On Sunday, I traveled back to the northwoods of Wisconsin to my summer home. As I stood on the shores of Lake Buckatabon at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the dreams and ambitions of a 15 year-old washed over me. Though 40 years had gone by since I swam in the lake and played ball on the fields, the magic was ever present.
I returned with members of the Board of Directors and senior professional team of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Each summer, we travel to different parts of North America to visit camps. Together, we speak with the camp professionals and seasonal staff, observe programs, recognize the differences of one camp to the next, and relish the joy and spirit of the campers. These invaluable visits deepen our understanding of the field and stimulate our thinking, allowing us to explore opportunities where our Foundation can truly make a difference, for today and for tomorrow.
But to see my camp – my second home – through their eyes, heightened my own appreciation for the experiences I had so many moons ago.
Something profound happened to me during those summers in Wisconsin which changed the trajectory of my life. I remember feeling something powerful even then, but not really having the words or perspective to adequately describe what I was experiencing. How could eight weeks, four consecutive summers, have had such a powerful effect on my life’s path? How could my Jewish experience at camp so naturally and vibrantly fit into my year-round life?
Our communal visionaries, beginning more than a century ago, had the foresight to secure properties for the community to ensure the future of the community. They knew instinctively that providing summer experiences away from the city would create a second home for Jewish kids that would remain in their hearts and minds forever.
My visit sent a flood of memories racing through my mind. As we walked the grounds, I remembered my own dreams dreamt, friendships forged, and future paths defined. We entered the Beit Am (auditorium) where 40 years ago I played the role of Nathan Detroit in our performance of “Guys and Dolls” – in Hebrew! We viewed the newly-improved baseball fields where I remember playing second base in the camper-counselor game. We peeked into the beautiful Beit Knesset (synagogue) where I remember leading services in front of the camp.
I spent part of my visit looking at the smiles and listening to the laughter of the campers and re-imaging my own experiences in those same spots. I found myself peering out at the natural beauty of this special location which has remained ingrained in my mind all these years. I also contemplated how I have visited this same scene repeated in Jewish camps across North America; for those who attended those camps, they, too, must have the same lasting memories of their own “unique” experiences.
In their groundbreaking study back fifteen years ago, Limud by the Lake, Brandeis professors Len Saxe and Amy Sales captured the essence of what I was feeling personally. Jewish camp is an intentional educational experience in an immersive Jewish space, led powerfully by role models. Our behind the scenes tour showed us the thoughtful intention of every program, of every activity, of every day at camp, led especially by those college-aged counselors who are the joyfully Jewish role models. The community that is built at camp and the unique culture that is created leads to an intense, but safe, environment for young people to explore and grow.
This all happened to me. I am proof-positive that “camp works.” And returning to that summer home this week for me, now 40 years later, meant paying homage to a place – and an experience – which has remained so much a part of me.
If you went to camp, I certainly encourage you to go “back home” if even in your mind, visit your camp, and reflect on the power of those long summer days and the ways in which those days still endure.
Let’s make those experiences accessible to more children and secure a more vibrant Jewish future.