Parents and Alumni,
I’m so impressed by Sean Gooze. His is not the briefest sermon ever given by a Kawaga counselor. But, it’s certainly one of the most heartfelt, insightful, and introspective. Sean not only shares his deep connection to Kawaga and what camp means to him, but how his struggles this past year have helped him understand even more his role at camp and his place in the world.
My name is Sean Gooze and this is my 11th year at Camp Kawaga and my fourth on staff. Each summer I’ve been on staff I have been asked to give a sermon but have never accepted. Not because I was too scared of standing up here in front of you all, not because I never wanted to, and most definitely not because I didn’t have anything to say. In fact, it’s always been the opposite. Capturing the essence of this place in words is a truly daunting task. With 11 summers at camp comes hundreds of memories, lessons, and challenges, all of which crashed into my brain like a tidal wave as I began writing. Yet, as I sat in the Mess Hall late at night, questioning what exactly I had gotten myself into, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a former counselor’s sermon many years ago. Burt Chaikin likened Kawaga to a sunset, where you can do your best to describe the colors and shapes, and you can do your best to explain how the sun’s rays reflect off the water, but no matter how intricately you describe it, it will never do the sunset justice. Kawaga is this same way. As Burt explained, sometimes the best way to describe Kawaga is to just sit back and say “wow.” So with Burt’s sermon echoing in my head, I decided it was time I attempt to do the impossible.
This past year, Jonathan Levitan and I were appointed to help create and organize a Kawaga History Museum that will be installed in the summer of 2022. Every other week between February and April, we had the pleasure of speaking with a 1964 CIT, Mike Grayson, aka True Heart. In an otherwise excruciatingly boring semester of online classes sitting in my apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, the zoom conversations we had with Mike were sunshine on a very cloudy day. While we talked about many amazing and fascinating things, two moments specifically stood out to me. The stories and memories that Mike described during his time as both a camper and on staff, beginning in 1959, were unbelievably similar to my own experiences, despite more than a 50-year difference. In addition to the similarities between our times, Jonathan and I both learned something we had never heard before about the founding of Kawaga. Beginning in 1906, Bernard Echrenreich, better known as Doc E, the founder of Camp Kawaga, began his time as a Rabbi in Montgomery, Alabama. Here, he became heavily involved in the social-justice movement of the time: opposing the segregation and mistreatment of African Americans. Doc E worked with Julius Rosenwald, part-owner and leader of Sears at the time and a prominent philanthropist known best for single-handedly funding the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Doc E and Mr. Rosenwald worked to improve educational opportunities for African Americans as well as advocating for reform of the juvenile-justice system in Alabama. In such trying times, Doc E would take groups of boys on camping trips to help clear their minds, distract them from their troubles, and to help provoke a sense of awe in the Great Out Doors. It was these camping trips and as such, the immense effect camping had on the boys, that inspired Doc E and his wife Irma to purchase 137-acres of land on a peninsula in Lake Kawaguesaga, which would one day become Camp Kawaga. Fast forward 96 years and for the first time in my life, with my father right next to me, I jumped into this same lake. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this moment would change my life forever.
In 2011, I did not make it across the bay. It was Father-Son Weekend; my father was swimming next to me and a counselor was swimming in front of me. The water was cold, the sky was gray, and I was scared. It was more than 10 years ago, but I remember the fear vividly. Just four weeks later, and my second time in the lake, I swam across the bay with my Big Brother, Jason Bittker. In 2012, I began jumping in the lake first thing every morning, or as we like to call it at camp, Polar Pears. I did not do this by choice but for Mawanda and Sachem points. Like most campers, I did not enjoy jumping into the lake every morning and would never have done it if it weren’t for points. Some six years later, and about halfway through my CIT year, I began to notice just how much more awake and alive I would feel after submerging myself in Kawaguesaga’s waters. After years of dreading the walk down to the waterfront, I suddenly began to want to do it. I started to enjoy the feeling of the warm morning sun on my face as I exited my cabin. I started to enjoy the feeling of the cold wet grass on my feet as I walked down the hill onto D1. And above all else, each and every morning I began to look forward to the tiny test of willpower it would take for me to leave my feet, lunge forward, and dive into the calm lake. Since my CIT summer, my desire to feel the chilled water wrap its way around me as I enter the lake has only grown. I feel no greater peace in this world than in the singular second it takes my body to fully emerge into the water. I see and I hear nothing. Nothing matters and I am in complete bliss. Every morning, as I swim back to the surface and my head slowly rises from the water, I feel nothing but happiness. I pull myself out of the water, feel the water sliding back down my body, and can’t help but smile. I feel extremely present, grateful to be here, in this place, at this moment. This second of complete emptiness, the second my head enters the water truly makes me feel like my soul is absorbing just a little bit of the essence of this wonderful place.
Like many of you I am sure, the pandemic took a serious toll on my mental health. Between small bouts of depression and feelings of loneliness, I struggled. I really struggled. But unlike many out there, I was fortunate enough to have Kawaga there for me. On my worst days, I woke up and craved the cold lake. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is surrounded by three beautiful lakes. And while Lake Mendota, the northernmost lake from Madison, is no Kawaguesaga, its waters have had the same effect on me. Every morning in Madison I would wake up, put on my bathing suit, and make my way to the dock with a towel in hand. My final Polar Bear of the year was on October 3rd. When the lake would become a little too cold, or frozen, a cold shower while listening to morning PA songs such as “The General” or “Atlantic City” would suffice. Even without physically being at Kawaga, I did my best to capture the essence of this place through my morning routine. Polar Bears have ultimately become the way for me to live my best life, to start the day with a victory. To tell that water which I once feared so much that I now embrace you. But what I did not realize until this past year was the amazing ability of a Polar Bear to help me tackle my own personal challenges and adversities. The simple action of jumping into a lake acted as a coping mechanism, a way for me to clear my mind, be present, and be grateful. While Polar Bears were not a factor in my college decision-making process, I can’t help but feel like it might’ve been destiny that I ended up at the school surrounded by three lakes.
As a former head of the “Books” (the group of counselors who control and manage how Mawanda and Sachem can be earned), I have begun to understand firsthand why we incentivize certain activities around camp. Points can be earned for jumping in the lake every morning, skiing around the bay, pushing your limits, competing, or even creating something new such as an art project. As counselors, we push our kids to these new and often uncomfortable areas in the hopes that they’ll grasp onto these feelings at camp. And then they’ll take those feelings, and the tools needed to achieve these feelings, home with them. Our campers will learn how to problem-solve, how to address their feelings, and most importantly, learn how to be confident in who they are.
This I believe was Doc E’s purpose for Kawaga, and he saw it in the children he first took camping back in 1907. Kawaga was founded on principles of social service, and more specifically, how to give young boys the necessary tools to be good, confident people in the world. In speaking to the foundation of our beloved camp, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Kawaga Ideal. I hold no words in a higher regard than those written in our Ideal, but as I’ve dived deeper into their meaning, I can’t help but feel that our sacred text is often misunderstood. The Kawaga Ideal lists numerous profound character traits such as empathy, humility, conscientiousness, introspection, self-awareness, and many many more. Throughout my entire life, “living the Ideal” has always meant that you should be doing your best to encapsulate these qualities in your person during your own life. Yet I realized that this is never explicitly stated in the Ideal. The Ideal begins with “Build me a son, lord, who…” and then proceeds to list the esteemed traits. The qualities listed are never intended to be for you. They are for your son, the person you love most in the world. These are character traits that you wish upon your son. That you must teach and give to your child. And while the ideal does not explicitly describe you acting on these powerful attributes, this does not mean it doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t do your best to live by them. Because as all counselors know, there is no better way to teach others than to lead by example. While writing this sermon, I have come to the conclusion that the Ideal actually suggests that possessing these revered characteristics means very little if you don’t have the means to give them to others. I’m sharing my story today because this resonates for me. Doc E, Polar Bears, the Ideal. Kawaga has helped shape who I am in this world and more importantly, Kawaga encourages me to pay it forward.
I would like to conclude this sermon with one of my favorite quotes; “Your greatness is not what you have but what you give.” And as a counselor, my job is to give. Give instruction. Give my campers a push when they need it. Give a sense of awe for the Great Out Doors. Give feelings of joy and confidence. Give someone else the same feeling I have when I jump into our beautiful lake. Kawaga was built on this concept of providing for others. Your greatness at this incredible place is determined by nothing else but how much you give. And when you give all that you possibly can, you can dare in the recesses of your own heart to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”