It’s About Family Connections, Taking Responsibility and Living in a Real World: Camp Commentary on Parshat Vayigash by Rabbi Shalom Bochner | Camp Ramah Northern California

It’s About Family Connections, Taking Responsibility and Living in a Real World: Camp Commentary on Parshat Vayigash by Rabbi Shalom Bochner

In this week’s Torah portion, the story of our forefather Joseph and his brothers reaches its dramatic climax. Joseph frames his younger brother and his father’s most beloved son for a crime he didn’t commit, then jails him in an Egyptian prison. Judah desperately pleads for his younger brother Benjamin’s freedom for the sake of their father. He even asks to replace Benjamin in prison! Judah appeals to Joseph’s emotions by describing his father’s suffering, and then he takes personal responsibility, which is one of the clear morals of the Torah’s lengthy story of sibling rivalry. Joseph finally breaks down and calls out: “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?!” It’s a made-for-film moment in the Torah, and by the end of the portion, the entire family including their father Jacob, is reunited. The scene ends with all of the brothers weeping and hugging.

Camp is a place where such emotional connections are forged, thankfully without the dramatic setting of jail cells and mourning parents. As Shraga Arian Z”L, a gifted Jewish Educator and Camp Director once said: “Each year, on the last day of [camp], we are reminded that our attempt to build a real world has had some success. A huge campfire is kindled as campers participate in the special evening program. As the embers die, campers clutch each other hands and sing the camp’s farewell song. In a week or two they will see each other in Hebrew school, yet tears well in their eyes. For us these are welcome tears. We know that they are crying because they have lived in a real world.” (He Kindled A Light by Chaim Picker)

As a congregational rabbi, as a former camper, and as a former Ramah staff member, I see the power of camp in creating such deep connections, life-long friendships, and life skills such as leadership and taking responsibility. Camp is where our young people get to exist in a real world, where relationships are deep, connections are forged every moment, and memories continue way past the summer months. As a parent of two Ramah Galim campers, I can tell you that my children literally count the days until the return to camp, and when they are asked where they would be if they could be anywhere, they often answer “at camp, of course!” Summer camp is where they have tried new activities, pushed themselves in safe and supported ways, met new friends, and been a part of a caring community and a real world. Camp has helped them be the wonderful people that they are: people with compassion, a deep sense of themselves, and strong, meaningful connections to their wider Jewish family. I already look forward to them experiencing that last day of camp this summer, which is practically unchanged from Shraga’s description 50 years ago, and in the Torah story from almost 4,000 years ago: they’ll cry, they’ll hug, and they will celebrate their connections with their friends and a real world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shalom Bochner
Congegation Beth Shalom, Modesto, CA