by Cantor Rollin Simmons
Congregation Emanu El – Houston, TX
I awakened to the high-pitched beeping of my cobalt blue Ironman watch. It was hidden in an unknown part of the room that was of course not my night stand. In a mild attempt to not wake up my family, I quickly disarmed the alarm, delayed only by my still-sleeping foot’s reluctance to hold my weight. I got ready by the light sneaking in between the black-out curtains. My shuffling was muffled by the blasts of the air conditioner. I grabbed my guitar. It was time to head to Tekes Boker with the Shorashim unit, made up of rising 2nd and 3rd graders. Don’t be late – it only lasts a brief boisterous few minutes before they head off to breakfast.
I arrived early. Some of the campers were already outside waiting for their friends to join them. I pulled my lanyard out of my pocket and completed another stitch or two. It is recommended to keep your phones out of sight when you’re with the campers, and I must admit I welcomed the feeling of being unplugged. Also, I think we all need a little more lanyard in our lives. More campers and counselors straggled out of their cabins. The kids started chanting “Big circle with everybody in it!” Once we were circled up, we began with our “bo-bo-bo-boker tov” chant, calling out to each cabin: Acco, Bat Yam, Gan Yavne and Tel Aviv. And the kids were immediately awake and alert, eager to chant louder than the last group. I can still hear their voices echoing in my ears. And after we had wished an exuberant good morning to every possible one of us, we then took a moment to give thanks. I could not think of the perfect Modah Ani to use, so I made one up, lovingly using the words of my teacher and friend, Rabbi Josh Fixler. I sang “Tell me five things you’re grateful for… clap, clap, clap…it might. just. change your life.” And then we went around the circle and came up with way more than five things. It was certainly a boker tov.
In addition to my morning ritual with Shorashim, I sat on the floors of their cabins to learn together about friendship. During my week at camp, we had Jacob Spike Kraus, a very talented visiting musician and teacher, grace us with his presence and his music. Alongside spirited songleaders Dan Lee, Jenna Mark, and Margo Wagner, I learned Spike’s setting of the text: V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. It became our theme song of the week. The Shorashim campers and counselors and I discussed the idea that if you love your neighbor as yourself, you must start by loving yourself. So we dug into what that meant. What do we love about ourselves? It’s not always easy to share those things aloud, but it felt important to do that work together. I noticed it was a harder conversation in the girls’ cabin than it was in the boys’ cabin. I would love to think more on that topic.
A fundamental part of the rhythm of camp is the daily meals together in the Chadar Ochel. We sat in the back corner reserved for faculty and the littlest campers – the staff and faculty kids of Camp Kattan. Meals are a time to nourish your body and also to connect with the community. Sugar cereal is a breakfast favorite, especially for my 6 and 3-year old kids. But I will confess to a daily helping of Honey Nut Cheerios as a post-breakfast treat for myself as well. Even better than sugar cereal is the sweet connections with fellow faculty and staff, getting to know each other a little better each day as the week flies by. The meals then close, first with a dance party in the middle of the room, where campers and counselors alike know all of the moves to the songs of the summer, followed by a rousing song session which begins with blessings to say thank you for our food.
When I arrived at camp, I may not have put my Ironman watch on my nightstand, but I did put my wallet and keys in the drawer. For seven days, I didn’t get in the car, didn’t buy anything, and I tried to be in the moment as much as possible. The morning rituals helped me to welcome the day with joy and gratitude. How lucky I am to be able to spend this sacred time at Greene Family Camp. We have now been home for a couple of weeks, but the songs and the rhythms from camp still stick in our heads. And I have even made time to continue working on my lanyard.