OP-ED: Saying goodbye to Kutz Camp, Reform Judaism’s ‘forever home’

Lisa Silverstein Tzur (Courtesy of Tzur)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — This is a story of gratitude. So much gratitude.

In 1983, my local rabbi handed me his guitar and taught me four chords. He said (paraphrasing the first century sage Hillel) “Lisa, with these four chords you can play any Jewish song. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Months later I left the familiarity of our synagogue and traveled to Warwick, New York, to craft my song-leading skills at the URJ Kutz Camp, the high school leadership training center of the Union for Reform Judaism.

That was a transformative summer. Surrounded by teenagers who were excited and enthusiastic to create sacred community and deepen their individual Jewish identities, I connected with peers from all over North America. Every day was a blessing, bringing new intellectual challenges, opportunities for meaningful conversations and hours spent with my music cohort, learning and creating contemporary Jewish music. It was then that I solidified my desire to become a rabbi, so greatly influenced by the caring, compassionate, learned souls that gently led us through our summer experience.

A scene from Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., in 1993. The flagship Reform movement camp is closing after 54 years. (Yair Gil)

I returned to Kutz as a musician and a counselor. In the years that followed, I worked as program director, dance leader and yoga instructor. I even worked full-time for the URJ, recruiting participants from our sister organization in England. I was so profoundly impacted by Kutz that I felt personally responsible to share that experience with as many young Jews as possible. That commitment has been lifelong; as an adult I was honored to serve as the chair of the camp committee, seeking ways to deepen our program and increase alumni engagement.

I have observed that every person who enters camp comes with their own unique experience, and I am proud that we have helped these young adults navigate the most challenging situations. Some come in search of intensive Jewish learning, and we are proud to be a place where we wrestle with text to find their meaning in the modern world. Some struggle with their gender identities and sexual orientations; some deal with death and divorce in their families; and some even express thoughts of hurting themselves. I pray that each one of them eventually understands that we are all struggling. Together as a community we fiercely support one other, and try to bring peace and healing to every shattered soul.

As a community, we are committed to exploring Judaism in all its beauty. We grapple with tradition, especially when we find it incompatible with our modern-day lives. We pray a lot. We learn. We sing. And there is a tremendous amount of joy that permeates the camp, every day — especially on Shabbat.

We are passionate about experimentation, exploration, pushing the boundaries, always searching for the sweet spot between modernity and tradition. We demand creativity from our faculty and staff. We are a community of participators, a constant work in progress. And we grow from our failures, learning from our mishaps, picking ourselves up, and trying again and again.

Our accomplished alumni are talented journalists, actors, sportscasters, news producers, executives of well-beloved national corporations, political lobbyists, movie producers, musicians, doctors, lawyers, social workers, educators. We have a strong cadre of alumni who have made their home in Israel. We also have produced “just a few” Jewish professionals along the way, many of whom are adamant that their summer spent in the Kutz leadership program set the trajectory for pursuing work in the Jewish community.

I am one of those grateful, grateful rabbis. I am also immeasurably saddened, as are the myriad Kutz alumni and supporters, that those gates of 46 Bowen Road are closing after an era of 54 incredible years. The URJ announced this week that next summer’s session will be the last.

While organizational change cannot be successfully accomplished by consensus, I wish that our story had a different ending. Yet as we have learned, all endings are an opportunity to begin anew, and I am hopeful that our story will continue in a different iteration.

At the end of each summer, after the participants have returned to their homes, our staff sits around the perimeter of the pool in the chill of the evening. Our dearly loved camp director, Melissa Frey, offers everyone the opportunity to share their most magical moment from the summer. At the conclusion, Melissa teaches us that even though we gather intensively only once a year at this physical location, our community is sacred each and every day, no matter where we are in the world.

I am grateful that all three of my children are proud alumni of our program. I am grateful to have found countless teachers and many students who call me their teacher and their friend. I am grateful that unlike many who only were privileged to spend a single summer at Kutz, I have been honored to come back year after year to help shape the community. I am humbled every time I walk into the iconic main building. I am overwhelmed by the presence of divinity when I happen to chance upon a quiet, solitary moment in the Teyatron (our lakeside program/prayer space). And I feel the presence of God each and every time I engage in powerful conversation with teen or adult, knowing from my own experience that each moment is just another opportunity to influence and to be transformed.

Last summer, in the middle of his Kutz experience, my son Ayal proclaimed, “Ima, I just want you to know that Kutz is my forever home.” How his words resonated with me at that moment. All the more so, on this day, I emphatically proclaim: Kutz is my beloved, and my forever home.

(Lisa Silverstein Tzur is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the immediate past chair of the URJ Kutz Camp and the executive director of Positive Jewish Living, championing a holistic approach to spiritual and physical wellness through a Jewish lens.)