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Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Yom Sport Break to Remember

Dear Family and Friends:

Last week our beloved Goldman Union Camp Institute once again held Yom Sport, a one-day program of competition (some camp's call it "Color War," at G.U.C.I it 's more like a skirmish).  Yom sport always begins with a surprise "Break."  Perhaps the most famous break is described below by now Rabbi Jay Mosses, then G.U.C.I. Program Director, during his rabbinic school days.  Hope you enjoy it.


A Barenaked Yom Sport
How the Rabbi and the Rock Star Went From Zion to Zionsville

By Jay Moses (Unit Head and Program Director, 1990-95)

I guess you’d have to say this story starts with Marc Lerner’s parents, if you wanted to take it back as far as that. You see, Freda and Michael Lerner were surely responsible for sending Marc to Camp Blue Star in North Carolina as a kid, long before his GUCI days.
Or I suppose you could take it up with his shrink, because those of us sitting in Unit Head meetings with Lerner were sure he was suffering from delusions of grandeur.

In the early 90s, Marc was camp administrator for a couple of summers, and as such was responsible for Yom Sport (which we used to call “Yom Unit Heads Go Have Lunch at Shapiro’s Deli,” since it was the only day when we weren't in charge, but that’s another story). The key to Yom Sport wasn’t the countless hours of preparation the captains would put in. It wasn’t the counselors who expended a month’s worth of energy in one day whipping up ruach for their teams. It wasn’t even keeping the date a secret—since it was always the worst kept secret in the state of Indiana. No, the key to Yom Sport was the break—that dramatic (and usually anticlimactic) ten seconds when whatever ruse had been concocted by the staff would give way to a burst of red, yellow, green, and blue in the form of the captains racing in from nowhere, marking the official start of Yom Sport, and lifting the haze of obliviousness from the three Shoresh kids who still had no clue it was coming.

Friends, I do not exaggerate when I tell you that Marc Lerner lived his life haunted by the specter of the perfect Yom Sport break. Every session, when the Unit Head meeting agenda rolled around to the upcoming Yom Sport and how we would break it, Lerner would launch into the same routine.

“White horses at dawn!” he would say dreamily. “That’s what I remember from Camp Blue Star. The captains came riding in from the horizon on white horses at dawn, marking the beginning of Color War. That was the greatest. That’s how we should break Yom Sport, man. WHITE HORSES AT DAWN!!”

Well, in Zionsville we never got any closer to white horses than the cows that grazed on the farm next to camp. Sure, we always managed to scrape something together—after all, in our little Midwestern camp with no lake, we created magic from nothing all the time with our spirit and our imagination, right?—but even though we kidded Marc about it, the elusive image of that perfect Yom Sport break had been planted in our collective consciousness. White Horses at Dawn.

So by 1995, when Lerner had long since flown the coop to become a camp director himself in Arizona and I was back in Zionsville as the Program Director, it was there in the back of my mind.

I guess the other part of this story starts in 1987. My first trip to Israel—a NFTY summer tour. Stuck on a remote kibbutz for two weeks with only about a dozen compatriots and nothing to do for the twelve hours after our early morning work shifts, I bonded with Steven, a shy kid from the group who, once you got talking to him, was really smart and funny. Then we discovered we loved a lot of the same music so we passed the time picking weeds in the fields by singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. He was a budding musician who had played around with recording some songs in his basement, and I was the Jewish-leader-type in the group. “My friend the rock star,” I’d joke. “My friend the rabbi,” he’d shoot back, just as jokingly. He was the one person from the trip I kept in touch with.

And life has a way of playing interesting jokes on us. By 1995 I was three years through rabbinical school, and damned if Steven wasn’t making a living in a band. They had hit it big in their native Canada, but had mostly a smallish, rabid cult following in the States. So I was only mildly surprised to notice, while flipping through the Indianapolis newspaper that summer of ’95, a small ad for an upcoming concert in Indy by Steve’s band—a modest Broadripple club gig. My first thought was: can I get that night off? because I loved his music and would go see them any chance I could. My second thought, however, sent a shock wave through me, as I did a double take at the date of the concert, then frantically rifled through my clipboard to confirm the impossible alignment of the stars: Steven Page and Barenaked Ladies would be in town on the same day as Yom Sport.

At the next day’s Unit Head meeting, we hatched the plan. Its only unusual feature was that we decided that since this was so special, and since so many staff members were Barenaked Ladies fans, we would keep it a secret from them too. The staff usually knows about the break, but we thought, they work their tushises off on Yom Sport. The counselors deserve the occasional fun surprise too. Let ‘em feel like kids again for a few minutes.

When the morning arrived, I left camp before 6:00 am to drive a half hour across town to the hotel where Steven and his band mates were staying. I stood in the lobby waiting, eventually guiltily calling up to his room. After a while, Steven and Ed Robertson, his songwriting partner and fellow front man for the band, shuffled into the lobby. These guys were living life on the road, working hard and playing hard, sleeping mostly on a bus. If they were seeing six a.m. at all, it was the end of the night, not the beginning of the day. I have never asked Steven for many favors like this, but nothing I could have or ever will ask for will be as difficult as dragging himself and Ed out of bed that day.

We got to camp, and everyone was already in the Chadar Ochel for breakfast, just as we had planned. We had worked out how the break would go during the car ride (quick Hebrew pronunciation lesson for Ed…) and I left Steven and Ed out on the Chadar porch to “rehearse.” The captains were in the kitchen, getting dressed up and preparing for their big moment. (Of course, since they were the surprise, the captains were the only people who could not witness the break—they had to stay hidden in the kitchen--a fact for which some of them will still not forgive me to this day).

As the meal was ending, I took my usual perch in the middle of the room for hoda’ot. There was a unique combination of tensions in the room—the campers who had figured out or suspected the day’s events were poised and ready for a “surprise,” and the counselors were nonchalant and still half asleep, dreading the excitement they were about to have to generate and prepared for some generic Yom Sport break.

I launched into a story about the Israel trip and “my friend the rock star” and “my friend the rabbi,” making sure to emphasize that the moral of the story is GO TO ISRAEL EARLY AND OFTEN because you never know how your life will change and who you will meet. Then I revealed that I had a special treat, as “my friend the rock star” from that trip was here to share the breakfast song session with us, and I introduced Steven Page and Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies.

The next few minutes were surreal. The energy in the room was strangely muted considering the two levels of excitement that we were expecting to generate. Here’s my theory (and counselors who were there that day can confirm or refute this): I think that the staff members who didn't know this was coming were so shocked that they weren't sure it was for real. People who were big fans of these guys were caught so off guard that by the time they realized this was one of the coolest moments they’d ever experienced at camp—one they would normally go nuts with excitement about—it was over. When you’re at camp, you are so fully ensconced in that all-consuming world that if something from your “outside world” comes in totally out of context, even something that you would normally get really pumped about, you have this lag-time before the worlds can reconcile themselves and fit together in your mind somehow. Anyway, a few people understood right away that this was really who I said it was and that these rock stars were really leading the breakfast song session at our Jewish summer camp. Others were genuinely confused. For a moment, I think everyone even forgot about Yom Sport!

Steven and Ed got right down to business: they launched into their crowd-favorite single, “If I had $1,000,000.” Steven ad-libbed something in the middle of the song about receiving care packages at camp as a kid—with “all kinds of cheeses in there.” By three minutes into the song, it had begun to sink in, and the staff was rockin’ along. The song reached its climactic final line, normally rendered “If I had a million daah-ah-ah-ah-ler-er-er-ers….I’d be rich!” but the GUCI remix I had planned with them yielded “If I had a million daah-ah-ah-ah-ler-er-er-ers….IT’S YOM SPORT!!!!”

With that cue, the captains came bursting out of the kitchen and we were off to the races. Not wanting to derail the energy of camp’s most important ruach day, I immediately whisked Steven and Ed back into the car and out of sight, returning them to their hotel with our eternal thanks.

Ok, so it wasn’t exactly “white horses at dawn.” But no horse ever had a #1 single on the Billboard charts. Yom Sport, 1995—the greatest, barenakedest break of them all.