When I first arrived at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in 2005, I was a homesick adolescent, forced to spend two weeks of my summer in a different state from my parents, who I was sure saw some sort of benefit from kicking me out of the house. Leaving OSRUI almost six summers later, I can look back and say that the time that I spent at OSRUI was incredibly beneficial to my development as a leader and as a thinker.
The Union for Reform Judaism’s camping system is one of the most meaningful and engaging opportunities offered to young adults and developing adolescents. Not only does it offer a fun summer of outdoor activities and meeting friends, it also provides an education in Judaic living that is the most valuable of its kind.
When I look around the room of my Jewish history class at Indiana University, I see former NFTY regional board members, BBYO officers, and USY leaders. What is most significant about this is that, of the NFTY alumni, almost every one is a by-product of their regional summer camp, and each are decidedly ahead of the curve when it comes to Judaic education, level of interest, and overall knowledge base about expertise variety of issues around our religion.
In terms of my own leadership, I learned an incredible deal from my camping experience. I learned how to be truly comfortable in front of groups, as I had opportunities to lead services, present ideas to the eidah (unit), and speak my mind confidently. It was at camp where I also learned what it means to live a religious life that is filled with excitement, fun, and meaning. Living a Jewish life was pivotal to the programming of camp, and also taught me that learning and experiencing Jewish values was not something boring or unnecessary, but rather imperative to the success of both my Movement and myself.
Camping is the vehicle for the URJ to reach young people when they are most capable of adapting to what they think is right. In this instance, camping also allows us to instill the values and morals associated with being a “good Jew,” and therefore it’s a reciprocal agreement. As campers gain the understanding and appreciation for living Jewish lives, the camping system is also creating their biggest group of advocates. An adult’s words can’t compare to the persuasive power of another young person encouraging their peers to engage in a URJ summer experience, and consequently strengthening the Reform Movement as a whole.
As an alumnus of OSRUI, as well as a member of the NFTY community, I cannot begin to overstate the value of my camp experience on my personal leadership path. I am comfortable in front of a group, I feel confident engaging in meaningful conversations, and I know I have something unique to contribute to our movement because of the experiences that I had at OSRUI. I cannot thank them enough for the life they have helped me to create, and I can’t wait to return as a staff or faculty member to pass on the gifts that I have received.
Austin Zoot is the NFTY North American Religious and Cultural Vice President and a freshman at Indiana University. You can find him on twitter at @NFTYRCVP and on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/NFTYRCVP