Blog  Olim Fellows Retreat: A Spiritual and Social Justice Awakening in Atlanta, Georgia

Olim Fellows Retreat: A Spiritual and Social Justice Awakening in Atlanta, Georgia

By Alexandra Pachter, First Year Olim Fellow

Per Pachter usual, I arrived supremely late to the Jewish festivities that had already begun in Atlanta. I checked into the Hyatt right off the highway, threw my room-key in the bottom of my bag and rushed to the other room filled with the fam—the 2015 Crane Lake Olim Fellows. Once there I was met with warm embraces and warm smiles, a warmth continued from the summer past. Coming from college, filled with new faces and new beginnings, we all felt a certain sense of home in the company of those who knew us better than we knew ourselves. When we dispersed to go back to our rooms we caught up with the Eisner Fellows and I was hit with a wave of deja vu from our NFTY Israel trip. I felt more Jewish and connected than I’d felt in a while, with random mingling in a carpeted hotel hallway and a worried fellow camper shushing our antics. That night, I fell asleep with a full heart and calm mind.

The weekend that followed was more inspirational and applicable than we all expected. Not only did the speakers we heard from and the sights we saw teach us how to be better counselors, but they also gave us a new lens through which to see justice and change in our world. We spent our day in Atlanta at a temple, hearing Keisha Thomas’s moving story, visiting a couple’s homeless shelter, and touring through the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Keisha told us of her simple, yet profoundly impactful act of guarding the life of a Klu Klux Klan member about to be struck by a mob in Ann Arbor, Michigan. By her example, she showed us the difference between mercy and grace, about how to treat others, even undeserving ones, with kindness and to meet them as equals despite past actions. She was around our age at the time and empowered us to feel the same responsibility to act despite any surrounding mob mentality.  The Civil Rights exhibits in the museum accentuated Keisha’s message—that it takes a life to save a life.

After that day in Atlanta we drove past open fields to Coleman, where we settled down, and came together as a community to celebrate Shabbat. Coleman, draped in a canopy of brightly colored leaves, filled with pockets of water large and small, and accommodating in food (the apple crumble and cookies were bomb, thanks). We felt wholly connected—connected to our peers, to our nature, to our Jewish values, to our larger world, and to our future.

Between meals and socializing, we heard from more inspiring speakers. While each had their own individual story, there was an overarching theme of leadership and passion. I learned that the essence of human connection and creating a community like camp is to encourage others to be themselves by example. I learned that ‘by example’ doesn’t mean isolation or being the best, but rather its opposite—connection. It means staying true to what you’ve learned from your own experiences and finding the words to articulate your journey so that those who identify with your insights can have a beacon of light to follow and for those who don’t yet understand,  a source by which to learn. Bradley’s story was of growing up with Tourette’s, being bullied by both teachers and peers, realizing his strength, and becoming a teacher to guide others. The pivotal moment in his life was in middle school, when his principal called him out in front of his class, who had always bullied him for his Tourette’s, and forced him to give a speech. Speaking was Bradley’s main impediment, but instead of letting it get in the way, he conquered it. He educated those listening about what Tourette’s was, how it affected his brain, and how he would like to be treated. When he finished, the crowd applauded and Bradley realized the power of education and sharing a story. He continued to share his story by becoming a teacher. While Bradley’s courage was admirable, so too was the push from his principal. Without calling Bradley to the stage and directing his story with questions, Bradley wouldn’t have felt encouraged to share or wouldn’t have known where to start. Bradley’s principal helped him find confidence in himself and confidence in his goal to become a teacher.

The weekend in Atlanta, reunited with camp friends and family was much needed, and much appreciated. It made me recognize the true value of what camp has given me—a place free of social restriction and guidelines that always encouraged me to find what I loved and who I loved to do it with. On the last night together, we watched an improv group called Dad’s Garage perform. Picture three full-grown men on stage acting out sisterhood, the potato famine, and roasting severed heads over a fire. Using humor, they created a fun and safe space filled with laughter. Their performance, followed by Havdallah under the stars completed the weekend. Dad’s Garage, like the rest of the speakers, showed me that there are many different avenues to create change and community. I also came to understand the importance of a counselor’s role in creating a safe place free of judgement and obligation for his/her campers. We chanted: Making a difference, one bunk at a time! As a counselor, your campers admire you for life. You can be the voice and person that redefines a camper’s identity or outlook on their life. Identity is a complex concept greatly influenced by nature and nurture. The lush, green nature of the Berkshires is an open space for counselors to nurture their campers. For some counselors that means literal nurture, cleaning soiled sheets, defending from allergens in the dining halls, and smelling your campers’ hair to make sure they aren’t getting away with their own filth. And for others, it could mean showing a camper that trying a new sport can be fun, not frustrating, that climbing the ropes course can be invigorating, not paralyzing, and that finding family can be comfortable, not anxiety inducing.

Overall Atlanta taught me this life lesson:

Love what you do, do what you love—and do it all with people you love and who love you back.