By Rabbi Greg Alexander
A year ago, I contacted the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) from Cape Town to find out how I could spend a summer at a URJ camp learning how it happens here in the USA. South African Jewish summer camps are very different, and I wanted to get new ideas. The first camp director to reach out was Danny – there was an instant connection (Danny is ex-South African) and the next thing I knew my middle son Tantan and I were booking flights to North Carolina.
I spent many summers at camp, so naturally I was excited to be back in my happy place! But the first thing that struck me when I arrived was that though this place was camp, it was totally unlike anything I had experienced before. It was exactly as Danny described it on the phone – all sports, all Jewish and all camp – all the time. Fast-paced, exhausting even. Stretch, eat, majors, electives, majors, Maccabiah. I tried to move between all the majors and electives which amounted to the most rigorous cross-training I had ever put my body through. From familiar safe spaces like basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis to the brave new worlds of baseball, cheer and dance and my first ever softball and lacrosse scrimmages. Incredible coaching, supportive counselors and very engaged campers blew me away daily with their energy, passion and humor. Hot and exhausting yet impressive. And all the time. Like a heartbeat that you can hear if you listen carefully, was the pulse of the Jewish life, led so inspiringly by Coach J-Life herself, Jackie Gordon.
I explained to Jackie that being an A-type Rabbi, I am permanently trying to do things my way, and it’s only when I trust the person driving that I am able to truly relax and be led. This camp has incredible leadership, and it sets the tone from the top to the bottom. The result was an experience that I had never seen the likes of – deep, meaningful Judaism and deep, transformative physical education. There was passion, love and learning wrapped together in a beautiful camp package. I was able to let go of my A-type needs and switch to observer, learner, discoverer. I was made to feel an integral part of the teaching faculty here, but at the same time I was learning every moment. From Jackie, from my 4 rabbinic colleagues, from Danny and the amazing leadership team he has built, from the coaches and mostly from the counselors and kids.
Even when I teach, I learn. Try this chant – “R-U-G-B-Y, come play with the [clap] Rabbi!” That was my promotional chant for my afternoon elective from last week of camp! There were many times that I gasped (for breath and amazement), that I laughed and that I was moved to tears by what I saw here. One of the 6 Core Values we teach is Leadership and I can shout, “Yashar Koach 6 Points – you lead!”