We send our kids to camp for a variety of reasons. Of course, we send them to Camp to have fun and to have a variety of Jewish experiences that they can not get anywhere else. But sometimes something happens at Camp that has a profound impact on the campers and the staff. We had such an experience this past Shabbat.
About six months ago, Mitch Perlmeter, a 17-year old died suddenly at home. It was completely unexpected and tragic in every sense of the word. His life revolved around his family, his friends and Camp Harlam. He was a fixture here and, although I taught him in the past years, his death was felt even more profoundly by his cabin mates and his collegues here at Camp. For what was for many the first death of someone close to them, there was a need to grieve.
But how to handle such a tragedy? This was the dilemma facing the leadership of the Camp.
I must say that they handled it with sensitivity and understanding and love.
It was a profoundly moving Jewish Teachable Moment for the 500 campers and 250 staff at Shabbat services. The head of the Department of Jewish Life did a beautiful introduction to the Kaddish focusing on the impact Mitch had here at Camp. And his best friend gave a most beautiful and meaningful eulogy remembering his best friend. I must say, I have been to a lot of services at Camp in my many years but never, never did I hear a moment in a service that was so quiet that you could hear a leaf drop. The birds stopped singing and the crickets stopped chirping. It was as if the whole camp came to a stop to remember the sacredness of this moment.
Most of the kids at camp have had, thankfully, very little experience with death. While it is true that many of them have had grandparents who have died (and, perhaps, a parent) it is probably more true that most have never lost a counselor and a close friend. For this moment, the Kaddish was not a poem or a doxology or a prayer that means that lunch is a few minutes away. It was, rather, that Kaddish became real. It was a Jewish Teachable Moment that made a Jewish custom a profoundly important part of their lives.
Everyone who was at that holy space and time will remember that moment even if they did not know Mitch personally. They will remember what comfort the staff found in each other’s hugs and tears. They will remember that there is a real meaning to a Kehillah Kadosha -a holy assembly. And when you think about it, that is what Camp Harlam is really all about.
Mitch’s parents and siblings were here and they comforted and were comforted by the Camp family Mitch so loved. To know that their child made such an impact is heartwarming and to know that his legacy of love and commitment to Camp endures gives them a measure of comfort. The Camp honored their son as their son honored this Camp.
Through his tragic death, Mitch taught one final Camp lesson: Kaddish is real and community counts.