According to its mission, Camp Harlam, a summer camp in Pennsylvania run by the Union for Reform Judaism, is guided by nine core values. One of these is kehilah kedosha, or sacred community. This value is probably echoed by many Jewish camps across the denominational spectrum.
One can understand why a Jewish summer camp would strive to be a sacred community. The relationships that are formed there are unique, and the trust required to live with people you haven’t met before with no locks on the doors is unlike that of any other setting. Summer camp is not a utopia — if it were there would be no such thing as homesickness — but it is a place where unique relationships and trust enable young people to grow and explore in ways they couldn’t at home. At its core, it is a place where kids can become their best selves.
The concept of kehilah kedosha is rooted in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. Both phrases have the Hebrew root kadosh, meaning holy, and Kedoshim establishes for its time how members of a sacred community are to behave around one another. Within the first chapter of the portion alone are several qualities that make a community sacred.
There is an emphasis on family: “You shall each revere his mother and his father.” The irony that camp is a sacred community in part because kids are separated from their parents is not lost on me. But reverence and proximity are not the same thing.
There is an emphasis on generosity, as the Torah commands to leave the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and the stranger.
There is an emphasis on honesty, as the Torah prohibits theft, fraud and false measures.
There is an emphasis on respect for others with differences, as Kedoshim says we shall not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. We shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old. We shall love the stranger as ourselves.
And there is an emphasis on fundamental fairness, as in a verse that seems to be addressed to judges, it reads, “You shall not render an unfair decision: not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.”
Each of these qualities illustrates a different aspect of trust, for there must be trust for a community to inspire sacred living.
In the view of many scholars and theologians, the holiness described in this portion and elsewhere in the Torah means separateness. And yet, Moses begins the chapter by addressing all of the Israelite community. In its unique way, the separateness of Kedoshim requires togetherness.
At summer camp, togetherness is the core of the experience. Most kids return home having enjoyed the activities and the independence, but truly missing their friends. They have nurtured these friendships in an environment of generosity, honesty, respect for those who are different, and fundamental fairness. And the aspect of family? At Camp Harlam, their motto is “Where Friends Become Family.”
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” This command from the Torah is both awe-inspiring and intimidating. It cannot be achieved alone. As we strive to build sacred communities here at home — places we can learn to be our best selves — let us learn from the powerful examples of summer camps. Let us remember that holiness requires togetherness.