Dear Mom and Dad,
Camp is FABULOUS! Actually, my amazing journey started before I even got here.
The plane from San Antonio made a stop in New Orleans and blew a tire while landing. The whole plane shook and wobbled; people screamed. It was super exciting. Since I had never flown on a plane before, I was calm; I just thought it was a normal landing.
Then there was the cab ride from JFK to Port Authority. Such big buildings, and so much traffic. The meter read $6.90; I followed your directions for the driver’s tip. I raised the amount to the next dollar. When I gave the cab driver $7.00 and told him to keep the change, he threw a dime at me, said words I can’t repeat, and then sped off.
The bus to Warwick, NY, took me through beautiful rolling hills filled with tall green trees; there were clear brooks running by the side of the road all along the way. In just a couple of hours we arrived, and I saw the big painted sign, UAHC [Union of American Hebrew Congregations] Kutz Camp. I am attending this summer’s first session of the Reform Movement’s Leadership Institute to train kids like me how to take leadership roles in the Jewish community. Honestly, this whole adventure takes my breath away!
The camp is rustic, just as I had imagined it would be. OY! There’s no air-conditioning. Can you imagine? There are eight guys in my bunk, and they all seem really nice.
That’s all for now; I’ll write more when I have time.
A whole week has passed. The theme for this Institute is “Tear Down the Walls.” Through different programs and inner explorations, I have begun to tear down many walls and open new doors. I have been introduced to the idea of serious Jewish study, and I am surrounded by people who share my values and cultural history. The community is so welcoming and accepting; I feel completely free to express myself about everything.
As you know, ten days before camp began, the Six Day War had just ended. The level of Jewish pride and excitement is palpable; it can be felt in everything we do. Some nights we sing and dance in front of the fireplace in the main living room; the positive energy is contagious, even when I’m tired and cranky. The counselors want each of us to develop our own unique Jewish identity and figure out what kind of Jewish leaders we want to become.
In the teyatron, the covered pavilion that extends out over the lake, we worship, study, think, create, and connect with Jewish teens from across the country. The power of worshipping outdoors helps me feel connected to God in a way I have never known before. On Shabbat, we all dress in white, and our prayers aren’t filled with all the stuffy Thee’s, Thy’s, and Thou’s from our Union Prayer Book at home. Services here are really FUN, and worship is so meaningful.
I am meeting so many young rabbis; who knew that rabbis can be young? One of my favorite rabbis on staff is a guy named Larry Kushner. Actually, he’s not a rabbi yet; he’s currently a rabbinical student at HUC [Hebrew Union College]. Another one of my favorite staff members is Rabbi Lenny Kravitz. He’s really smart. I can’t understand a lot of what he says, but I can tell it’s important.
SAFTY (San Antonio Federation of Temple Youth) is great, and so are all my regional TOFTY (Texas Oklahoma Federation of Temple Youth) events, but now I’ve experienced what it’s like to be a NFTY kid (National Federation of Temple Youth). I am loving every minute here.
I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to Aunt Jane (my SAFTY advisor), Mr. Bendiner (my Religious School Director), and Temple Beth-El’s Sisterhood for awarding me this scholarship to Kutz Camp. I’m also grateful to both of you for encouraging me to attend Kutz Camp. Thank you.
Oh, and by the way, one more thing. I have decided that I want to go to rabbinical school and become a rabbi! I think that I have a lot to offer the Jewish people; being a rabbi will be a perfect fit for me.
I’ll be seeing you very soon.
My instincts all those years ago, as a 15-year-old, was spot on; I did indeed become a rabbi. But it took a while. When I realized that I was gay, in the early ’70s, I also realized that the rabbinate was off limits to me. It was not until 1991 that HUC began to accept openly gay and lesbian students.
I began my five-year rabbinical school program in 1996, spending my first year in Israel and the next four years at HUC’s New York campus, where I studied Kabbalah with Rabbi Larry Kushner and Jewish Medieval Philosophy with Rabbi Lenny Kravitz. Yes – the very same staff members who had inspired me at Kutz Camp 30 years earlier. I was ordained in the spring of 2001.
Kutz Camp closed in 2019. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said at the time, “For 54 years, Kutz has been the laboratory of Reform Judaism. Generations of teen leaders came to Warwick, New York, to experiment with religious practice, write the music that inspires us today, and learn to act justly and to lead our communities.”
For so many of us young, seeking Jews, it was our first spiritual home. My summer at Kutz Camp truly changed my life forever.
ANDREW F. KLEIN is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. You can reach him at email@example.com.