Friday, August 3, 2018

Won't You Be my Neighbor?

We all have our heroes.

Some of them are athletes. Ernie Banks. Walter Payton.
Some of them are fictional. Winne the Pooh. Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee.
Some are intellectuals. Rambam. Spinoza.

All of the people or characters whom I think of as my heroes have something in common. They have taught me something important that goes beyond the accomplishments that brought them fame. Ernie Banks taught me to appreciate the world God gave us. Walter Payton taught me about loyalty, perseverance and living my values.

I also have at least two heroes who were teachers. Janusz Korcazk and Fred Rogers. I will write about Korczak soon. Last night I gave myself a treat and went to see the film Won't you be my neighbor? It tells the story of Fred Rogers and Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. I should have brought a tissue.

I am not writing a full review of the film. You can find A.O. Scott's New York Times review here.

I didn't discover Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood until I was a little too old to be his primary audience. He would say that I am still his primary audience. When she was little, my sister Leslie like to watch Daniel Striped Tiger and X the Owl in the Land of Make Believe. I was 10 or 11, old enough to know it wasn't really for me, but not so jaded that I didn't love to watch it. Sometimes I would watch it without Leslie there.

It wasn't until I became a camp counselor (when Leslie was 10) that I began to understand what Mr. Rogers had taught me. And I didn't realize HE had been the one to teach it to me until I met one of his biggest friends (fan seems an incomplete term).

If you see the film, you will meet Jeffrey Erlanger. He is the young man in the motorized wheelchair who appears on the television show as a little boy and again during the credits when he surprised Mr. Rogers during his induction to the Television Hall of Fame. You can read about Jeff's friendship with Fred Rogers here.

I was blessed to have Jeff as a camper in my cabin during his first summer at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute. It wasn't always easy, but it was truly a blessing.Our first day, we sat the guys in a circle in the cabin and Jeff invited them all to ask him any questions they wanted about him, his physical condition and his chair. It took all of three minutes before they were bored of talking about his condition. Once they knew what they needed to be cautious about, they were only interested in getting to know all of their new friends, of whom Jeff was one.

Except for the physical assistance he required, none of the boys - including Jeff - acted, spoke or made us counselors feel like he was any different than the rest of them. It was awesome. I cannot claim the credit. Camp is camp and kids are kids. No one told them anything strange was happening, and so nothing did.

Until the day one of the kids asked me if I thought Jeff really knew Mr. Rogers. It seems that one night after the counselors had left he told them that when he was little, his family had driven to Milwaukee, stayed at a hotel and ate lunch with Mr. Rogers. Wow. Some of the boys were certain it could not be true. Others were convinced it was.

So we talked about it at Minucha - rest time. Jeff described the event. He told us that Mr. Rogers was his friend. He had been since the first time Jeff had seen him on TV. The doubters took that to mean that Jeff had imagined a real relationship. My co-counselors and I looked at each other. They shrugged, which I took to mean I had to pass judgment.

I asked the boys "Has Jeff said or done anything to make you think he is dishonest? Has he ever lied to you, or promised to do something that he then did not do? Has he ever let you down?"

They all said no.

I asked them if any of them had ever done any of those things in the week we had been together.

They all said no.

I said "I don't know whether Jeff really met Mr. Rogers in Milwaukee. I do know that Mr. Rogers always calls everyone he meets or who sees him on television his friend. From what I understand, Mr. Rogers always really means it. He is always glad to meet a friend. I also know that Jeff has always been honest and real with all of us. So if he says it happened, that is all the proof I will ever need."

The show in which Jeff appeared aired about a year later. I have no memory as to whether it had been taped before we shared a cabin in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I do know that it proved to any doubters that as we already knew, Jeff had told the truth. And that he would never treat his friends - us - any way other than honestly, openly and authentically.

I cried when I watched the film. Seeing all of Fred Rogers' work in one sitting like that was overwhelming. I recommend reading some of his writing. It is essential reading for educators and parents. I also cried because seeing Jeff on the screen reminded me not only of him, but of all of my campers over the years and how knowing each of them impacted who I am today.
Thanks Jeff.
Thanks Mr. Rogers.
Thanks for reminding me that camp is for the campers.
That the experience of our learners is more important than any one datum.

It's you I like.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Why Camp: Living Values L’dor V’dor

And...we're back! A lot has happened since my last post, including serving seven months as the content coordinator for

This is a moment of schepping nachas (Yiddish for taking pride in something someone has done) for me. The author of this piece, Sarah Stein is one of my kids. That is to say that her formal Jewish education was in my religious school, I recruited her to be a camper at URJ Crane Lake Camp and I have been her teacher and supporter all along. Of course she has done amazing things - nearly all of which I had no hand in accomplishing - and I am proud to have been one of the people cheering her on. The was originally published on the Crane Lake Camp blog.

by Sarah Stein, Unit Head Team Leader

This past week, I attended an evening program with Crane Lake’s Olim Girls, the rising 10th graders, our oldest campers. Many of them had been my very first campers when they were in Nitzanim, entering 4th grade, as our youngest campers. The program was about female empowerment, and I just sat, watching, listening, and learning from these young women I had once been a counselor for. Throughout the year, I had seen so many of them standing up and speaking out for causes that they are passionate about, embodying the values we live by during the summer. I watched in awe and admiration as they came together after a long, hot day, lifting each other up. They spoke eloquently about the struggles they face as teenage girls, and how camp is an escape for them. Camp is a place where they feel heard and loved, a place that is fueled by the value of Chesed, a place where we have created a Culture of Kindness; and a place that has provided all of these things for me.

My first year at Crane Lake was in 2006, the summer before entering 6th grade. I was a quiet child, but each summer at camp, I saw myself growing. I began coming out of my shell, finding my voice, stepping up as a leader, but still staying true to my inner self. I feel my most confident, my most challenged, and like the best version of myself when I am at camp.

Inside of our red gates, I always knew I was not only accepted, but celebrated for who I am. I came to camp from a town where the Jewish population at our school was pretty much just me and my brother. I attended Hebrew School and had Jewish friends from Temple, but I had never felt so immersed in a Jewish community. It was remarkable to me how effortlessly Judaism was infused into our everyday camp lives, our values present at every activity period. T’filah drew me in with the beautiful music and elaborate hand motions, and always has this energy that I find incredibly comforting. It made me feel welcomed and inspired.

At the start of Leadership Team training each year, the Directors challenge us to “discover our why” – our motivation for being at camp, the lasting impact we hope to create. My why is that I believe we can change the world by raising the next generation of leaders. I hope to share with the campers and counselors the important lessons and values I continue to take away from Crane Lake; the values of having courage and speaking out, of being generous and openminded and kind. During the year, I work at a temple in a shared position with the URJ, and I’m able to bridge the kehilah kedoshah, the holy community we create at camp, with the greater Jewish community. I hope to create spaces where campers, staff, students and teachers, feel loved and accepted, can flourish and find their confidence, discover who they are, and then share that with the world.

Sarah is in the dark blue shirt in the middle
At camp, we have the opportunity to find a spark in every child. Crane Lake’s mission statement declares “Hineini, I am here”. I have heard the phrases that follow this declaration read through the collective voice of our community year after year, at the start of every staff training and during every opening ceremony. When I leave the Berkshires at the end of the summer, I take those echoing voices with me. Throughout the year, I find myself constantly repeating a piece of Crane Lake’s mission statement in all the work that I do – “I am here to do as much as I can, in the time that I have, in the place that I am, and to inspire others to join me in this holy work.”

This statement, our mission, asks every counselor, camper, staff member, and guest to live to their fullest potential, to be present in every moment, and to take advantage of every opportunity. But it also acknowledges that there are limitations. While we may each strive to do as much as we can, in the time that we have, we are able to accomplish so much more together. To me, Crane Lake is a place where I feel loved, accepted and celebrated for who I am. At camp, I am in a place where I can lift others up, and invite and inspire them to fulfill their own potential. This is what I saw in the Olim Girls last week, and this, to me, is the embodiment of camp. I guided the Olim Girls when they were younger. I was able to show them the magnitude of their potential at camp, and all that they can take away from every summer. And now, I have the honor of watching them shine, of seeing them flourish as leaders in the camp community and then bring that courage and perseverance out into the world, inspiring their own campers, and creating their own future.

Sarah as a young camper
Sarah is so excited to be back home for her 13th summer at Crane Lake! She is looking forward to spending time at the lake, eating grilled cheese, and getting to know everyone on camp. Sarah is originally from Stratford, Connecticut. She studied Business and Anthropology at Brandeis University, and spent this past year working in Youth Engagement at Temple Shalom of Newton, MA. After the summer, Sarah is looking forward to moving to New York to become the Youth Director at Temple Israel of the City of New York!