A Summer Camp Memoir

This is one that is hard to begin. About a week ago, Hannah Dreyfus reported in The Jewish Week (also published in Times of Israel) on suspicions of corruption surrounding Reform Jewish summer camp programs on child sex abuse. For example, it seems that prevention is not actually on the agenda. That’s a head-scratcher. Additionally, they are using educators and leaders who are currently adversely embroiled in a current child sex abuse scandal, stemming from alleged assaults at a Baltimore camp.

Having lived in Baltimore, I know some of the individuals involved in this tragedy. And I understand all too well the power structure and financial influence that ill serves those most vulnerable in the summer camp industry — the children. For more insight, I strongly suggest reading excellent reporting by Hannah Dreyfus linked above, as well as another article she wrote, published several months ago in The Jewish Week.

As a writer, I was asked to sit in on numerous meetings on child sex abuse in Baltimore as far back as eight years ago. I was also following the many emerging stories in the international Chabad community. Suffice to say they related to people (victims) I knew. The preponderance of child sex abuse crimes in the Orthodox Jewish community was but one of the reasons I ultimately left.

I found my home again in Reform Judaism. And yet, in the wake of #metoo, we are seeing that child sex abuse is still not taken seriously enough, nor is rabbinic sexual misconduct — no matter the community. This is upsetting. Because it is all so ubiquitous.

And the cover ups are such a betrayal. It’s like a game of musical chairs, the powers that be keep sending abusers to the next camp, the next school, the next job… to continue abusing in some other city or country.

We have a lot of hard things going on in our lives. And yet, something happened to me when I posted the summer camp article on social media last week. For the first time, I disclosed that I was molested by a counselor at my summer camp when I was about 10 years old. My camp was one of my favorite parts of my childhood. I learned how to water-ski and sail a boat on my own. I loved every minute there, situated in the woods of Algonquin Park, along the water. In fact, the only way in or out of camp was by boat. It was a magical place.

Twenty-five years ago one of my campmates made a movie called Indian Summer. One of the main characters portrayed by Diane Lane was based on the real life story of my bunkmate. She fell in love at camp, they married years later, and… well, see the movie. I remember how they took long walks together. I remember confronting a bear in our cabin and running out. I remember sometimes telling people I was from Brooklyn because I thought Buffalo sounded boring and Brooklyn sounded more exciting and they were both cities in the state of New York with the letter B. Keep in mind that most of the campers came from the Detroit area and Toronto, so I’m not sure what my concerns were, but I was in my head a lot. I used to read about 25 books a week and had a college reading level in fourth grade, so being out in nature every day with friends was a welcome experience. I say this because being a smart kid is still no defense or protection.

I lived in Los Angeles for many years and I was invited to attend the movie premiere. (One of the producers was in my college dorm at Brandeis and we had run into each other.) I loved the movie, of course, but I was stunned. Because in the film, a camper and counselor are involved in a scandal over race and the counselor is let go. The camper is kicked out essentially because he wanted to integrate the Jewish camp to include non-Jewish campers and counselors. I was at camp the summer referenced in the movie. But that is not the story I remembered.

Like many camps, we frequently had talent shows, musical productions, and movie nights. One night, a very cute counselor motioned me to join him outside. It was thrilling. We held hands and walked to the lake where camp held Shabbat services. He smoked a joint and offered it to me, but I didn’t want it. After talking (what did an 18 year old and a young girl have to discuss?) he leaned in and kissed me. It was the first time I was french-kissed. My back was against a tree. It was romantic and deeply unsettling. But he was interested in me! After we kissed awhile, he reached up under my short-sleeved sweater, which showed a tiny bit of midriff, and fondled my breasts. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but it flooded me. Then, we stopped, and he said we had better get back before anyone missed us. I don’t think I told a soul. It was our secret.

A day or two later we met during free time down by the boats. He told me he was leaving, that he had been fired from camp for smoking pot. He smoked a joint as we talked. I was upset and sad that he had to go. We hugged and kissed good-bye. I never saw him again.

I have to wonder, how many counselors got fired that summer? Why was my predator fired? Did the heads of camp suspect his transgressions? What was that movie about?

Two more anecdotes…related, but not really. I was a freelance writer and I was given the opportunity to interview an actor in the film, who was also a film director. We met in his office, I brought my camp photo albums. He was just a year or two older and we had been friends at camp. I remember a lot of tetherball before dinner and how he always made me laugh and feel safe. It was a great interview. That week I was carjacked at gunpoint and my tapes and notes were stolen along with my mustang. I never got to write the story. I was so traumatized that every time I had to stop at a stop sign or red light in Beverly Hills, I panicked. Shortly after, I relocated back to New York City for a year, where I didn’t have to drive anywhere. When I was in New York, I ran into Alan Arkin in a kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side. I told him how much I had loved the man he played in the movie, in real life, how beloved he and my camp were to me.

In the years since, I’ve had a lot of terrible things happen to me. Things that made no sense, that rocked me, but I survived and even conquered. I was raped in Europe by someone I knew. I was beaten and nearly killed by my Ivy League husband. Too many things to list here. I had been an activist feminist since I was 12. I worked for Ms. Magazine. I’ve had more than one successful career. I’ve raised an incredible daughter on my own. I was smart, spiritual, funny. When I was on the run with my child, literally, from my marriage, I remember thinking, how did this happen to me?

Finally, I am starting to understand. It happened to me because child sex abuse and sexual assault and harassment are everywhere. They are just everywhere, far, far more than we want to know or see.

Ever since I reckoned last week with my abuse at camp, I’ve been perplexed. Why do I suddenly find myself crying in the middle of the night, why are tears streaming down my face when I even think of it? It’s not the worst thing that ever happened to me, by far. I feel myself becoming unfrozen – this little private corner of my life. Am I now to relive every trauma I’ve ever experienced from the ground up, for the rest of my life?

What happened to this counselor? Did he go on to molest more kids, did he hurt anyone else? Did he fly straight, or become more degenerate? Is he successful now? Is he alive or dead?

I wrote a poem eight years ago about this whole experience. I posted it on Facebook then. Last week, I published it on my poetry blog. Summer and the promise of sweet, fresh air are nearly upon us.

I think no matter how vigilant we are, as feminists, as parents, as writers… no matter how many words have been spent, no matter how much we think we understand…we just don’t. We need to stop judging victims and start helping them. We need to absorb the notion that it can happen here, in my town, in my community, in my workplace, on my campus, in my church, mosque, temple and synagogue, in my sports league, at my camp. Molestation, incest, child sex abuse, rape… for so very many of us, it is the story of our lives.

About the Author
Dana is a Jewish feminist, writer and poet. She is passionate about kindness, spirituality, the artist's voice, and speaking out for the vulnerable. She lives in New York.
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