Imagine a group of Jewish teens from Israel and New York joining a diverse group of Savannah teens to run a camp that celebrates multiculturalism for children in Savannah who otherwise would not be able to attend camp. This is Camp Lighthouse.
This program has been running for nearly fifteen years. An outgrowth of Yolanda Negron's work to nourish our most vulnerable children through the Martin De Porres Society, she opened a center that fed children after school each day in partnership with Second Harvest and the Social Work program at Savannah State University. Around the same time, a group of American Jewish teens were looking to do service work for their Tikkun Olam summer program. Larry Dane Kellogg, a social worker at the JEA connected the Jewish group with Yolanda who decided with Gail Brown, a school counselor, to open a week-long camp for these children. Camp Lighthouse was born.
The Jewish teens, under the leadership of Marty Maskowitz of the 92nd Street Y in New York City partnered with an Israeli group, directed by Nitzan Aviv, to develop a program called Chavaya whose key values are leadership, Jewish peoplehood, tradition, and Tikkun Olam. The group spends one week in Israel, one week in New York, and culminates with the service part of the trip in Savannah. Each year the Chavaya teens affirm that Camp Lighthouse is the most meaningful part of the program.
Last year, the teen-leaders of the Chatham County Youth Commission, directed by Alderman Van Johnson, solidified the Savannah side of the teen partnership. The summer before their first year of serving on the Youth Commission, these young leaders must demonstrate responsibility, communication, collaboration, and kindness through their leadership roles in the camp. Looking to the future, Alderman Johnson is interested in bringing the Savannah teens to Israel to learn from another diverse society.
Gail Brown who directs the camp, conceptualized this experience as a celebration of multiculturalism, pluralism, and interfaith dialogue whose precious bonds bridge the gulfs of ignorance, fear, and indifference. This creates a safe environment in which the children feel special and loved. A Caucasian Israeli playing with an African-American child, each one briefly removed from the front-line of an entrenched societal conflict, is a symbolic connection that transcends and anchors the significance of the individual relationship. It transforms the historical fear and mistrust that defines our interactions in specific cultural settings into a relationship of innocence and protection.
Three summers ago, Camp Lighthouse invited me to facilitate an inter-faith/inter-ethnic/inter-racial/inter-national dialogue among the teen leaders. The Americans explained to the Israelis about racial violence on our streets in America in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The American Jews and Israelis shared their experience of traveling through Israel in the midst of a war. A Muslim teen denounced all violence and expressed his hope coming out of his Muslim faith that all people will recognize one another as God's children. The Israelis reflected upon the existential obligation of all eighteen-year-old youth serving in the army to defend their land. Each religious group -- Muslim, Jewish and Christian -- had faith leaders and students present how their respective faith traditions approached God through prayer. This orientation introduced the vision of love, inclusivity, and justice to the teen leaders that they developed among themselves and for the campers during the week of camp. This is holy work.
"You shall be a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 49:6). In its original context, God is instructing the prophet Isaiah that his role is not just to guide the people of Israel back from exile in Babylonia into a relationship with God in their homeland, but these actions will cause people throughout the world to know God through God's saving power. In Judaism, this phrase is applied broadly so that we should serve as a light unto the nations by living a good Jewish life that brings healing comfort and justice to the larger world.
I believe this Divine light shines brightest when righteous people from all faiths, lands, and cultures come together, recognizing this light in others and within ourselves. Camp Lighthouse and all of the amazing leaders and children who have participated in it have fulfilled the role of being a light to the nations. This camp is a new light that is shining on Savannah and has the power to shine forth in every community throughout America. Let us seek ways to strengthen this light and its spirit in our lives.