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Sara Mason Ader
Life Member, Hadassah New England

Remembering the Joy of Summer at Young Judaea Camps

The author, Sara Mason Ader (left) and Arlene Klein (right). Photo courtesy of the author.
The author, Sara Mason Ader (left) and Arlene Klein (right). Photo courtesy of the author.

The celebration of New York-based Camp Tel Yehuda’s 75th summer has had me thinking about the importance of the Jewish camp experience. Even if you’ve never been to summer camp, you can probably imagine how quickly bonds form when you’re very young and living among your peers in tight conditions. Especially when you’re Jewish, and your summers at camp represent your only opportunity outside your own family to be in an entirely Jewish environment surrounded only by Jewish people.

My annual summer camp ritual began when I was nine and consisted of boarding a Detroit-bound airplane with a small group of Jewish kids from Lexington, Kentucky. Our destination in those early years for me was the Midwest outpost of Camp Young Judaea, which is now located in Wisconsin but was in rural Michigan at the time.

I spent nearly all the next 10 summers as a camper in Michigan and eventually Camp Tel Yehudah in New York, working half the summer as kitchen staff once I was old enough. What I remember most are the friends and the way we learned how to incorporate Judaism into our daily lives, which was not a given in my life at home in Kentucky. I learned about daily prayers and Kashrut. Despite the unfamiliar nature of some of the things we did at camp, my CYJ friends felt like family. We bonded immediately over our activities and adventures—as well as some misadventures, which may or may not have involved sneaking out at night, overturned canoes and a roasted pair of Stan Smith Adidas sneakers placed too close to the campfire.

My camp friends lived scattered throughout the Midwest, and later the Northeast. During the 10 or 11 months of the year when we weren’t together, we wrote each other lengthy letters and had the occasional long-distance phone call. But our close-knit friendships were almost entirely sustained by our shared summer experiences and the quality of our time together living in old wooden cabins with squeaky, metal-framed bunk beds set among lots of mosquitos.

During my years at Camp Young Judaea and Tel Yehuda, I learned about living with others outside my family long before I left for college. I learned about Judaism beyond of the walls of my local Reform temple and how my peers from other parts of the country led Jewish lives. I learned about Israel and why it is so important for American Jews to speak up and lend our support. Most of all, I learned how comfortable I was inside a Jewish environment—one that I would work to cultivate with my own family.

I had no idea how many types of day and sleep-away camps there are in the United States until I started researching an article for Boston Globe Magazine a few years ago. By now, it seems you can find a camp to suit almost any interest. Whether you have an outdoorsy kid looking for wilderness adventurers or an air-condition-only offspring wanting to delve into the intricacies of advanced supercomputing, camp can fill those summer aspirations. Estimates have pegged the number of campers in the United States somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 million before the COVID-19 pandemic, and hopefully those numbers will bounce back to pre-COVID heights this summer.

For me, though, the Jewish camp experience is what I wanted for my own kids once they became old enough. Although we live in the Boston area, our town has a tiny Jewish population. Most of my children’s friends at home are Catholic, so I knew the greater part of their Jewish identity would likely be formed at camp as mine was. I would’ve loved to send my kids to Camp Young Judaea and Tel Yehuda, and I admit I’m a little jealous when I see my old camp buddies posting photos of their kids at CYJ or TY, but my husband and I opted for Jewish camps closer to our home in New England. So far, the experiences have been extremely positive and they’re learning the things I’d hoped they’d learn about Judaism, Kehillah and life in general. My older two kids have already taken advantage of multiple opportunities to participate in Israel programs, and I’m sure the youngest will as well when the time comes.

Just before my youngest child left in late June for his overnight camp, one of my first and dearest camp friends posted on Facebook a photo of the two of us from our first year at Camp Young Judaea (thanks Arlene!). We haven’t seen each other in person in ages, but we will always share a sisterly bond. I think you can see how much we loved each other in this photo, despite the newness of our friendship at the time. I’m grateful for me and my kids’ camp experiences, as well as all the friendships forged along the way. Wishing a very happy landmark 75th summer to Camp Tel Yehuda!

As a Hadassah life member and leader, I am proud of Hadassah’s commitment to the Young Judaea camp experience. Hadassah provides hundreds of scholarships to campers each year and is deeply committed to instilling a love of Jewish life and Zionism in future generations. For more information, click here.

Photo courtesy of Young Judaea.
About the Author
Sara Mason Ader, Life Member, Hadassah New England, is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor, as well as co-founder and lead editor of languageoffriendship.com. For more about her background, visit www.saramasonader.com.
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