As the coach bus descends rolling Appalachian hills and campers doze in their seats, heads tilted backward, smiles on faces, relaxing at last after an exhausting month at camp, filing away happy memories to long-term storage, Camp Staffer looks out at the green trees and contemplates his transition back to being Teaneck Person. Warm feelings of success and anticipation for a soothing change of pace are mixed with, naturally, nostalgia; nostalgia for a schedule packed with social opportunities every minute of the day; nostalgia for sports, cheering, and night activities; nostalgia for Shabbos dancing, coed hangouts, and learning groups; nostalgia for fun.
It is curious how different life is back at home, Camp Staffer considers, as he ushers off campers from the bus at the midway rest stop. Normal Teaneck life isn’t run by 18-24 year olds. Normal Teaneck people don’t express themselves through cheering and jumping. Normal Teaneck attire would never feature pajamas during the day, or even shorts, t-shirts, or baseball caps for routine occasions. Normal Teaneck communication is via smartphones and email that connect the entire world, while Upstate Camp communication is insular, focusing on a small community of individuals who at their most technological use walkie-talkies for long-range conversations.
But who is to say that Upstate Camp, while different, is any less real than Normal Teaneck? Campers are now somewhat rested and watching one of the recent Disney movies (surprisingly watchable, he notices), while the landscape outside begins to feature closely-packed suburbs, New York City traffic, and shopping malls. Spotting advertisements and clothing stores that sell how to properly market one’s outward self, he realizes the novelty of the camp setting, where people are able to express, so naturally, who they really are on the inside. Torah values and stories come to life with activities like building a model Mikdash and parading around the Mashiach on a donkey, rather than just reading about these ideas and lessons from texts. Camp is the world of action, not of theory. Everything is an activity. Big-group interactions present campers (and staffers) with tough situations and complicated decisions that have significant social, emotional results that leave long-lasting impressions. In some ways this mode of learning seems much more real than any non-summer circumstance.
Yet there is certainly plenty of weirdness and non-“realness” at camp. The bus is now passing familiar highway exits, and the Teaneck Person voice inside his head remembers that usually, jumping up and down for no reason other than to express the letter designation of your age group is considered strange. It is probably less than ideal that Upstate Camp Davening, although more exciting and expressive than Normal Teaneck Davening, is a constant struggle to keep campers focused and interested (as is any formalized frontal education in Upstate Camp, for that matter). Living in an environment away from parents, cities, and organized educational responsibilities seems pretty peculiar, when one only starts to think about it. And once we begin talking about offering mock Ketoret, living outdoors for three straight days, and noshing on endless canteen junk food and gratuitously large candy packages from parents, well, forget it.
So what is the “real world”? A deep question indeed to consider while counselors, campers, and other staff members slowly trudge off the bus that is now in a school parking lot, eager parents stretching their necks for the best view of their returning kids. The obvious answer is that no world – in the sense of a fixed situation that exists for some group for some period of time – is inherently more real than any other world. People drown out that voice in their heads in both Upstate Camp and Normal Teaneck, the only difference being that the former world uses incessant chanting while the latter world uses smartphones and other bright-screened technologies. Both worlds can probably stand to be more real in this regard. Likewise, it is not only in Upstate Camp where people put on a show and act differently than they would in natural life situations; in Normal Teaneck one need look only so far as (insert classic Teaneck job here) to see our own local performers.
These two worlds can impact each other. Upstate Camp is clearly getting something right when people smile at each other and offer genuine “good morning” greetings. Normal Teaneck deserves praise for its robust Shuls that are thriving with serious, level-headed, quiet while meaningful Davening and learning.
Ultimately, Camp Staffer/Teaneck Person (by this point pulling up to his home driveway and comprehending a jumbling of his identities) figures that most of these differences are not as drastic as they might seem. The low-pay high-effort job at camp first month isn’t so different from the counterpart internship in the City second month; both require putting on a show, both have legitimate purposes even if they aren’t perfect, and both have their own logic to their cultures and paces.
So, to reiterate once more, which world is more real? Is camp serving its function in an ideal way by creating an unusual, high-energy, insular community; or, should it be more moderate, more “normal” like the ordinary world? I have no idea.