A note from the counselors of Cabin 4 at CGI Poconos:
We want to share an amazing story that took place this summer and its impact on us and our campers.
We spent the first month of our summer being counselors at CGI Poconos, a unique overnight camp for girls in public school. Knowing the critical Shlichus we had on our hands, we spent the month trying to instill the beauty of Yiddishkeit into our campers by showing them what it means to live as a Jew. Teaching by example that living as a Jew does not mean living a boxed-in, sheltered life; instead, we can have fun and be normal while still following the Torah lifestyle.
As the weeks passed, we saw some campers begin to react to this environment, asking questions, taking things on, and becoming more interested and involved in Yiddishkeit. For other campers, however, it was hard for us to see through them. They seemed to reject everything and remain uninterested in anything Jewish.
Once the busses pulled into Crown Heights on Thursday, Chof Beis Tammuz, for the annual Jewish Pride Trip to Crown Heights and the Ohel, things began to shift. The girls were starting to take a peek at a Jewish community, and it wasn’t so bad; it was exciting; it was vibrant; it had a purpose; it had answers.
Our campers had a wonderful and meaningful time visiting 770, the Rebbe’s home, and other landmarks in Crown Heights.
When the formal part of the trip is over, the campers are given an opportunity to shop for Kosher food and Judaica items, which, for many of our campers, are unavailable in their respective communities. After getting some delicious Kosher ice cream, we brought our bunk to Judaica World and showed them around.
As soon as we showed our campers the leather Seforim aisle, our 11-year-old campers got hooked. They began pulling out different Siddurim and choosing their favorite colors. The Siddurim were starting to grow on them. What began as “This looks like it might be interesting, kind of like a museum” when they first entered the store turned into, “I love this, and I want one.” They felt a connection to the Siddurim and wanted their own. For some girls, it would be the first Siddur in their house; for others, it would be their first personal Siddur.
When turning over the Siddur to examine the back, a strong sense of disappointment appeared on their faces. There, neatly displayed on a sticker, they saw the price tag. Seventy-five dollars for a Siddur! Way above the budget of an 11-year-old at camp. Disappointed, our campers replaced the Siddurim in their respective places.
Individual girls, not quite able to relinquish the opportunity to purchase their own Siddur now that they realized they wanted one, turned to us, their counselors, to help them find an alternative, cheaper option. We led them to the shelves that carried the ordinary Siddurim with English translation, but it wasn’t clicking. They weren’t feeling the same pull, the same calling, the same rush of desire and excitement for the Siddur as they had towards the leather ones. They couldn’t find one that they liked, one that spoke to them. They went to look around to see if they can find something they loved that was more affordable.
One girl couldn’t bring herself to give up on the siddur. A girl that was seemingly uninterested in Yiddishkeit. She became attached to a beautiful leather Siddur and couldn’t bring herself to get passed it.
As we stood there discussing the different options available to her, a man behind us called us aside. He pointed to our campers and then to the leather aisle and said, “I overheard what’s going on. Whatever they want, it’s on me.”
We were shocked and didn’t know how to react. We weren’t sure whether we were supposed to accept his kind offer or politely turn him away. It was going to rack up quite a bill. Seeing we weren’t taking his offer, he went to the man behind the counter, handed him his credit card, pointed to us, and said, “Whatever their campers want, put it on my card.” He told us not to tell the campers and wouldn’t divulge his name.
When we saw how serious he was, we went over to every camper and individually told her about the “great discount we just got for the leather Siddur”, and she should go pick out the Siddur she wanted. Our ten girls chose their favorite color leather Siddur and got their Jewish names engraved on the front. The light in their eyes was indescribable.
Picking up the ready Siddurim before leaving Crown Heights was one of the most beautiful moments to witness. The girls’ faces were glowing! Their very own gorgeous Siddur with their Jewish names on it. They couldn’t believe it. They just couldn’t let go of their Siddurim.
The next stop was the Ohel. Our campers asked that we show them what to say so they could use their Siddurim in this holy place. Every camper recited Lamnatzaich at the Ohel from her very own new Siddur.
Throughout the trip back to camp, and once we arrived, the girls cuddled and flipped through their Siddurim. A few girls asked that we teach them how to read Hebrew so they can daven on their own from their new Siddurim. Another arranged a stool near her bed, so the Siddur remains close to her when she goes to sleep. One girl took on to daven every day, another took on to daven at least every Friday.
We spent rest hours immersed in the Siddur. We practiced nekudos and answered numerous questions on what different tefilos were and meant, as well as why we say them.
Our beginner Siddurim became a thing of the past. Every morning by davening, the girls brought along their new ones. When davening with the whole camp on shabbos, the rest of camp had to wait as our bunk flipped through the pages to find the right place.
Upon our campers’ request, we bought bookmarks and placed them in their Siddurim to indicate the paragraphs we davened in camp so they could continue at home.
Our campers did not agree to pack their Siddurim when it was time to go home. They held them in their hands, and we witnessed how the Siddurim were the first thing they showed their parents when they were picked up. “We used our Siddurs to say the prayer for traveling on our flight back home” was a message we received from two campers flying home.
We and our campers will forever be grateful to the anonymous sponsor that made this happen. For being the messenger to make davening something unique, exciting, and a Mitzvah that they will love forever.