Blog  It Takes a Sisterhood: WRJ and Youth

It Takes a Sisterhood: WRJ and Youth

By Paul Reichenbach, Director of Camping and Israel Programs, Union for Reform Judaism
Originally posted on Women of Reform Judaism blog

Paul Reichenbach at Kutz '77In May of 1969 I received a phone call (no email, text, Facebook or Twitter… how did we function?) from Doris Locke (of blessed memory) representing the Temple Israel (Boston) youth committee and sisterhood. I was a 17 year old high school junior who had become an actively engaged temple youth group member. I did not have a Bar Mitzvah (the tradition in my Classical Reform congregation) but was a Confirmand along with 120 other kids in my class. I had spent the previous eight summers worshipping Native American deities at a boys’ summer camp on Long Lake in Maine. I never had the opportunity to have an “immersive” Jewish experience in a camp or any other setting. While I had the good fortune to come from a comfortable family, Doris, on behalf of the Sisterhood, offered me a scholarship to attend a two week leadership institute at the UAHC Kutz Camp in Warwick , NY. She told me that I had been recommended to attend by our Rabbis and that I would be the congregation’s delegate at this event for teens from across North America. My ego having been adequately stoked, I accepted the scholarship award and looked forward to not spending two weeks behind the counter of the dry cleaner in Waban Square. Choosing to go would mean that I would need to give up my tickets for a concert scheduled in August on Yasgur’s farm in Bethel NY. (I wonder what ever happened at that event?) The night before the camp session, my parents took me to see “Midnight Cowboy”, very daring given that it was “X” rated. (Barely an “R” by today’s standards.) Feeling very grown up, the following morning I flew from Boston to Newark, took the 55 cent bus to Port Authority and then the $2.80 Maplewood Transit to the Kutz Camp in Warwick. I can’t imagine why I remember these details but perhaps the significance of these two weeks provides some rational explanation. I had finally arrived at the place that would change the arc of my life forever. While, unlike our lucky children who have the privilege of enjoying multiple summers at a URJ camp joyfully exploring and experiencing their Judaism, I had but two weeks with 200 likeminded teens from every corner of the continent. I had discovered a magical, utopian “sanctuary” where being yourself, living intentionally and understanding that your contribution truly mattered was evident daily. I concluded those two weeks at camp with confidence in myself, proud of Reform Judaism, intensely connected to my peers and inspired to figure out how to make the connection from camp to congregation.

Nothing was ever the same after my camp experience. My marriage, friendships, children and life’s work are all products of the call I received from Doris Locke. The $150 investment of the Sisterhood of Temple Israel transformed my life. Not a day goes by when I don’t cherish the opportunity to help enable thousands of other children to have that extraordinary experience, the gift I was given as a 17 year old. We can never underestimate the impact we have on individual kids.

There is an extraordinary story to tell in celebrating the leadership role of the NFTS calling for the establishment of our Union camps. Just as NFTS led the way to inspire the establishment of NFTY in 1939, in 1950 a Sisterhood resolution was passed calling for the creation of residential camps for Reform Jewish youth. That audacious dream was fulfilled in 1952 with the founding of the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute followed by Camp Saratoga (Swig) in 1953. By 1958 the UAHC was operating five camps with the establishment of Union Camp Institute (Goldman), Harlam, and Eisner. By July 1, 2014, the URJ will operate 14 camps in the USA and Canada. This commitment to powerful immersive Jewish experiences for our young people has been sustained by the allocation of scholarship dollars by local sisterhoods making the dream of camp a reality for so many deserving children. It is estimated that the typical WRJ chapter allocates at least $2,000 a year for camp financial assistance.

Local and district sisterhoods have been instrumental in developing and enhancing our camps. The funding of expansion, chapels, program endeavors and essential equipment has contributed to the growth and excellence of our sites across North America.

In the past 60 years, countless WRJ events have been hosted by URJ camps, enabling sisterhood members to discover for themselves the “magic” of the camp experience while building community and leadership.

Women of Reform Judaism and local sisterhoods across the continent have understood, since our first camp was established in 1952, that sending children to camp was about creating lifetime connections to Judaism and the Jewish people. Thousands of Jewish journeys haven been launched by URJ camps with the passionate support of Women of Reform Judaism. Every summer, more than 11,000 young people participate in our camp and Israel programs, so many because people like Doris Locke care about kids and our future.

Paul Reichenbach, a proud product of the Reform movement, has been a senior member of the URJ youth staff for many years and supervises the operation of 14 URJ Camps and Programs in Israel.