by Joe Blachman
Panorama City, California, USA
In the summer of 1983, I worked at a camp near Lake Arrowhead in Southern California. This was the last summer of my college years and would likely be the last I could afford to spend at a camp. At 22, I was among the more senior staffers in age. The camp director, Norman, was not only my boss that summer, but had been director at a camp I attended as a child.
In 1982, when we met after many years, Norman was recruiting for positions of counselor, unit head, specialist, and a maintenance crew. Norman’s goal was to put an all-Jewish staff in place for this Jewish summer camp. Never before had the camp’s entire maintenance crew been Jewish. I had the skills needed, and gladly accepted his offer.
I proudly served as a camp maintenance man in 1982 and 1983. As staff members, we were encouraged to participate in activities for the kids. In 1983, Norman went one step farther. The night before the first session of the summer, Norman challenged each of us to “touch a life.” He said that if each of us could walk away from the summer having touched the life of just one child, we should consider the entire summer a success.
As a maintenance man, I faced a challenge. How could I touch a life by hauling trash, setting up a room, or plunging a toilet? The call to action was clear, but how could I make it happen within the confines of my job?
One day after lunch, one of the kids sat down next to me and asked, “Are you really Jewish?” I told Roger that I was indeed Jewish. He asked how I knew how to fix and build things. He asked how I learned painting, electrical, and plumbing. In his frame of reference, an affluent Jewish family in Southern California, he had never encountered Jewish manual laborers. I told him about shop classes in high school, about training and working at a different Jewish camp. I told him how I had worked on a kibbutz in Israel for five months as the facility manager’s assistant.
Norman must have hoped this type of interaction would take place. It was indeed an important lesson to demonstrate to the kids: that *everyone* can learn to work with their hands and body. And that no task should be thought of as being “below” us, not even collecting the trash.
I knew from that moment that I had definitely “touched a life” and that I did so every day that the kids saw me working around them. I retain that concept to this day and use it when faced with ethical challenges. I ask myself, “What example would each choice set for children?” What I didn’t realize until later was that Norman touched MY life that summer with his challenge, and I’m a better person for the experience.