From Such Seeds As These
I spent much of this week in North Carolina, where I had the pleasure of visiting impressive JCCs in Charlotte and Durham. I anticipated I would write about what I observed, who I met, and my overall impressions of these communities—and I will get into all that before I’m done. But a not entirely unexpected encounter with an old camp friend has stirred an inclination in me to reflect a bit differently than I had planned.
In 1980, when I met her, Bryna Bearman was a 15-year-old girl from Birmingham, Alabama. We were in the same chug (unit) at Camp Tel Yehudah (TY), the national senior leadership camp of Young Judaea, the Zionist movement. Bryna and I were part of a group of perhaps 40 kids from across the country who spent four weeks together in the little town of Barryville, New York, on the banks of the Delaware River.
For many, the mere mention of a session at overnight camp stirs all kinds of memories—laughter and love; hikes through the wilderness; gaga and basketball. Hatzagot (plays and performances); shira and rikud (song sessions and folk dancing); and at TY: sichot and peulot (discussions and activities) about who we were as young Jews, Israel, and the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Perhaps, however, what we remember most are the people themselves: fellow campers, counselors and staff, memories of whom bring us right back to those beautiful, powerful, extraordinary days.
Oftentimes, it is about far more than memories, because some of those kids with whom we spent our summers—first as campers, and later, when we returned as staff members—remain among the most important people in our lives today. They are dear friends and, in more instances than one might imagine, life partners, husbands, and wives. My wife, Janet, and I, both TY alumni, met while working at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in the summer of 1987, so that’s part of my story, too, but I digress.
Bryna and I last saw one another in 1982 when I snuck into camp to visit my friends from the prior summers, having chosen to stay home and work that year instead of having a last camp hurrah. For the record, I first sought permission from the camp director to spend a Shabbat as an authorized guest, but my request had been denied. (My apologies to all concerned for the transgression….) Though she was a treasured friend, part of a group that had become like family, the currents of our lives carried us off in different directions—until this week, when our shared commitment to the Jewish people, Jewish community, and the JCC Movement resulted in a warm embrace, followed by an update about our families and kids, other members of the old gang, and lunch with colleagues at the magnificent Levin JCC in Durham.
Together with her husband, Greg, Bryna (now Rapp) is chair of the board of Jewish for Good, the integrated community that includes the gorgeous Levin JCC, whose design is largely the handiwork of her remarkable gifts as an acclaimed architect, and a host of other services most often provided by Jewish Federations and Jewish Family Services. The building sits on a picturesque campus that is also home to a Jewish day school and Judea Reform Congregation. The JCC is a little more than a decade old, having been created to serve as the town square of Durham’s small but rapidly growing Jewish community. Bryna and Greg and other inspired leaders rallied the community around their vision for something more. Years of exhaustive efforts—motivating, influencing, and cajoling others to join them in pursuit of that vision—subsequently brought it to life.
The Levin JCC is a model of local commitment, increasingly serving as a supportive partner to other Jewish institutions in the area. It also is becoming a flagship JCC, known for its devotion to inclusion and to making Israel engagement a cornerstone of its community-building efforts. Under the leadership of its extraordinary CEO, Jill Madsen, Jewish for Good has embarked on another major capital campaign to expand the JCC and enhance its already successful programs and initiatives, making them ever more accessible to the many families increasingly drawn to the area.
Finding Bryna at the helm of the board warmed my heart. But it’s more than that. For both of us, the seeds of who we would become as adults were planted, in part, by our experiences in Young Judaea and our time together at camp. The paths we’ve chosen for our families and our careers, becoming lay and professional leaders in the Jewish world, grew from those experiences—experiences like the ones we proudly provide to nearly 100,000 young people each summer through the JCC Movement’s network of day and overnight camps, the largest on this continent. Together with our peers and partners at Ramah, the Union for Reform Judaism, Young Judaea, Bnei Akiva, and so many others, we continue to plant seeds today that will bring to life as yet unimaginable visions for a greater Jewish future in communities from coast to coast, in Israel, and across the Jewish world.
So, although my thoughts today strayed a bit down memory lane, I won’t conclude this week’s message without also mentioning that among the impressive staff members with whom I spent time in Durham was Lana Dennis, a native of Ukraine and one of the first JResponders to travel to Poland to aid and support Jewish refugees fleeing the war in the land of her birth. More JResponders depart these shores each week, following the proud example Lana and a growing list of others have provided.
Also of great significance is the remarkable impression both the lay and professional leaders made on me during my visit to the Levine JCC in Charlotte, the centerpiece of Shalom Park, one of the most impressive and beautiful Jewish community campuses in North America. Board Chair Lisa Strause Levinson and Acting CEO Tamika Jackson spearhead a team of accomplished and experienced lay and professional leaders who work closely with their counterparts across 10 Jewish communal institutions that call the campus “home.”
I returned to my own home as Shabbat approached, once more inspired by what I’ve seen and those I met as I continue to find my way to more and more JCC communities. That inspiration is, in part, a function of who and what we are but even more so, a reflection of all we can yet become: a powerful engine driving our commitment to greater Jewish community and more vibrant Jewish life throughout North America. A forest of possibilities that continues to grow from the seeds planted by those upon whose shoulders we so proudly stand.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America