By Devorah Stavisky, URJ Kutz Camp Gibush staff
You’ve probably read the dozens of testimonies about how Kutz Camp turned alumni into better community members, leaders, friends, and Jews. The most beautiful part of Kutz in my eyes– frustratingly overlooked by many in their mournings over camp’s closing — is its long-standing inclusion program for teens on the Autism Spectrum: The Gibush Program. Gibush was a unique program that weaved the active inclusion of teens on the Autism Spectrum into every part of camp life. It wasn’t about creating programs for teens unable to participate in ‘regular’ programming, instead Gibush worked to make Kutz’ programs more accessible to all teens. Thanks to the Gibush program and the staff who prioritized accessibility, actions truly combined with intent to create a kehillah kedoshah (holy community) for our teens of all abilities.
I was a very shy rising sophomore when I first participated in Gibush, then called Mitzvah Corps, in the summer of 2012. At the time, I dabbled in online activist spaces but lacked a full understanding of social issues. Thanks to Mitzvah Corps, I finally spent quality time with the people I had previously cared about in the abstract alone. Together, we made paper-flower bouquets, braided challah, petted zoo animals, argued over who won that last round of connect four, and visited New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image. In the class-based portion of the major, I learned from now-Rabbi Leah Citrin about how to better solve social issues from a humble, policy-based standpoint that prioritizes the people activists work with over the changemakers themselves. Peers at Kutz led me to further question the norms I had previously learned as I began to understand my agency in making the world a better place.
I’ve often heard people say that they’re their happiest, best selves at camp. I am, too. When I’m back home and no longer surrounded by the passion of Kutz’s participants and staff, I often process crises in isolation instead of with community (see, for example, how this blog post was due four months ago). But time and time again, former NFTY leaders pull me back into community when they lead by example. In a turbulent America, NFTY alumni fearlessly protest for Gun Violence Prevention, organize support for Standing Rock, travel to marches for racial justice, hold Israel accountable for its occupation of Palestinian land, stand up for queer justice, and register thousands of people to vote, just to name a few.
Like every organization, though, Kutz wasn’t perfect. It had its in-groups and out-groups; as human as everyone else, campers and staff sometimes acted contrary to the values of Melissa Frey’s guidelines to live by (the famous Ha Sefer Boo). But Kutz is also where the Autistic teen I hung out with last summer played tennis with a group of neurotypical teens who always gave him high fives when he passed them by. Kutz is where Jewish rockstars knew Gibush teens by name, and where one teen performed on stage at a Dan Nichols’ concert and anther recorded his own music in camp’s recording studio. Kutz is where five Gibush graduates worked on staff alongside neurotypical staff members and where one teen bonded so well with the girls in her cabin, that she slept there every night after the first week of camp. And Kutz is where the Gibush counselors bonded over late nights and 7:30 AM meetings and lunches that were beyond overwhelming while laughing the whole way through the summer.
On the eve of opening day 2018, the eight Gibush counselors and our operations director came together to record a video about camp. We filmed a spoof of ‘Where You Are’ from the Moana soundtrack. You can find happiness right here at Kutz/where you are, the chorus sang.
The Gibush counselors and our fifteen teens found happiness at Kutz. We found action. We found a truly holy community that, as perfect and imperfect as any community, dedicated each day to its participants and worked to create generations of new leaders. I am deeply grateful for the love of Kutz’s participants, staff, directors, and donors, like the recently late Marshall Warshauer, who made a community built on inclusion a reality for Kutz.
The good news is that Kutz is not an island isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. Kutz is part of an archipelago of Jewish programming aimed at creating inclusive future leaders. As I balance my disappointment in the decision to close camp with excitement about Kutz’s last summer and the desire to recreate holy communities, I turn back to the knowledge we can find happiness where we are with the right actions. And the actions of our regional boards, who passed legislation to form an advisory board of teens to whom the URJ senior staff can turn, of the hundreds of alumna who speak out in defense of Kutz’s importance, of the former leaders who continue to organize in troubling political times for what’s just, of the teens signing up for Kutz to learn from generations of Jewish leaders who came before them, of the attempts to find former Gibush teens new, just-as-welcoming summer homes, proves that we’re on the right track.
This summer, I’ll be working at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, with two of our previous Gibush teens to help bring some of Kutz to the rest of the URJ. This summer, the staff of the URJ Kutz camp will open the gates of 46 Bowen Road for our newest leaders of the Reform movement. Even if down the line, Kutz is no longer the physical home of the Jewish movement, when I think of tomorrow, there we are: working to create kehillah kedoshah hand-in-hand wherever we go. Whether you have the honor of going to Kutz this summer or are creating holy community outside of Warwick, NY, how will you recreate Kutz where you are?