Camp Kawaga Sermon

Year-round takeaways from camp’s sacred texts

Founder Rabbi Bernard C. Ehrenreich (right) and son Lou

Shabbat Shalom

Fellow braves: somehow it’s already week seven even though it feels like we just got here. Well, I guess for me, that is pretty much the case. Still, here we are, with less than six more days of vacation, before we go to station, back to civilization.

In returning home to our family and friends, we are also leaving our home that is Kawaga. But as one of our oaths expresses so elegantly, at the heart of the brave is Kawaga and at the heart of Kawaga is the brave. As we gear up for another offseason, let us reflect on what it means to have Kawaga at heart — to be Kawaga — especially when we are not on the shores.

As some of you may have noticed, as a scholar of Kawaga lore, I’ve made a concerted effort this summer to discover, with your help, the deeper meaning of Kawaga’s sacred texts. I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the Kawaga Ideal. Of course, camp demands that we memorize every single line and there is a distinct effort to understand each line as well. We cling to the Ideal’s striking contradictions and loaded ambiguities:

Sean (stands up and says): Strong enough to know when he is weak
Jon: Learn to laugh yet never forget how to weep
Jake: The meekness of true strength
Josh: Proud and unbending in defeat
John: Brave enough to face himself when he is afraid
Aden: Not in the paths of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenges
Brian: The simplicity of true greatness
Benny: Here let him learn to stand up in the storm
Owen: Humble and gentle in victory
Malcolm: Reach into the future but never forget the past
Rabbi Ben: compassion for those who fail

Still, rarely do braves attempt to discern the overarching message of the Ideal as a whole — truly a missed opportunity. I’ll spare you the painstaking line by line dissection and instead give you the highlights. The crux of the Ideal is “Build me a son… who will master himself before he seeks to master others.” That in order to lead others, one must know himself. The key to unlocking the ideal, to me, is that this essential self awareness only comes with the stress and spur of difficulties and challenges, to stand up in the storm. Not only does this process promote perseverance, but also empathy. In facing, fighting, and sometimes failing when confronted with adversity, a son gains compassion for those who fail. In learning to recognize the successes and stumbles of fellow tribesmen, a true Kawaga brave will begin see himself — both triumphant and vulnerable — in others. This touch of humility is what enables being a Kawaga leader, one with an open mind and keen sense of how he fits into the larger puzzle, for he too is but a link in that great chain, the Kawaga nation.

The quintessential example of humble leadership in Jewish history is none other than Moses, who in this week’s Torah portion, finds himself on the precipice of arriving in the Promised Land, Israel. In this twilight of 40 years of wandering the Sinai Desert, Moses pleads before God to allow him to enter the land with his people. To bring you up to speed, Moses was previously deemed forbidden to do so by God after disobeying him in an earlier chapter. But God is steadfast in his resolve, instead insisting that Moses, “Go up to the top of (a mountain) and lift up [his] eyes to the West and the North and the South and the East, and look at it with (his) eyes, for [he] shall not go (there).”

Moses, though shaken, remains committed to his mission of transmitting God’s laws to the people of Israel even in the waning days of his life with no tangible reward for his work. It seems Moses, unknowingly — bare with me here — was Being Kawaga over 2 thousand years before Rabbi Ehrenreich first founded a camp by the bay where forrest joins the tide. Moses in this single act, as well as throughout his life, subsumed his own interests to further those of his nation.

While our Kawaga Ideal seems to read like a father praying that his son be self aware on his journey to becoming a good person, to me, one line changes its entire meaning:

Peyton: Then I, his father, will dare in the recesses of my own heart to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

You see, the Ideal is not about a father pleading with God to bless him with a son strong at heart and clean in mind. What the Kawaga Ideal is is an appeal to service — whether for a father, counselor, or ancient prophet. As Doc E. noted from the very beginning, the fundamental ideal of Kawaga is about character building; Fun, yes, but always with the thought of the final effect on the boy. It is the charge of a counselor to guide campers as they unerringly strive toward manhood, empowering them to reach their goals and overcome obstacles, often presented by G.O.D. — the Great Outdoors as Doc. E liked to say.

In this last week, bask in the warmth of friendship because its glow is never brighter than it is here right now. But know that your time on the shores is only a tiny fraction of a lifelong practice of Being Kawaga. Whether it’s for 1, 5, 10, or 20 summers, your time at this camp will not be in vain if you strive to be worthy of the name Kawaga Brave the 310 days that you are not physically here. Make the man in the glass your friend: know his strengths and shortcomings; set high goals and attack them unflinchingly even when the storm seems to be without end. Embrace your own journey to manhood and see it in others, developing empathy will allow you to be slow to condemn yet fast to forgive. Show good sportsmanship on the playing field, be loyal and attentive fellows. Imagine how rewarding it would be to approach the rest of your life with enthusiasm and spirit that you do here for a mere eight weeks per year.

Above all, though, devote your days both at camp and at home to the service of others. There’s a Cherokee tribe proverb that reads, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” In the Jewish tradition, the value of a single life is equivalent to that of a thousand. When you’re away from our home here, BE KAWAGA… in doing so, whether by unfolding lessons to youth in numbers untold or by touching the life of just one person, the world will cry when you return to Mother Earth… you will not have lived in vain.

Shabbat Shalom