By David K. Haller
What happens when two societies collide? What transpires when 108, mostly African-American elementary school students from inner-city Atlanta meet 115 all-white Jewish teenagers from across the southeast at a URJ camp for a weekend? What happens when societal environs that separate us are put aside for just a short time?
And that’s just what happened this year– and for the last 26 years– at NFTY-SAR and NFTY-STR’s Jenny Rosenthal Memorial Mitzvah Corp, affectionately known as, ‘Camp Jenny.’ Camp Jenny is an annual event organized and programmed by NFTY-ites from across the southeast. For the last quarter century, more than 125 NFTY-ites have joined 100 or more elementary students at URJ Camp Coleman over Memorial Day weekend. Camp Jenny’s two co-directors are NFTY-ites elected by their peers. NFTY-ites serve as counselors and event specialists during camp, and are selected through a rigorous application process. Campers dance, sing, do arts and crafts, play water games, cheer, zip line, and experience one on one love. The vast majority of the costs of Camp Jenny are underwritten by fundraisers held by youth groups at their home congregations.
Camp Jenny’s campers come from inner-city Atlanta in partnership with F.L. Stanton Elementary School. Just as NFTY-ites work all year long to make Camp Jenny happen, the Stanton campers work hard to earn their way to being one of the lucky few to receive their ‘golden ticket’ to camp. Campers are selected by the school’s teachers as a result of their academic success, good behavior, and parental involvement in school. Most come from lower income homes with mixed family situations.
I had the incredible fortune, of being one of Camp Jenny’s first directors in 1988. Then, our dream was to bring a mitzvah corp project to the southeast. We sought to share our love of our own camp experiences at Coleman with others who likely would never have the same chance. As we were in the initial planning stages, we lost Jenny Rosenthal, from Montgomery, Alabama to a drunk driver. Jenny was a beautiful, sweet young woman with a big heart who, like us, loved Coleman. It only seemed fitting that, as we recreated our own Coleman experience for others, we do so in her name.
Now at the beginning of its 27th year, more than 3500 campers have come down the Coleman hill to begin their own adventure. More than 3500 NFTY-ites have found something more in themselves after a weekend in a different world. Eight generations of NFTY-ites have grabbed the gauntlet and made Camp Jenny occur again and again and in doing so have raised more than One Million Dollars.
It’d be easy to look just at the numbers and think, “how nice for these kids to get together.” But Camp Jenny is more than that. At its heart, Camp Jenny is the search for the ultimate tikkun olam project. A simplistic view says NFTY teenagers are improving the lives of the student/campers that attend– and this does happen.
But her results are deeper. Camp Jenny improves a community. The students who attend do, in part, because their parents work to make it so. I saw that this year especially, when more than 40 parents stood next to the buses at school as they left, waving good bye in pride.
Camp Jenny teaches leadership in our NFTY-ites. NFTY-ites raise the money to put camp on, plan it, program it, and guide it. The responsibility for raising $60,000 and caring for more than 100 young lives is embraced by these young adults and teaches valuable skills.
But even beyond that, the lives of our NFTY-ites are enriched. This is never more clear than on Memorial Day morning, when camp breaks, as seen through the teared blurred eyes of both counselors and campers saying their final goodbye. The connections made between these two different groups of young people are real. And, while most will never see each other again, the lessons of what happens when we open ourselves to others who may seem different than we lasts a lifetime.
Camp Jenny is a place where we can believe in magic. To learn more about Camp Jenny or to donate please go to www.nfty.org/campjenny.