By: Sara Gottlieb (Herzl Alumnus & 2014 Mama Ozo)
A dear friend of mine passed away earlier this year. At the age of 24, he was taken from this planet unexpectedly and entirely too early. I couldn’t help but question anything and everything about life as a result; it was—and continues to be—a whirlwind of emotions. I knew I would never understand why Ethan’s life was cut short, but I turned to my brother anyways to ask him questions I knew he could never answer. When I asked the impossible, “Why did this happen?” he paused and responded simply with, “I just want to do something with my life that matters.”
I just want to do something with my life that matters.
My grieving process has caused me to reflect deeply upon my 22 years thus far. Have I done anything that actually matters? As a whole, what really does matter and what does not? Have I improved the lives of others? Have I inspired a change? Have I, personally, grown as a result?
My first thought was Herzl Camp. I took myself back to August 7, 2014, when I was standing in the Ozo Mo surrounded by 56 red, watery eyes. A few hours prior, the staff and Ozrim lined the dirt road and waved goodbye to their campers as the buses pulled out of Mickey Smith Parkway. And in a few minutes, Papa Jon Savitt and I would say goodbye to the 27 Ozrim who had become our family.
Eight weeks was all it took to change our lives forever.
This summer, I learned what it truly feels like to love others more than yourself. If the campers were happy and the Ozrim were happy, I was happy. And if not, I would do everything in my power to fix it. Why spend so much time getting ready for Shabbat if instead I could play roof ball with Tzrif Chet? Who needs a nap when instead I could go kayaking with three Ozrim to talk about their day? I felt valued and appreciated more than ever before in my life. As Mama Ozo, it was a unique privilege to have a large role in such a formative summer for these teenagers. But what is more rewarding is knowing how much these young individuals impacted the lives of others.
Camp is life changing, and I find it hard to believe that anyone who has experienced the Herzl magic would disagree. But this magic doesn’t happen on its own. It is the responsibility of the staff to create and maintain this extraordinary environment, and that is no easy feat.
On Bikkurim this summer, a shy boy took the lead in his team’s pop dance. This introverted camper who typically fled from the spotlight was dancing front and center with all of camp watching. And he did it with a smile. This wasn’t because he woke up that day and decided he wanted to try something new – this was because his staff members made him feel comfortable, safe, confident, and empowered to do so. When the dance ended, the crowd erupted in applause and he ran directly over to his counselor–who was waiting with open arms–to give him a huge hug. This camper discovered potential within himself he likely never knew he possessed.
Another night on the walk to dinner I noticed everyone in a certain cabin was wearing two different shoes. When I commented on the Ozo’s footwear, she told me that her camper lost a Croc and was upset and self-conscious about not matching, so the entire cabin switched shoes so she wouldn’t be embarrassed. At a vulnerable age where most would be bullied for standing out, the staff created a culture of support to let this camper know that they were there for her and uniqueness is something to celebrate.
On August 7th, we were all crying because we knew we had done something amazing. We had spent the past eight weeks as role models and mentors. We helped campers discover things about themselves and the world around them that they may not have otherwise learned. We created genuine lifelong relationships, provided meaningful opportunities, and without a doubt made sure everyone had fun in the process. We were crying because we knew the campers’ lives had been changed forever, and we were especially crying because we knew that we, too, had been changed for the better.
“I just want to do something with my life that matters,” means something different to every person, which is why some secure internships over the summer, many travel, several take classes, and others work at camp. In my eight years there, I came to realize the astonishing power of a Herzl Camp staff member. I wholeheartedly believe that if you’ve worked at camp and you gave it your all, you can confidently say you’ve done something with your life that truly matters.