with us that being at camp was just what they needed – that camp and its community had given them renewed joy and hope. We also received several notes from parents:
“Thank you for everything you did to ensure that our son and the rest of the Parkland families had an amazing summer. He is finally smiling again. The spark in his eye is back after being gone for five months. We have loved being part of Coleman for years and this year in particular has meant more to my family than any other – our boy was able to experience joy again. He was able to be a carefree child and to live without fear again. Thank you again for giving him back his childhood.”
Mindful of camp’s capacity to heal, Jeff Levine, a member of the ritual committee at Temple Kol Tikvah in Parkland, had a dream that each of the 17 Union for Reform Judaism Camps could do something to show widespread support for the Parkland community and victims of gun violence. Based on this dream, our staff and campers at Coleman created 17 unique and colorful tallitot. Inscribed on each tallit is the prayer, “El Na Rafah Na La – Please God Heal Her,” the short prayer that Moses called out seeking healing for his sister Miriam.
Each camp was asked to create its own lesson and to use the tallit during a worship service to recognize the tragedy that occurred in Parkland and many other communities. The presence reminded each camper of our universal need for shelter and peace. URJ Camp Newman, Camp Coleman’s sister camp located in the San Francisco Bay area, had each cabin group create blessings to the people of Parkland, including this one:
“Our community has come together to love you, grieve with you, support you, and ask for strength to be provided for you and within you. We will always remember you.”
On this Rosh Hashanah, we will be traveling to Parkland and Coral Springs to be part of their minyan. We will be bringing these 17 talitot with us – to remind them that they are not alone and that the larger community is thinking of them. As we commit and recommit ourselves to building community at camp and at home, it is our hope that this will be a year of continued healing and meaningful connection.