Anyone who is involved in Orthodox Jewish camping knows how meaningful a summer can be to campers and staff alike.
However, I don’t think that I ever heard this truth expressed as beautifully as when I paid a shivah visit to the family of Yisroel Levin a”h. When I mentioned to Yisroel’s choshuve mother that I knew Yisroel from our summers at Camp Agudah, she left the room and returned with a small notebook that she found in Yisroel’s room during the shivah. It was a sort of diary, and in it, Yisroel compared the ten months of yeshivah to the six days of the week, for they are ten months of ameilus, spiritual toil, during which a ben Torah strives to grow in limud haTorah and other areas of ruchniyus. The weeks of summer camp, Yisroel wrote, is like the day of Shabbos, when one has an opportunity to recharge his spiritual batteries so that, in his words, he can return to yeshivah during Elul “on fire.”
He wrote of the wonderful ruach in Camp Agudah, of the opportunity to be in the proximity of gedolim such as Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l. And he wrote so movingly of how wonderful it was to be a counselor and have a positive influence on his campers. He wrote of the opportunity that camp afforded him to inspire others.
Yisroel was a great inspiration to young and old alike. He inspired with his ever-present smile, a reflection of his simchas hachayim. He inspired with his beautiful personality, his combination of depth and fun-loving nature. He inspired by the way he davened.
I often daven Maariv in camp with the “Senior League” camper minyan. Often, on my way out of shul, after the last Kaddish and a few announcements, I would pass by Yisroel, who was still intensely involved in his Shemoneh Esrei. It was a picture of someone who truly felt that he was standing lifnei Hashem.
There was one area of camp that Yisroel did not mention in his diary, an area in which he excelled and through which he inspired hundreds of campers and staff members.
He was an outstanding actor on the Camp Agudah stage.
Each summer, during “OAR” (Orange and Red — first-trip Color War), the competition concludes with each team presenting a play related to their theme. Each summer, I would sit in the audience along with my partners in camp’s major play productions, Rabbi Mosey Kaplan (brother of Elisheva a”h) and Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman, and scout the young staff talent. During the summer of 2014, I watched Yisroel perform in his team’s play and could not help but be impressed. He was a great actor, plain and simple. He was very comfortable on stage, very articulate and very passionate when that was what the part called for.
We definitely had to use him.
That summer, on the last night of camp, he played the part of a secular teacher in a French school. He surprised me when, on stage, he used a French accent (which he did not use in rehearsals)! I thought that the accent was quite good, but Yisroel later told me that he was not happy with the way it came out.
During the summers that followed, we made good use of Yisroel’s talents on stage and he never disappointed us. And I discovered that as good as he was at acting, Yisroel was even better as his own, natural self.
Unfortunately, my schedule in camp does not allow me to get to know many of our wonderful counselors, but I do get to know those who take part in our productions. Yisroel was a true pleasure to work with. Camp is a very busy place and it is often hard to get everyone together for a rehearsal. Yisroel was very reliable. I always knew that he would be at rehearsal on time, and if something unforeseen had come up, he would let me know in advance. At rehearsal, he was intent on getting the part just right and was always open to suggestions as to how he could improve his performance. And his pleasantness and geshmak made working with him a true joy.
This past summer, our first play was entitled “On the Stage of Life.” It centered around a hospital and a cruel department head who would end the lives of elderly patients, ostensibly in the name of scientific research. (Later in the play it would become revealed that this doctor was actually involved in a scheme to sell human organs for profit.) The lead role would be a young, modern Jewish doctor who upon joining this department was at first convinced by the department head that his approach toward the elderly was correct and admirable. However, through a sequence of Hashgacha Pratis, the young doctor was taught the Torah perspective on the sanctity of life, every moment of it, even that of a bedridden, terminally ill individual. He then waged an all-out war against the department head, saving lives and ultimately, ending the rasha’s career.
A song entitled “You’re Alive” was written for this play (with a new tune composed by camp’s Rabbi Yitzy Bald). The chorus was:
Every breath of life is a gift from Hashem
It’s up to us to make the most of them
If you’re well and strong, do mitzvos all day long
If you’re weak, confined, think good thoughts in your mind
Yes — it’s not too late to strive
Just be thankful you’re alive
Yes, be grateful you’re alive — you’re alive.
At the start of the summer, when our production team met to discuss the play and cast the parts, there was no question as to who should play the lead role of the young doctor. Yisroel Levin would be just perfect. He was.
Boruch Hashem, the play had a tremendous impact on the hundreds of campers and staff who viewed it. This had much to do with Yisroel’s outstanding performance. He came across as very sincere and passionate, and was extremely articulate. At the end of the night, everyone knew that life, every moment of it, is a gift that is not to be squandered.
As we heard at the levayah and at both shivah houses, both Yisroel and his kallah, Elisheva Kaplan, understood the value of life. Each one was a walking kiddush Hashem. Elisheva’s father, Mr. Joel Kaplan, whom I have had the privilege to know for many years, related how her employer had spoken of the impression she made on her co-workers. It was impossible to say anything inappropriate in her presence.
And as her brother, R’ Mosey, related at the levayah, she was always thinking of ways to make others feel good.
For the past year, Yisroel learned at Mir Yerushalayim, where he rose at 6 a.m. so that he could learn with 3 chavrusos before Shacharis. He was beloved by everyone, from the oldest member of the camp administration to the youngest camper, because of his warm, respectful, humble, caring personality.
Every breath of life is a gift from Hashem
It’s up to us to make the most of them.
In their memory, lest us strive to make every moment count.
Yehi zichrom boruch.