When I recall the bargaining to which I resorted in my letters to my father the one summer I went to Jewish sleep away camp, I am somewhat astounded to even be writing this essay. During that time of profound adolescent dislocation, I wrote to him every week with numerous reasons for why camp and I needed a divorce. Each week, he was clear that I should give the relationship another try, especially since there was no way that I was coming home early. In those days, Camp Ramah, Conservative Judaism’s summer camp system, was very strict about attendance. You went for a full eight weeks, even if you were a hypersensitive, awkward, unathletic nerd like me. The emotional blows from the camp regimen and the bullies in the bunk next door to us were blunted for me only by the presence of my brother on the kitchen staff. Desperate for no place more than home, I stayed on the love side of our sibling love-hate dynamic, eager to catch sight of him each day and share my misery with him. By the time I had run out of reasons for returning, the summer from hell had ended, and I returned home.
As I have written in the past, because of my own negative experiences, my children’s “fish-to-water” love affair with Jewish camping for over twenty years has always somewhat mystified me. My wife and I dropped them off every new camp session, maybe saw them on visiting day or received an occasional letter, then picked them up later in the summer. Increasingly, we found ourselves viewing from a distance the secret camp camaraderie that simultaneously cocooned and liberated them, so they could become the young adult Jews that they are and will continue becoming. Woven into the tight fabric of their camp friendships was a fine yet enduring thread of Judaism as a natural matter of daily life that was unparalleled among all the Jewish experiences we afforded them. After my youngest child graduated from camp and I had no more excuses about “giving the kids their space” available, I confronted my sleep-away demons by spending a week teaching at camp this past week. My family attends Camp Ramah in New England, a sprawling, bucolic campus which at any moment houses several hundred campers and staff. Lucky to have the opportunity to be there and a bit more personally secure after my previous camp debacle forty years ago, I nonetheless drove into camp that first morning, unsure of what I would encounter after all that time. Below is my “grown up letter from camp” that I am proud to be able to write.
Meal times at camp are more like mass feeding frenzies, but they are also opportunities for spontaneous flash mob fun. Almost without warning, one age group or another, and then everyone, will begin screaming some comical musical tribute to a beloved staff member or administrator. Recorded music from Israel and various Jewish bands is common during meals, as are four hundred kids jumping up from their seats to dance. One afternoon, the dining hall exploded with delirium as someone blasted out the Satmar Hasidic Shira Choir’s youtube sensation, “Im Hashem Loi Yivne Bayis,” its ten voice a cappella medley of Psalms 127 and 121. Can you imagine hundreds of young Jews, many of whom have little Jewish background or Hebrew skill, singing endlessly, with Yiddish inflection, the words, “Hinei loi yanum v’loi yishan shoimer Yisroel”? (Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.) What might Shira Choir and their Chassidishe compadres think if they knew that all those children in this bastion of egalitarian Judaism were singing those words to their melodies? How little all that sectarian nonsense mattered to all of us at the moment that it was happening.
Prayer times at camp can be a mix of eye rolling, boredom and inspired singing. No amount of guitar music, storytelling, and touchy feely nature settings will ever totally transform self absorbed, sexually distracted pre-teens and teens into spiritual masters of a highly abstract practice. Still, camp prayer does have the advantage of – at least theoretically – directing your distractions literally towards heaven, even if only for fleeting moments. Heaven is all around you as you pray outdoors by a lake, often with a guitar and favorite group melodies.
Prayer at our Ramah camp has the added advantage of our Tikvah (“Hope”) program, one of the oldest and most successful integrative special needs Jewish camping endeavors in North America. Teens and young adults with Down’s Syndrome, on the Autism spectrum, and dealing with a number of other cognitive and neurological disorders come to camp to do what campers have always done: enjoy themselves as an integral part of the camping family. Though their special needs are taken very seriously, Tikvah campers are not isolated or placed on a pedestal as “special,” a label that is simplistic and condescending. Like all campers, they are organized as a separate educational unit within camp but they are also fully integrated into camp life, including worship, work and activities with bunks of typically developing, eye rolling, bored, distracted teens. I spent a fair amount of my prayer time with the Tikvah program campers, some of whom I have known since my son was one of their counselors over five years ago. These campers’ hunger for connection with God through prayer varies no less or more than it does for any other camper, and it is patronizing to assert that somehow their disabilities make them spiritually “special.” What is unique about the Tikvah prayer experience – what deeply touches me – is that they have the same access to God as everyone else, tailored to their specific needs and abilities. I am moved watching a teen with Down’s Syndrome taking an aliyah to the Torah or a young adult on the autism spectrum reading Torah. To the extent that they can participate, they are taking their place at the table of Jewish prayer and faith along with the rest of us. At the risk of making the same generalizations I just criticized, I also find myself quite moved by the way that many Tikvah campers enter communal singing with a joy that can be uncommon for typical teens. Because they lack much of the self consciousness that plagues other adolescents, they also lack the reticence about embracing this aspect of Jewish spirituality due to it not conforming to the latest standards of cool.
Finally, I felt blessed and deeply honored to be a part of an outstanding educational staff. Jewish educators in a summer camp like Ramah are an eclectic and dynamic lot. We (admittedly self selectively) come from very diverse Jewish backgrounds, which in more politicized settings might make us less capable of bridging ideological divides. At camp, educators’ diverse expressions of Judaism are integrated into a common commitment to inspiring young Jews to be Jewish and to do Jewish, often by employing the wackiest, most creative techniques and teaching modalities. Sitting around a table with this group and listening to them build on each other’s ideas in a blue streak of pop culture references, Torah, and groaner jokes made me think of what it must be like to work on the writing team for Saturday Night Live or Inside Amy Schumer, without the Comedy Central style snark that passes for humor. I have learned plenty from my teachers and my students; from working with this group of my fellow teachers, I am once again inspired to teach Judaism and to teach it well.
Camp and Jewish camping are not for everyone. They certainly were not for me forty years ago. Summer camps are not paradise. They will never create the “perfect experience” for every child, because their social structure and packed schedules cannot jive with every child’s cognitive, social, and emotional needs. Even the best camp cannot eradicate the inevitable bullying, the class divisions and the popularity hierarchies that fly below the radar of adults’ best goals and intentions for inclusion and kindness. Jewish summer camp in America, despite all of the most recent scholarship incentives and partnerships, is still outrageously expensive. Some families make trade-offs between camp and day school. Other families cannot afford either. That is a situation desperately in need of remediation. Nonetheless, if Camp Ramah is any indication, Jewish camping in North America is not the next great educator of America’s Jews, it is the great educator.
I thought a lot about this the last night of camp as nine hundred campers and staff held havdalah candles against the night sky and said goodbye to Shabbat Nachamu. This is the Shabbat of comfort which follows the fast day of Tisha B’Av. It starts us back up the mountain of hope and perseverance after a summer descending into the sadness of the past and the anguish – most recently in Jerusalem and on the West Bank – of the present. I sang the words “la-Yehudim hayeta orah v’simcha,“ (we Jews always seem to recover light and joy from darkness), embraced by a community replete with light and joy. Mom, dad, everyone, I am happy to write to you that this past week I finally became a happy Jewish camper. I hope that this happiness is the experience of American Jewish families for many years to come.