Throughout the years I’ve thought about my Carmelians, the few hundred Carmel (8 year-old) campers, that I spent my summers with as a counselor, Assistant unit head and Unit Head at URJ Camp Harlam between 1999 and 2007. This year, I watched (thanks to the magic of facebook) as my first campers graduated from college. I kvelled as I heard of their achievements, both personal and professional. Some of my first campers are heading off to medical and veterinarian school, others are going into the working world or moving to pursue their passions. I am so so proud of them all.
And too, there are so many who I have lost touch with. Some who did not return after that first summer, or who left and only returned after I eventually ended my camp career. My last campers, who I had in 2006 and 2007, grew up in the years while I was at in rabbinical school. Once in a while I would hear of them from friends who became their counselors, but mostly they disappeared into the larger camp world.
Thinking about my campers reminds me of the famous story of Honi ha-Maagal, who wondered why one would plant a tree whose fruit he would not see come to bloom. Why invest in the planting of and tending to a tree, if we cannot be sure that it will be taken care of, that it will be watered, that it will live to thrive and bear fruit? Why plant if we have no guarantee?
This week I arrived in Israel to spend time with ten of my congregation’s teenagers who are spending their summer with NFTY in Israel. Five of them are traveling as part of the Camp Harlam group, which has given me the surprising and wonderful opportunity to see some of the fruits of trees I planted in the past. This year’s Israel group is full of my former Carmel campers, now all grown up. While I have forgotten some of their names, their faces are the same as they were at age nine. My nervous first-time campers have become confident and mature young men and women who have graduated through Harlam’s camper gates and are now embarking on the summer of their lives in their Spiritual homeland.
When I see them eating glidah (ice cream), giving each other piggy-back rides, and reminiscing about camp, I feel something indescribable, I feel like a parent, or a proud older sibling, or one who planted a seed, unsure if it would grow. My pride only increases when I hear of them wanting to return to Camp as CIT’s next year, so they can pass their love of camp onto a new generation. They will start to plant their own trees.
For all of us who dedicate ourselves to the development and strengthening of young Jewish souls, for all of us who have asked ourselves the question: does it even matter? Does it matter if I play kickball with my bunk today? Does it matter if I engage that child sitting alone? Does it matter if I embrace that teachable moment? Does it matter if I tell that joke, or wear that silly costume, or tell that story? Does it really matter?
Yes. Yes. Yes. A million times yes.
Take it from me: the fruit is blooming all over the place.
Karen R. Perolman is an assistant Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ. She is currently in Israel.