Walking Sightless Among Miracles on Shabbat

  • Josh Conescu joined Camp Pembroke as Director of Jewish Life & Learning last summer,  and in Summer 2018 he will continue to energize our vibrant Jewish connections all week long.

    Last summer, I began my own Camp Pembroke journey.

    As we get ready for Summer 2018, I think back to last year’s staff training. That first afternoon with the full cadre of counselors gathered, we went around in a circle to answer “What are you most looking forward to about camp?” So many of the women said, “Shabbat services!” Newly appointed to head up Pembroke’s Jewish Life & Learning, I was shocked. Noticing my surprise, Camp Director Ellen Felcher leaned over to me and said, “Not too much pressure…”

    “Right,” thought I.

    The first, pre-camp Shabbat approached, and I hoped to simply get through the service without making any glaring mistakes. I had been told that Eugenia, Pemboke’s head of Music, and the music itself really drove the service. Knowing that took off most of the pressure. But still, I was the new kid…

    We gathered in the Pine Grove on Friday just before sunset. The weather was beautiful. Late afternoon sun glinted off the nearby lake. I was very nervous, but took a deep breath. We began. I was one of the few men in an ocean of women. These weren’t just women. These were CAMP women. These were the women who had spent summer after summer after summer soaking this in. Everyone was joy-filled. It was pretty spectacular.

    Then came Miriam’s Song. I have been singing Miriam’s Song for as long as I can remember. Debbie Friedman was my first song leader during my own days as a camper at a Jewish camp in the Poconos. I always enjoyed this song because it gave women a voice in the service, and I thought that was pretty cool. I sang this song at camp. I sang it at Shabbat services. I sang it with men and women, boys and girls. But. I. Was. Not. Prepared. For. This.

    Shabbat services at Camp Pembroke: lots of singing and dancing, with incredible spirit!

    The entire staff rose up as one and began dancing. This was no longer just a song. This was not men and women, boys and girls, singing a song in a synagogue. This was an anthem. This was a celebration of being alive, of being at camp, of being together. This is what prayer is supposed to be. This was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. This is when it clicked for me and I realized, “Ohhh. I’m not in Kansas anymore. This summer is going to be INTERESTING…”

    And it was. I had not spent a summer at sleepaway camp since 1973. Coming back to the bubble of camp after so many years was transformational—and this experience was amazing. I’m still hearing the echoes of that first Shabbat.

    During the year, I teach at a Hebrew School in the city where I live. Last summer, I expected to be: working at Starbucks, working out, and writing. I was NOT going to camp. I had spent the previous 13 summers creating videos with campers at an arts-focused day camp. I loved that camp, but I was REALLY looking forward to a summer of my own.

    But last spring, while substitute teaching at a Jewish day school, one of my teaching colleagues approached me in the hallway. It was Janie Brauer, one of the Pembroke Head Counselors. She stopped me and asked, “What are you doing this summer?” She told me that Pembroke was looking for a Director of Jewish Life and Learning. After pointing out the obvious, “I’m a guy.” I thanked her for asking, and said, “I don’t think so.”

    Then, for the next couple of hours, I wrestled with that answer… For the past 25 years, I have been on a slow, meandering journey into the heart of my own Jewish education. I’m a teacher by training, a student of Judaism by inclination and a teacher of Judaics by a happy and extraordinary melding of the two. How could I NOT take this job if offered? Although I have not remained close to my camp friends, my camp memories are foundational.

    I went for the interview. I wanted the job. So much for a summer of my own. Yet I couldn’t have imagined how radically my life was about to change.

    Pembroke is now with me, always. I have changed the way I teach as a result of that first time with Miriam’s Song in the Pine Grove.

    One of my favorite prayers says, “Days pass, the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Adonai, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments in which your presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.” Until experiencing Pembroke’s Miriam’s Song, I had grown used to the fact that too many of my own prayers were shrouded in darkness. That first day, even though it was late afternoon, and the Pine Grove was filled with warm golden hour light, my eyes were suddenly, truly filled with seeing.

    Just as I could never have imagined how extraordinary the summer of 2017 would be, I can only hope that my eyes will be opened again (and maybe again) THIS summer. It’s so close now. I can’t wait for us all to be together again, celebrating with Miriam. If you’ve been here, perhaps you feel the same.

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