Assistant director Aaron Levine is dedicated to creating Jewish connections for generations.
Featured photo courtesy of Camp Young Judaea
From the moment I set foot on camp, I have been supported by a learning environment that meets me where I am and challenges me to grow,” says Aaron Levine as he enters the Camp Young Judaea (CYJ) Midwest office for his first day as an assistant director.
CYJ Midwest’s community, Levine says, “played a central role in the development of my Jewish identity and has surrounded me with role models who moonlight as lifelong friends.”
Levine grew up in West Bloomfield and was first connected to CYJ in high school; however, his most prominent experiences were spending many summers in staff roles as a counselor, unit head and program director. His time working at camp, along with a gap year in Israel on Young Judaea’s Year Course, solidified his connection to Judaism and a personal relationship to the land of Israel.
Summer 2020 marks a special time for Camp Young Judaea Midwest, which will be celebrating 50 years of fantastic memories this spring. Many of those memories have their roots in Michigan, as CYJ “lived” in Chelsea, South Haven and Ortonville before finding its permanent home in Waupaca, Wisc., in 1989.
Camp Young Judaea Midwest is located on an 80-acre lakefront property in Central Wisconsin. In addition to Jewish connection, CYJ offers a wide variety of activities including waterskiing and tubing, archery, arts and crafts, horseback riding, camping trips, mountain biking, dance, a makers’ lab, sailing and boating, a high and low ropes course and much more.
Throughout CYJ’s 50 summers, thousands of campers and staff like Levine, have built a family with their CYJ friends. Much like the campers, who come from all over the Midwest, throughout the United States, from France, Israel and Mexico, you can find the CYJ Midwest legacy all over the world. From the Israeli you worked with 25 years ago whose family now lives in the United States, to a bunkmate from your first summer whom you reconnected with at your local synagogue, all these connections will be rekindled on Sunday, May 24, at the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Chicago.
Being part of CYJ’s Jewish community is an eye-opening experience for many campers and staff. Its pluralistic approach to Judaism allows for participants to meet others from all kinds of backgrounds. CYJ’s families range from those who are the only Jewish person in their grade at school to students at Jewish day schools. CYJ has campers who come from small, medium and large Jewish communities, all different types of temples, synagogues and shuls, and who celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays completely differently.
CYJ has created a safe space for campers and staff to learn from each other. It facilitates the opportunities to ask questions, try new traditions and build friendships with other Jewish campers from all walks of life. CYJ can create a large impact on each person that, in turn, creates the potential for each person to make a small impact on the larger Jewish community.
As one parent shared, “Our son loved his experience at camp. We were glad for him to experience Jewish life outside of school and home and to experience more of a [traditional] Shabbat experience as we do not consistently celebrate in our interfaith home.”
Creating a personal connection to Israel is a strong aspect of Camp Young Judaea Midwest’s values. When Julie Ruskin Ohana of West Bloomfield, board member, CYJ alum and director of community engagement at Frankel Jewish Academy, began planning her trip to Israel with her family, she contacted the CYJ office. Without telling her daughter Avital, she connected with Avital’s 2018 Israeli counselor, Neta, and set up a special meeting. Watching Avital’s smile spread across her entire face when she saw Neta was exactly the reaction Ruskin Ohana was seeking. She saw in that moment that the community that had welcomed her had proven just as powerful for her own child.
When CYJ asks current and former campers to describe camp in one sentence, it is often a variation of “CYJ is a family.” The intimate nature of 120 campers per session offers each person the chance to grow as an individual while learning to be part of a group and larger community. A first-time parent from 2019 shared this story with us:
“The camp made [our daughter] feel like she fit in, something she does not feel at school, and really developed her self-confidence … she built strong, nurturing relationships with the counselors. Her sense of empathy flourished at camp. She wrote us a letter where she described how great one staff person was and how she excelled in her role as moderator of the talent show. She was worried the staff member did not know ‘how awesome’ she is. It was a beautiful display of caring, and I tribute the camp with that.”
CYJ is a place for each person to grow and learn as an individual, as a Jew and as part of a larger community that’s like family.
For more about Camp Young Judaea Midwest or the May 24 reunion, contact Robin Anderson, director, at (224) 235-4665, email@example.com or cyjmid.org.