by Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman, Coleman alumna
When I started working with NFTY as an adult, I learned of the concept of hanhagah l’dorot, generational leadership. According to the NFTY website, it means “learning from those who came before us, and making choices to ensure the existence of the next generation.” In 1983, I had a very special rabbi at my home congregation who my entire family adored and trusted. He served on faculty at URJ Camp Coleman and convinced my parents to send my younger brother and me to camp, promising to keep an eye on us. He tapped the next generation and thus started my experiential educational career with the Reform Movement the summer before I began sixth grade. After returning home, with red Georgia clay staining my clothes and a new hand-signed Cabbage Patch doll from Cleveland, Georgia’s Babyland General, I asked my rabbi to give my doll a Hebrew name. He did a full ceremony and even gave me a certificate proclaiming her name “Chana Leah.”
I continued on for the next several years from camper to CIT to Assistant Counselor and songleader. As a songleader in the summer of 1989, I had the opportunity to lead song sessions and worship in my favorite camp locations, the dining hall and Hillman Chapel. I did not begin that summer as a songleader, but I received a promotion after a couple of weeks to this coveted position. I had brought a guitar with me to camp that I could barely strum, but I had been blessed with a singing voice and a personality that could hide my clumsy fingers. As they say, “I learned on the job” – not just how to play, but how to pray and how to facilitate worship. I learned to lead.
Fast forward to 2012: I now am an ordained rabbi and Jewish educator, inspired by all of the camp faculty rabbis (each and every one) who showed me the joy of worship and Jewish learning at camp. I work at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion creating and implementing a Certificate Program in Jewish Education that focuses on adolescent development, emerging adulthood and experiential education. This summer, I visited four URJ camps, leading Jewish educational sessions and worship for campers and staff members. When I returned to URJ Camp Coleman, I led a creative service for younger campers in which they had the opportunity to explore each prayer of the evening service on their own and then answer questions like, “What does peace look like to you?”
Last weekend, I attended Camp Coleman’s 50th reunion. The generational leadership that inspired me as a child had clearly inspired every returnee to this sacred ground. Generations of campers and staff from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000’s joined together to reminisce, sleep in the bunks of our childhood, join in song, and pray as one community. Again I had the honor to help lead worship Friday night in that magical chapel overlooking the lake, just as I had as a songleader in 1989 – but this time, it was not for the campers, as I had done 23 years prior or even three weeks ago. It was for the rabbis, staff and campers who came before me, my peers, and those who followed. When 650 people return “home” for this kind of experience, it becomes clear that the Reform Movement and its camping system embrace this concept of generational leadership.
If you have yet to send your child to a URJ overnight camp, I hope you will consider doing so. While I may not be there to promise to keep an eye on him or her like my childhood rabbi was for me, I can promise that the staff, administration, and volunteer faculty made up of clergy, educators, and youth advisors, will help keep watch as they inspire a love for Judaism within your child in a way that only an immersive experience can do. My story is one of thousands that can be heard across the continent. It was one heard at Camp Coleman’s reunion as friends shared stories of their children’s camp experiences from this past summer. Please join me in “hanhagah l’dorot” and help leave a legacy for a love of Torah, Jewish learning and living for our future generations.
Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman, MARE, MSW currently serves as the Coordinator of the Certificate Program in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She also has served as a past NFTY New York Area Regional Advisor. You can find her on Twitter at @mzs or email@example.com.