Thursday, January 20, 2000
The Camper in the Ark
Dear G. U. C. I. Staff:
One of the things I enjoy most at camp each summer is teaching the Machon program. Machonikim are first-year counselors, experiencing, observing, and learning about counseling techniques, child development, and program planning. Almost all of them have had camper years either here or in other camps upon which to draw memories. I’ve learned how important it can be to remember those mentors we admire in our lives, identify what exactly they did to create such positive impressions on us, and emulate those good qualities. Of course, the opposite is also valuable, to identify those we hold in low regard, examine why that is the case, and try to avoid incorporating those characteristics in our work and relationships. Machonikim are fresh, usually excited about the work, eager to share their ideas, open to suggestions. They stoke my camping fire.
When we speak of remembering those who have the most positive Jewish impacts on our lives, I can’t help but remember my camp rabbi, Rabbi Ernst Lorge. I’ve written to you about him. He was a pioneer in our camping movement. I worked with him for many summers at our camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. He was a hard-nosed, yet compassionate Rabbi who never failed to amaze my cabins with late-night, lights-out stories of his experiences as a chaplain in Europe during the Second World War. As Olin-Sang-Ruby turns fifty, I’ve been thinking about some of my early experiences as a camper and staff member there.
All counselors have favorite camper stories. Not stories about favorite campers. I mean outrageous stories about strange campers. I have mine as well. In one of my cabins in 1964, I had the dubious pleasure of caring for Robbie S. (name withheld upon request…. my request). Robbie was actually a nice boy who did pretty well at camp except for one minor quirk. Robbie liked to hide. Almost every day we had to stop at least one activity and search for him. Once we found him it was right back to whatever we were doing. Robbie usually hid in the outdoor broom closet behind the Bayit, the main building of the camp. It had kind of latch on the door that closed itself and couldn’t be opened from the inside, so if someone went in and let the door close behind them, they had to yell for someone else to open the door. Robbie never yelled. He liked it in there. It was the first place I always checked whenever my Co-counselor Don or I realized Robbie was missing
One Shabbat morning we had all slept a little late, as was the custom. Seeing that Robbie was missing, Don, my Co, went to check the broom closet while the other boys in the cabin and I made our way to Shabbat T’fillot with the rest of the camp in the outdoor chapel.
The service began and proceeded. Rabbi Lorge, was conducting the service. Rabbi Lorge was a pretty serious, no-nonsense, Old World rabbi. He spoke with a German accent. He was a great, old-school, Reform Rabbi. He was, after all, one of the founding rabbis of U.A.H.C. camping. We all rose as he turned to open the wood-crafted ark for the Torah service; and were astounded to see my camper, Robbie S. seated, curled up, next to the Torah, IN THE ARK! What Rabbi Lorge did then was beautiful. With one hand he removed the Torah from the ark, and held the other hand out to Robbie, inviting him to join the rabbi in blessing the Torah. It was as if it was a natural thing for Rabbi Lorge to find a camper in the ark. Like, it happened all the time. (I thought I was going to die)
Robbie smiled and came to sit by one of his friends when the Torah was placed on the lectern for the reading. And Rabbi Lorge never said a word to me about finding Robbie there. But, anyone’s natural reaction to finding a child in the ark might have been a raised voice and wagging finger, or at least a “What’s going on here look?” I remember most clearly Rabbi Lorge’s outstretched hand, inviting, compassionate, understanding. Therein lies the lesson.
Needless to say, I kept a keen eye on Robbie for the rest of the session.