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When the Pieces Fit

Looking back to the teenage years, it’s easy to remember the feelings of confusion and flux. Those years — which, from a developmental perspective, are critical to the formation of healthy identity — can be difficult. 

My adolescent years were characterized by this, but my bewilderment and anxiety were compounded by a few things not every teenager experiences.

I was a straight-A student who got “meets expectations” or “needs improvement” for her conduct marks. That is to say, I was quite clever, but struggled to control myself when I really wanted to share something with the class. I loved to read, and walked out of the library every Friday carrying as many books as I could balance between my two hands and my chin. I also loved to write — fantasy was my favorite genre — and I wrote so much I developed a callous where my pencil or pen would touch my fingers. And then there was the drama: I took the “funny role” in the Bais Yaakov play for three years in a row, which meant I played the squeaky-voiced microbiologist, a stout and hysterical Miss Amelia in the Little Princess, and then the Russian lunch lady who carried a 2.5-foot wooden spoon and shouted about noodles.

I was weird. And I struggled — not socially, surprisingly, but because I wanted to talk about Shakespeare and sonnets, because I had aspirations of starring in plays, because I would read theology and science books and then bother my teacher with lots of questions about those topics during recess. I had only one friend who was interested in similar topics, so at least I had someone who could be my partner in various philosophical and artistic adventures — but it didn’t always feel like enough. 

I had no interest in going to camp. There was nothing less appealing than cheering or playing soccer when what I wanted was a place to write stories or debate ethical dilemmas over the summer. I knew that there were coding camps and performing arts camps and journalism camps, but I was pretty sure nothing like that existed for girls like me.

We weren’t supposed to have Internet, but one day when I was around 13 I used my mother’s computer to Google “creative arts camp for Jewish girls.” I wondered if maybe there was something out there that checked all the boxes.

And there was.

The camp was called Tizmoret Shoshana. No one I knew had ever heard of it, but when my mother spoke to the directors they seemed friendly and kind. We spoke to past campers; they all had glowing testimonials.

So one hot summer day, I went with the aforementioned friend on my first-ever parentless plane trip. We flew to Baltimore, then we were carpooled to the camp, which was located in the Berkshires that year.

Looking back, those two and a half weeks of camp were a blur of activity, creative focus, socialization, skill development, nerdy bonding, and Jewish joy. 

They were also a revelation.

Somehow the pieces of me, which had never seemed to fit together correctly, made perfect sense at Tizmoret Shoshana. My flair for comedic drama found a home in the parsha spiels and I was lauded for my performance as a guinea pig in the drama majors’ play (unfortunately true story: I rolled around a ball of cabbage with my nose as I waxed poetically about the life of the small furry rodent). I was challenged in the writing classes, where I worked on character development, descriptive narration, and dialogue. And by the end of camp, I knew every single one of the 50-some campers there. 

Before my camp experience, I had always struggled to bridge the dichotomy of religious observance and creative identity. I felt hemmed in and lonely at times, longing for peers that felt as much passion and curiosity toward art, culture, and innovation. I was a humanities kid. I wanted humanities friends. 

Today I’m even more grateful to have experienced those few weeks of camp. The intensity and intimacy of Tizmoret Shoshana’s programming is so powerful that many campers call it their “home,” even years later. It occupies a unique space within the Jewish world: unapologetically Orthodox, safe and appropriate for even the most observant of girls; rigorous, with highly-trained, very skilled staff in all disciplines; and warm — so much so that I keep in touch with several friends from that summer ten years later. I needed to know that there was a place for a girl like me in the frum community. And there was a place. An inviting, joyful, unusually supportive place. A place I would go so far as to call life-changing.

A few months ago I gave birth to my first child, a daughter. She is small now, but someday she will God-willing be the same age as I was when I first went to camp. She may play the cello or write fantasy novels or dance ballet or love sculpture (or she may not do any of those things). But if one day she comes to me feeling any of the same things I felt — any of the feelings of strangeness, of not fitting or making sense, of anxiety that there is no place for her in the Orthodox world — I’m excited to tell her, Don’t worry.

I’m excited to tell her, 

You can be yourself. There is a place for you. You can be this talented, creative, passionate, unique person, and you can be Orthodox too.

Let me prove it to you. 

How do you feel about trying out camp this summer?

About the Author
Ruthie Hollander is the Principal of NYC-based Hebrew school Jewish Youth Connection, where she is able to indulge in her passion for educational accessibility and asking "the big questions" with her students. Ruthie is the Programming and Development Manager for creative arts sleep-away camp Tizmoret Shoshana, is partnering with the mayor of her city to build a sustainability-focused community garden in her neighborhood, and is the founder of Achayot: a community network that enables Jewish women to find support, friendship, free events, and Shabbat meals. She lives in New Jersey with her husband Max, her daughter Mila, and her dog Momo.
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