Mah Tovu is a beloved piece of liturgy, words that have been set to countless tunes to open tefilah and set the tone of a service. These words are pulled from this week’s Torah portion, Balak, and they are a blessing given to the Israelite people by the diviner Balaam. In translation, the text reads, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” According to the Medieval commentator Rashi, the Israelite camp was structured in such a way as to afford privacy to families and therefore created a thoughtful and respectful space.
In camp, with around a dozen people living in one bunk, structuring spaces to prioritize privacy is not always possible. Despite this logical challenge, we do still work toward building a culture of thoughtfulness and respect like that of our ancestors. This week, I saw these values on display when I accompanied the Lower Chaverim trip to Boston.
I was quite nervous to be chaperoning a trip of 47 teenagers to one of the largest cities in America…for obvious reasons. There are the headcounts, the food allergies, the upset stomachs after too much candy. But more than anything, I remember my early teen years as ones filled with cliques and gossip, when group trips did not bring out the best in everyone. And yet, time after time I was impressed with our campers. On the bus I overheard them steer each other away from discussing the private lives of other people they knew; at the Museum of Science I saw groups balance between preferences for which exhibits they visited; at Boda Borg campers compromised on which escape rooms to enter and worked as a team to tackle each challenge. Even after long, hot, activity-packed days, campers and counselors worked to be patient, respectful, and kind.
While much of this behavior is driven by who we are as individuals, it is also driven by the environment in which we live. Balaam blessed the Israelites because they had structured their society in a way that encouraged respect and kindness. At Crane Lake, we strive to do the same. This is why we introduce a new Jewish value to theme every week, why our summer-long value is chesed or loving-kindness, why we strive at every tournament to be the best-behaved camp no matter the score, why we plan evening programs focused on acceptance and inclusion.
The difference between a cliquey and gossipy group of teenagers and a caring and mature one depends so much on the environment we as counselors, staff member, and caretakers create. May we all build communities that we can be proud of, in which our children can be their best selves, that merits praise and blessing.