When Barrie, Asher, and I came to West Lafayette last April to find a place to live, I remember the drive in from Indianapolis. Barrie and I were commenting on the vast cornfields and, for lack of a better term, all the beautiful emptiness, when we suddenly passed a sign for Zionsville. Immediately, memories came flooding back. Zionsville, for me, will always mean one thing: Camp G.U.C.I! Indeed, the only thing I know about Zionsville, Indiana is that it houses one of the Union for Reform Judaism’s most celebrated Jewish summer camps: the Goldman Union Camp Institute (G.U.C.I).
Camp G.U.C.I. has a close connection with my family. My three siblings and I have all attended at one time or another, with my older brother holding the record for most summers at G.U.C.I. In fact, he eventually became a song-leader playing guitar with the now famous Dan Nichols who, at the time, was still just an awkward teenager with a love for Judaism and a guitar (if you don’t recognize the name Dan Nichols that’s okay but rest assured you have sung some of his songs in our services). For me, G.U.C.I resonates most strongly as the site of NFTY board retreats and summer events for the Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley Region, where I grew up. If you’ve never been to summer camp, it can be hard to describe the bonds you form and the friendships you forge. If you’ve never been to Jewish summer camp, it can be harder. After all, a Jewish summer camp like G.U.C.I. has all the secular activities and opportunities as a regular summer camp with this added dimension of Judaism, of connecting our teenagers with centuries of tradition and history. G.U.C.I., and camps like it, tap into the independent, adventurous spirits of our teenagers and then go when step further: they tap into their hearts.
It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to be so immersed in Judaism, so surrounded by its beauty. On Shabbat at G.U.C.I., everyone dresses in their nicest clothes, they choose their friends (or crushes) to join them on the weekly “Shabbat walk,” in which the entire camp walks through the camp singing songs and talking, and they arrive at the outdoor sanctuary. Here, campers take charge of services, of song leading, of the very motions that outwardly proclaim them as Jews. And they do this as they make lasting friendships, incredible bonds; they become more confident in themselves, in each other, and in what they can make the world be. They become active in youth groups, Hillel, and, eventually, some even become rabbis. And some really, really lucky ones get to be the next Dan Nichols, the Debbie Friedmans of their generation.
One of the highlights of being the rabbi at Temple Israel is that I get the opportunity each summer to visit our campers at G.U.C.I., to spend time with them and see what they are experiencing. Let me tell you, if you want to feel energy, if you want to feel excitement for Judaism and for the Jewish people, visiting these kids at camp is where you want to be because we rabbis know that the children who attend URJ camps like G.U.C.I. come back to our synagogues happy, motivated, and incredibly full of resources to share. If you want to know where the movement is going, go to camp. If you want to know what our future holds, talk to these kids in August when they are fresh from camp. If you want to be inspired, to be filled with the sense of optimism that only comes from youth, sit in our sanctuary when these kids get back from camp. With them they will bring fresh ideas, fresh liturgy, fresh music.
Those who attend URJ camps literally create the future for our congregations. They become the Jewish leaders that help synagogues around the country stay relevant. And they do all this while zip lining, swimming, color warring, and figuring out what it means to be a kid with no parental supervision for a summer. It’s an absolute blast!
And our days grow shorter and colder, it can feel like summer is still a long way away. And yet, G.U.C.I. sign-ups are already beginning. Start talking to your kids about camp. See if they’re interested. Plant that seed. If you or your child is unsure about whether or not G.U.C.I. would be a good fit, please come talk to me. I’m happy to discuss my experiences at G.U.C.I. as well as other Jewish summer camp options around the country. If your family is interested in Jewish summer camps but feel that sending your child would be a financial burden, I also encourage you to talk to me. There is an array of scholarship opportunities out there that might be available to you.
I encourage all of you, parents of teenagers and our entire congregation, to learn more about G.U.C.I. by visiting their website: https://guci.org/. Remember, what these kids learn and do at this camp, who they become, is what helps us as a people to grow and evolve. We all have a vested interest in these kids, to quote G.U.C.I., “building lifelong friendships, exploring Judaism, and having the time of their lives!”