By Liba Lieberman
The precious neshamah of Aaron Shalom Tepfer, a’h, who was niftar at the end of last summer after completing fifth grade, continued to watch over Klal Yisrael with the implementation of a middos program in Aaron Shalom’s memory, taking place in ten boys’ camps throughout the northeast this summer. The program was under the auspices of Aaron’s Way, a movement developed by Aaron’s parents, Tuli and Rachel Tepfer, to help children emulate Aaron’s extraordinary middos.
The sole purpose of Aaron’s Way is to provide boys with opportunities to do chesed, designed to perpetuate the acts of kindness which Aaron performed and perfected at such a young age. Wherever he went, Aaron brought goodness and kindness to those who needed his love and support. The middos program was a transformative opportunity that, like its namesake, worked to bring out the best in children by setting good examples. Those examples were specific middos directives with beautifully designed middos mission cards given each week to boys participating in the program, guided by enthusiastic rebbeim responsible for directing the middos program in each camp.
All participating camps worked on the same middah each week, creating a network of achdus among all the campers working together to improve the same middos. At the end of the summer, a grand raffle was held in each camp. By all accounts, boys’ summer camps were shining with hakaras ha’tov phone calls to parents and good-morning greetings to kitchen help.
“The program is a system of common knowledge with a focus on middos,” explains Rabbi Dovid Morgenstern, coordinator of the program, menahel at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, and learning director at Camp Munk. “It was palpable. Parents and staff commented on it. The children were rooting for each other as they collectively grew in their avodas Hashem, specifically in the area of middos. It is a most befitting tribute to the legacy of Aaron Shalom. The children were inspired from stories of his incredible middos.”
The Aaron’s Way Camp Middos Award program was adapted from a middos program devised five years ago by Rabbi Asher Dicker of Camp Achim, a sixth-grade rebbe at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood, who created a system for his campers that helped boys work on their middos. Rabbi Dicker’s theme was “Help yourself by becoming a better mentsch.” Rabbi Dicker recalls, “It came to me that when you look at young children, there is a need for improvement. It is almost impossible to address those needs on an individual basis. The beauty of the program is that it doesn’t need a shmuez from a mechanech. It is something children instinctively understand. They were just never given this kind of focus.”
As coordinator of a program that was run in multiple camps, however, Rabbi Morgenstern realized the program needed a new level of organization. He reached out to many people to do this right, asked many mechanchim, and acted on every suggestion. The program is now something that anyone can pick up and run with.
Rabbi Morgenstern adds, “Each week focused exclusively on one middah. The children were eager to pick up their mission cards and begin fulfilling the middah of the day, and were given specific missions how to practice that middah. The boys were not only taught daily a better approach to middos, but they were guided how to implement real changes in how they act in their daily lives. There was even a ‘wildcard’ that boys could do ‘anything’ as a zechus for Aaron Shalom. They were thrilled to do it.”
The Aaron’s Way Camp Middos Award Program is geared for children in second through eighth grades. Rabbi Morgenstern shares the following story. “Mr. Tepfer told me that someone got a call from his son, who had called to thank his father for sending him to camp this summer. The man further explained that his son’s card had told him he should call home and thank his parents. It’s an exciting and easy-to-do program.”
For each participating camp, the list of middos in the program were hakaras ha’tov, savlanus, zerizus, vatranus, kavod ha’briyos, and chesed. Each middah was further broken down to encompass the six days of the week.
The camps varied in how the reward system worked. For Rabbi Eliezer Feuer, learning director at Camp Agudah, the program involved hundreds of kids who daily undertook a new mission from cards given to them by their rebbeim. There were daily discussions guided by rebbeim of that week’s topic, giving real-life examples of people who embody that specific attribute. Once a mission was completed, a boy’s card, with his name and bunk number on it, was placed in a weekly raffle. By all accounts, the boys responded beautifully.
How simple were the missions? They included holding a door for chesed, saying thank-you for hakaras ha’tov, or giving up your place on line for being mevater. At Camp Morris, where Rabbi Yehudah Brecher was menahel of the cheder, the unfolding of the program had been simply amazing. “Mission cards were given out every day at breakfast, although I carried cards on me throughout the day. The raffles were held randomly, sometimes two to three times a day. By the end of first half, a larger raffle took place where one boy received Shas. The numbers of boys participating were just tremendous. After the first few weeks alone, over 1,000 mission cards had been given over to the office. After introducing each mission with a story at the beginning of each week, the middah was reinforced with more stories and examples from the rebbeim during lunch. During the recent war in Eretz Yisrael, we discussed how the brave soldier who jumped on a grenade to save his comrades was an example of being mevater. On a less dramatic level, we explained, giving up your place on line was another example of being mevater.”
The benefits far exceed the effort, as Rabbi Morgenstern points out. “The program is unique. There was such achdus among the campers. They were all working together. In one camp, a boy wanted to change his bunk. The camp acquiesced and the boy was thrilled. But he soon realized that if he left his bunk for a new one, he would mess up someone else’s summer plans in the new bunk. This boy went to the camp director and asked to be left in his originally assigned bunk. This was an example of vatranus. On visiting day, boys from different camps were pulling out their mission cards, discussing the same middah they were focused on for that week. It was amazing.”
Another benefit of the program took place among the counselors and rebbeim who were teaching the program to the children. As they shared divrei Torah and stories with each other, an exciting achdus occurred. “The collaboration was beautiful,” Rabbi Morgenstern notes.
As one of the originators of the program, Rabbi Yehudah Deutch, program director in Camp Rayim and Aaron Shalom’s third-grade rebbe at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, allowed boys to seek out staff members for mission cards at any time of day. And in this camp, there was tremendous interest among ninth-graders as well as younger boys. Even staff members were participating, asking if they could use the program as a paradigm to work on themselves. Raffles were held at the end of each middah, offering a set of sefarim and a prize. As an example of the program’s great success, Rabbi Deutch cites the chesed of a young camper to a worker on the grounds. “We were adding more amps in bunk houses to install air conditioners. One of the campers came back from canteen with a slush for one of the workers. He explained that the man must be hot. When the worker found out that the camper had paid for the slush with his own money, he bought one for the camper in return. The boy didn’t want to accept the gift, explaining that he had bought the slush because he appreciated that the worker was making the boy’s bunk a better place. We had been speaking about hakaras ha’tov in the program and obviously this boy made a connection. Kids are definitely learning the lessons being imparted by Aaron’s Way.”
Rabbi Avraham Bender, learning director at Camp Bonim, notes the high percentage of involvement. “Different counselors were telling me that campers were noticeably nicer,” Rabbi Bender points out, “for example, not making as much noise at night or thanking waiters. We believe they will follow through when the school year starts.” Rabbi Bender worked with Rabbi Chaim Dovid Lapidus to introduce each new middah of the week, both carrying middos mission cards. Each Friday, five different raffles were held. “It was like a Chinese auction,” Rabbi Bender shares. Campers were more and more excited as the summer continued, especially since they understood they were following in the footsteps of Aaron Shalom himself. “At one point, we read a letter that Aaron Shalom wrote at the end of fourth grade to his rebbe,” Rabbi Bender remembers, “thanking him for teaching him that particular school year. It made an impression.”
Camp Romimu was another participating camp, where the program was headed by Rabbi Shlomo Dovid Pfeiffer, the camp’s learning director. At Camp Romimu, the middah of the week was presented on Shabbos, and counselors gave out mission cards to campers. As with the other camps, each filled out card was entered in a raffle, although in Camp Romimu boys were given the choice of entering smaller raffles or waiting to put all six cards at the end of each week into a raffle for a bigger prize. “Something as simple as filling a negel vaser cup for the next boy to use was a sign of chesed,” Rabbi Pfeiffer explains. “Middos are small steps, not jumps. I told them that small acts of patience can help a person become a more patient person.” Rabbi Pfeiffer referred to the Sefer Middos by Rav Yechezkel Levenstein while participating in the program.
Still another camp that implemented the program was Simcha Day Camp on the Yeshiva Darchei Torah campus in Far Rockaway. Everyone here felt a strong connection to Aaron Shalom because he was a student in Yeshiva Darchei Torah and a camper in this day camp. “I was very close to him,” begins Rabbi Aron Rosenberg, learning director of the camp. “The fact that we were able to do this means a lot to us.”
Since it is a day camp, not a sleepaway camp, certain changes were made to the program. The program ran during the Three Weeks and included the whole camp, with boys going into grades two through seven working together on each middah. The counselors kept the cards on them, and looked for boys performing certain middos. Hundreds of boys channeled their energies on one middah at the same time. Because the program was of a more limited nature, each card itself was considered a prize for doing a middah. The cards became part of a raffle that took place after Tishah B’Av.
Rabbi Rosenberg concludes that when he spoke with each bunk during the program, he talked about Aaron and how his middos were exceptional. “We need to strive to be like him, to make Aaron’s way a part of us.” Indeed, it seems Klal Yisrael has done just that.
For more information on Aaron’s Way programs, contact aaronsway.org. v
Reprinted from the Yated Ne’eman.
By Liba Lieberman