Reflections From The Shores | Ben Gerstein’s Visiting Weekend Sermon

Dear Kawaga Family,

As you might know, it’s an honor to be asked to give the Saturday-morning sermon. And, it’s a special honor to do so at Visitors Weekend.

So, I hope you enjoy and are touched by the words of Ben Gerstein, who’s spending his fourth year on staff after enjoying eight years as a camper. Ben is also the Student Body President at the University of Michigan, and is enrolled in the Ford School of Public Policy.

As Lauren wrote to you all in her “Letter,” this is the Kawaga way – campers becoming counselors and leaders, who strive to pass on our traditions and values to our current campers.

Be Kawaga,

Shabbat Shalom,

For those who do not know me—my name is Ben Gerstein. This is my 12th year at camp and my fourth on staff.

When Ty asked me to speak about my personal experience at Kawaga, I—as everyone who delivers this sermon each year puts it—was faced with the daunting task of translating into words the impact Kawaga has had on my life. I could list off countless unforgettable moments, specific lessons learned, and a lifetime of memories made on these grounds every summer. Yet, the most poignant and priceless gift Kawaga has given me is simply the ability to understand myself, set goals, discover my passions, and develop into an active and engaged member of my community. Kawaga blessed, and continues to bless me, with the opportunity to grow into a better person each summer.

An essential way to understand the mission of this camp is the notion that great men are not born naturally—they evolve from an environment that challenges them to be the best and most genuine version of themselves.

Like any camp, Kawaga provides its campers with unforgettable summers abundant with activities and programs that are unlike anything we ever encounter in our everyday lives. Camp fosters friendships that last lifetimes, formulates bonds that exist regardless of age differences, and pulls together a true and everlasting appreciation of the natural world. However, what separates Kawaga from any other camp of similar nature is our deep-rooted dedication to the construction of character… as Doc E once put it: “The underlying ideal of Camp Kawaga is character building. Fun yes, but always with the thought in mind of its final effect on the boy.” Kawaga does not simply teach personal development—it orchestrates it. Kawaga continues to build a holistic structure of growth that is elevated summer-to-summer.

As a 20-year old entering my junior year in college, I am consistently asked about what I still receive from my summers at camp. Often times, people understand my returns to Kawaga each summer as a break from the real world: a place of utter escape from school, extra-curricular involvements, technology, etc. While this does ring true, the reality lived at Kawaga is that the greatest and most significant work of my life occurs on these shores.

During this service, you all heard “The Bridge Builder,” a passage about an old man whose purpose in life is to build a bridge for those who will follow in his path. There could not be a more accurate description for the work we do at Kawaga. We regularly work to improve ourselves and simultaneously lay the foundation of growth for those to follow. We look to the future, never forget the past, and embrace the educational and personal significance of the present. Every breath of time spent here—whether you are a camper or a staff-man—is focused on one goal: self-betterment.

Our daily activities teach us how to approach each succeeding day with newfound energy. Our evening programs are evidence of a learned desire to never be content with repetition and to always search for ways to inject excitement and change into our lives. Our competition teaches balance—weighing competitiveness with respect and humility, working to find patience with ourselves and those around us. Our cabin inspection each morning teaches us responsibility. Thinking beyond the notion that cleaning a cabin is a simple and mundane task, inspection forces us to recognize the role we each play in a task that benefits more than just ourselves.

Our camping trips display the power in overcoming adversity—a constant striving to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and shed our vulnerability that is inherent with the unfamiliar. Our honorary achievements, Mawanda and Sachem, reveal the importance of goal setting, vast involvement, and the vitality of determination. And our weekly gatherings as an age group or an entire camp each Sunday present us with the undeniable need for self-reflection.

The mere journey of progressing through Kawaga contributes to this growth as well.

As Chips, we unerringly strive towards manhood. In our year as a Sioux, we stand ready, one amongst the rest, to make our lives worthwhile. As we transition into Mohawks—the oncoming leaders of camp—we are strong in purpose and integrity. As we complete our time as campers as Oneidas, we fashion our lives after the sturdy pines; we are straightforward in body, strong in heart, and clean in mind. And as staff members, our role in this ladder of growth allows for us to recognize that we have not lived in vain.

If you are to take anything from these words, let it be that the experience of Kawaga is grounded in something far more than a summer of entertainment and fun. To quote Doc E again, “Our thought during all that time [your eight weeks] is your future years when you will take your place in the communities where you will live… Your future, your growth, your development is what we are interested in mainly. We hope that the lessons you have learned here will go with you… on all your way.”

Thank you, Kawaga, for giving me the platform to grow, the space to transform, and building me into the person I am today. Nothing brings me more joy and hope than watching the new generation of campers prosper from the same experience as they grasp the importance Kawaga will hold in their lives to come.

Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.