Aaron Skahill was raised in coastal Swampscott, MA where he first developed a deep love of dogs, nature, and Boston sports. He also attended Jewish day school and Jewish summer day camps throughout his years in Massachusetts. There the seed was planted that being a part of a Jewish community, especially going to camp, was awesome.
At age 10, in 2004, Aaron moved with his family to Memphis. Aaron embraced his new hometown and made lifelong friendships from his time in Jewish Day and public schools. But his love of exploration and nature collided when he began attending sleepaway camp at Camp Sabra in the Ozarks where he later served as a camp counselor. The experiences at Camp Sabra were a core part of cementing Aaron’s love of all things nature, especially the water, as well as enhancing his connection to the Jewish community around him. This love of community and Jewish values encouraged Aaron to spend time living in Israel, first on a gap year program and then on his own in his early 20s. While living at kibbutz Magen Michel north of Tel Aviv, Aaron took up scuba diving and was immediately hooked. This proved to be one of the most important undertakings in Aaron’s life as he later would go on to continue diving, even after and during treatments for gastroesophageal cancer, which ultimately caused his death at age 28 in 2022. Along with his twin brother Sam, he was able to log 81 dives in total. As he continued diving, Aaron refined his skill as an underwater life photographer, capturing images of sea life from Hawaii to Central America to the Caribbean.
Aaron loved his family, especially his twin brother Sam, the great outdoors on land and under the water, and also, particularly, his dog and sidekick, Flama. She was by his side, always in his thoughts while he traveled, well-loved by all who met her and his constant source of fun, comfort, joy, and healing throughout his final years. Fittingly, Flama loves the water and Aaron spent many hours with her as she would plunge into the Overton Park pond or inlets near his home in Massachusetts when he was a young adult.
Aaron never saw himself as the inspirational type, but trailblazers rarely do. He lived the example of an active, adventurous life despite tremendous setbacks, inspiring the hashtag from his stomach cancer community #LiveLikeAaron.
“He leaves a legacy of open arms – for people, places, and of course, dogs.”
Aaron was lucky enough to attend Jewish camp because donors made it possible. It was his great wish to help others have the same opportunities he did and hoped to make that possible through the establishment of the fund. Summer sleepaway camp is the beginning of independence for many children and enables them to find their own passions in the safety of caring mentors and the beauty of the natural world all around them. His hope is that others will be moved to contribute to this fund for the future adventurers out there!
Through your donations to our Annual Community Campaign, Memphis Jewish Federation provides scholarships and other support to Jewish summer camps, Jewish schools, and MJCC’s day camp for hundreds of young Jewish Memphians each year, connecting our next generation to meaningful Jewish experiences that shape their future.
Aaron is our summer marketing intern. Learn more about him here, and enjoy his Polaroids featuring his and his fellow counselors’ summer camp shenanigans, published in this piece.
In the summer of 2009, my parents finally caved and let me go to sleepaway camp for the first time. I was eleven years old, and I was in awe of everything around me. I have spent at least part of every single summer since then at camp, as a camper until I was 16, then as a CIT, and as a counselor in later years.
I could not have understood at eleven years old how important camp was going to become for me or the reasons that it would become so important in the first place, but over the course of the past ten years I have begun to understand.
When approaching the topic of summer camp, it is easy to think of long-lost twins or slasher films, and be done with it. When looking at the public perception of summer camp, this is understandable. When this is your starting point it is easy to see why the next logical question would be, “What’s the point of this? Why do we keep doing this?”
The Jewish summer camp experience is recreated and improved every year with no small amount of effort expended. With a growing southern Jewish community it only follows that the growing number of Jewish youth need a growing and developing community to keep themselves plugged into.
Growing up in Memphis, TN, it was easy for me to completely gloss over the fact that many southern cities in America do not have such an abundant Jewish community as Memphis. Whereas Memphis has enough synagogues that it is easy to accidentally forget one off the top of your head, there are many smaller towns and cities nearby with only a single synagogue or none at all.
When the children from these single-synagogue towns arrive at camp for the first time there is every possibility that they are walking into the largest Jewish community that they have ever had the chance to be a part of. All of the sudden, the camp has become more than a camp. It is a petri dish that just so happens to be shaping the region’s Jewish community for the next few decades.
Seen this way, these summer programs become much more crucial in a sense. How do we impress the values of our community upon campers and share the knowledge that is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next before the session is over?
The knowledge that staff at Jewish summer camps have the power and responsibility to shape the minds of younger generations results in two main conclusions:
All of the sudden, the Jewish education and community that these staff members had access to as children becomes very relevant and can become evident through their work ethic and skill sets as a Jewish camp counselor.
The work ethic and quality of the current counselors are going to directly affect the work ethic and quality of the future counselors, who are often the very campers that the current counselors are supervising. (L’dor vador)
With so much potential and responsibility resting on the shoulders of – let’s face it – camp directors and their loyal armies of college-aged counselors, what are the winning results that we are hoping for? Are we hoping that for every camper that comes through a Jewish summer camp there is another Jewish young adult who will begin attending Shabbat services every Saturday morning? Are we trying to ensure that future Jewish community members will speak fluent Hebrew? Or are we trying to ensure the existence of our future Jewish community?
Maybe it’s all of these or maybe it’s only a handful of these reasons for any given camper who finds themselves at camp.
When you walk into a Jewish summer camp, the sense of community can be overwhelming. The sense of community may even overlap and confuse your understanding of the differences between community and family. With such sparse and remote Jewish populations spread so widely around the South, it becomes more important than ever that the communities that are developed and grown in this area be maintained and nurtured.
The campers arriving through the gates during the summer of 2019 definitely look, talk, and act a lot differently from the campers who arrived at camp during the summer of 1970. However, this is not the only change; camp itself has developed and grown, as well as its staff members. It is the responsibility of camp to maintain this steady growth in order to provide campers with a modern framework of Judaism for them to see themselves inside of and begin to live within.
It is for this reason that even the educational content presented by these camps has changed quite a bit. During recent summers, many Jewish summer camps have shifted focus towards the many aspects of social justice and social action.
Jewish topics of conversation can include the conflicts occuring in Israel, the growing LGBTQIA+ populations within Jewish youth, gun control, the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in younger and younger social circles, environmental issues, etc.
Kids taking a break from cell phones and technology for the sake of participating in camp are unable to completely erase their knowledge of the outside world; instead, they are able to use their social and societal context to participate in the programming developed by camp staff members. They are taught to form their own opinions and participate in discussions about topics that many adults might be nervous to breach with them in a more formal setting.
The community that is grown at camp is taught to take care of itself. Campers learn to talk with each other, live with each other, love each other, and take care of each other. In the process, they are given the opportunity to learn about the Torah, to meet Israeli staff members who bring the beauty of Israel to camp with them, to look at the normal summer activities they are a part of through a Jewish lens, and to meet new people their age who are going through the same experiences.
Aaron Salomon, 20, is a rising Junior at the University of Alabama. He is a Creative Advertising major in the College of Communications. This summer he is interning at Jewish Community Partners, contribution articles for the JCPConnect blog. He spends most of his free time reading, drawing, and listening to music. He’s a certified lifeguard, his favorite color is blue, and he’s read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 32 times.
I have witnessed Jewish magic. The kind of magic where children, teens, and young adults stand together, arms around each other and eyes closed, singing in Hebrew as the sun sets over a lake in front of them. The kind of magic where our children are so happy and proud to be Jewish that they cannot imagine another path in life for themselves, and they already know their own kids will share this same path.
Jewish sleepaway camp has transformed the lives of thousands of Jewish children and young adults, including mine. As a kid, I counted down the days until camp, literally bouncing in the seat of our family’s minivan as we pulled up to the gates of the URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas. As a young adult counselor, I learned valuable leadership skills and explored my Judaism in a safe environment. Now, as a visiting faculty member, I see firsthand how camp gives kids confidence, independence, and a strong Jewish foundation in a joyful, fun environment.
“My summers spent at Camp Sabra not only gave me independence, leadership skills, and confidence, but they instilled in me the need and importance of being an active member in my Jewish community and having a Jewish home,” said Jill Shanker, a long time camper, staff member, and camp parent.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp shares the vision that “summers at Jewish overnight camp turn Jewish youth into spirited and engaged Jewish adults, laying the groundwork for strong Jewish communities.”
Yet if you ask nearly every child who has attended a Jewish summer camp, all they talk about is how much fun they have, the friends they make, and unique adventures and experiences that never seem to happen at home. Judaism is simply woven into camp life, and that is where the magic happens.
Jill’s daughter Sydney Shanker, who is entering her fifth summer at Camp Sabra, said that camp is so great because of “making friends from other cities, tubing, zip lining, singing in the dining hall and swimming in the lake. I’m around Jewish people who are more like me and that makes me feel more comfortable with myself and who I am.”
“Nothing I do to build Jewish life, Jewish education, or the Jewish community is more important than getting more kids to Jewish camps,” said Professor Arnold Eisen, a scholar of American Judaism and the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “For once in these kids’ lives, Jewishness is not something they are or do off to the side of life, in Hebrew school or synagogue. It is not a subject for debate but simply there, taken for granted, a part of what happens 24/7.”
Every year, my brother, sister, and I would write letters to our local Jewish community in Texas to request scholarships for camp. To this day, I am so grateful for the opportunity that the donors in my community provided so that I could attend Jewish overnight camp. It has inspired me to keep giving to the Jewish community, both personally and professionally.
The Memphis Jewish Federation provides scholarships for Jewish summer camps through the generosity of our campaign donors. Through these scholarships, our children learn, grow, and come back excited and inspired about their Judaism.
Together, our Memphis Jewish community can ensure that every child has the opportunity to transform his or her life through the magic of Jewish summer camp.