Shabbat services at URJ Camp Newman, summer 2017 (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)
Shabbat services at URJ Camp Newman, summer 2017 (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

The powerful prayer at Camp Newman that changed my life

Editor’s note: The URJ Camp Newman site in Santa Rosa was largely destroyed in the North Bay fires in October. The camp recently announced it will hold sessions next summer in Vallejo.

It was the hottest day of the summer and, of course, it was Shabbat — the one day of the week when being outside was unavoidable. Every Friday at Camp Newman, the whole community would join together for Shabbat services to sing, pray and enjoy each other’s company. Shabbat was my favorite day of the week at camp for many reasons. However, one reason in particular made this scorching heat feel insignificant.

On any other day of the week, I would have made it a priority to get my campers and myself somewhere air-conditioned and comfortable. However, on Shabbat, I was content to sit outside dripping in my own sweat with campers complaining left and right, because I knew that what was to come was much more important than any of that.

I have always been a camp kid. For as long as I can remember, my summers consisted of hiking to Camp Newman’s Jewish star, climbing the tower, swimming in the pool, singing and dancing to Jewish melodies and making lifelong friends. I loved camp, and camp loved me. It was a place where I felt like I could be my true and honest self.

Fridays at Camp Newman were separate from all other days of the week. On Fridays, the whole camp stopped, looked around and took a deep breath. It was a time of reflection and gratitude, culminating at Friday night Shabbat services, followed by Shabbat Shira. All 500 of us dressed up in white and came together as a community to pray the Barchu, celebrate our new friendships, dance to Israeli music and sing Jewish songs.

As a young camper, although I loved the dancing and singing on Shabbat, I didn’t always appreciate the long and tedious services. Oftentimes, I would just sit there whispering to my friend or making a friendship bracelet to pass the time. However, during the Hashkiveinu, I always made sure to stop chatting or braiding and listen up. The Hashkiveinu is a prayer about peace, safety and protection. It was familiar to me because my mother and father used to sing it to me every night as a kind of lullaby. At camp the Hashkiveinu was done a little differently. The prayer started when the director and executive director of camp got up onstage in the beit t’filah (house of prayer) in front of the whole camp community. They began the same way every Friday night by saying, “On every Shabbat, in homes all over the world, parents bless their children, and here at Camp Newman we bless our campers.”

Certainly, as a young camper, it was sometimes difficult to be away from home for so long. However, Shabbat always made me feel welcomed, loved and secure. During the Hashkiveinu, any homesickness I felt quickly slipped into the background. This part of the service continued when our counselors stood up and blessed us, both with their hands and with beautiful, multicolored tallitot (prayer shawls). Our counselors would raise their hands over our heads and recite the priestly benedictions, an ancient blessing about protection and graciousness that I would later have inscribed on a ring that I wear every day. Next, our counselors would hold the kaleidoscopic tallitot over our heads as we all joined together, singing the words of the Hashkiveinu. Ever since my first Shabbat at camp, I have been completely obsessed with this part of the service. I had never before experienced something so powerful and moving. The feelings of love, community and acceptance that the Hashkiveinu invoked in me is part of what brought me back to camp summer after summer.

This past summer, however, when it came time for me to bless my own campers, I experienced the Hashkiveinu in a whole new way. One of the main reasons I decided to be a counselor last summer was because it was a way to give back to camp. My counselors were the people I looked up to the most in the world. They were my role models, my idols, the kind of people I wanted to become some day. As I sat drenched in sweat and waiting for the time to come to finally bless my own campers, I couldn’t help but feel like I was part of something much bigger than myself. I was about to change these campers’ lives. The first time I was blessed by my counselors changed the way I thought about camp. After my first Shabbat, camp was no longer just a place my parents sent me over the summer — it was a second home. It was the place I felt the most loved, the most accepted and the most safe.

The beauty of camp was never about the physical or concrete. It was never the sunsets, the melodies, the rolling hills or the words in a prayerbook. It was about the feeling of peacefulness and contentment that camp, and specifically the Hashkiveinu, gave me. Camp gave me a sense of purpose and a sense of community. It was where I felt like I could be my truest self. Unlike at home, there were no pressures or expectations. I felt protected and loved and nourished, and the Hashkiveinu was an expression, through prayer and through Judaism, of the way camp made me feel.

Ultimately, what makes this prayer so beautiful is the way that it acts as a metaphor for the sense of community and peace found at camp, but also found in the words of the Hashkiveinu.

Elle Gennis
Elle Gennis

Elle Gennis is a Berkeley native and a freshman studying psychology at the University of Southern California. She spent seven summers in the Santa Rosa hills at URJ Camp Newman, and worked there as a counselor in summer 2017.