By Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA
You could say that the texture of my life was molded during six summers I spent at the URJ Kutz Camp: NFTY Leadership Experience. Those summers – two as a Program Participant, two as a Resident Advisor/Program Director, and two as Head RA – set my life on a course that would weave together an intense love of Judaism, a versatility with creative and innovative programming, and a deeper appreciation of who I am. So much of what I do today as a rabbi draws on the nurturing and nourishment I received at Kutz.
I went to Kutz because my youth region NEFTY (now NFTY-Northeast) and my temple rabbis presented Kutz as the ultimate teen leadership experience. Kutz, I was told, was an incubator for future leaders of the adult Jewish community. So That summer I headed off to Warwick, NY.
At Kutz I Found a Second Home
There I made Jewish connections that defined me. There I experienced a whole bunch of really intense relationships. There I honed a set of informal educational programming skills that propelled me into rabbinical school, through a Masters in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, and ultimately into my current synagogue. In fact, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA derives much of its ta’am (flavor) and focus from the welcoming warmth and innovative Judaism that I experienced at Kutz.
Kutz Expanded my Horizons
At Kutz I met the giants of Reform Judaism. We studied Jewish prayer with HUC-JIR’s Dr. Larry Hoffman, Talmud with orthodox Rabbi professor Michael Chernick, Jewish philosophy with Dr. Eugene Borowitz and the Biblical Five Megillot with UAHC leader Rabbi Bernie Zlotowitz. UAHC president Alexander Schindler spoke an inspired us, UAHC VP Danny Syme warned us about the dangers of cults and other Reform Movement dignitaries shared with us issues at the heart of what it means to be a Reform Jew.
At Kutz, we heard from Abbie Nathan, the renegade Voice of Israel radio personality, we connected to Israel through shlichim David and Miri Varon, and we were regaled with musical compositions by a Russian immigrant/former refusenick who conducted the Moscow orchestra.
Kutz Refined Jewish Leadership Skills
Smitty (Rabbi Allan Smith, UAHC Youth Division Director ) guided my development as a youth worker, PJR (Paul J. Reichenbach, now URJ director of Camping and Israel Programs ) nurtured my programming abilities, and Rabbi Ramie Arian (then NFTY Director) led me to develop the beginnings of a philosophy of youth engagement. With dear friend Elaine Zecher, we created a programming partnership that continued into our rabbinates and our work in the CCAR.
Empowered through Song
At Kutz, music spoke louder than words as we sang together under the musical leadership of Merri Arian and Jewish composer and HUC-JIR professor Benji Schiller. Successive, talented song leaders taught us the latest Jewish and Israeli tunes. I learned so many Jewish values through song, texts from Pirkei Avot, Talmud, liturgy, and Tanakh that to this day animate my moral core.
Inspired by Rabbis
At Kutz I met and connected with energetic, creative, youth-focused rabbis and rabbinic students who led me on journeys into aspects of Judaism I might not have encountered until years later. Rooted in Jewish texts and social justice values, they instilled within me a conviction that Judaism speaks to every issue – religious, social, sexual, public policy, economic and more. There I first encountered the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which years later would provide me with a life focusing internship. And more, at Kutz I learned that one day I wanted to inspire teens just like they inspired me.
Faced Teen Issues
At Kutz, guided by Social Worker Ira Schwietzer (Ducky), we face a whole array of teen issues. We wrestled with the intersection between sex and love, the need to break a friend’s confidentiality if she is contemplating suicide, and the importance of dating and marrying Jews. We talked about peer pressure, body image and relationships with parents.
Found Abiding Love
Oh, and at Kutz, my life was forever enhanced when I met my wife Michelle November, then Director of the UAHC College Department. A year later, connecting at a Youth Division conference, we agreed to go on a second date (the date which sealed our relationship).
Kutz Molded Me
Yes, the URJ Kutz Camp: NFTY Leadership Experience molded me into the Jewish leader I have become. It prepared me in many ways for this role. It pointed me toward issues in the Jewish and secular worlds that still consume my interest and time.
I have not been to Kutz for over a decade; my camping attention is focused on URJ Camp Newman where I am Dean of Faculty, and where our three kids have gained similar values and experiences.
But I will always cherish Kutz as an important center for Jewish leadership development and as the place that made me… Me.