Identity: Camp Magic
by Sheryl Lechner
It’s a cool, rainy day in early August at URJ’s Joseph Eisner Camp in the verdant Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, so the evening’s Shabbat service is taking place in the Beit Am, instead of the outdoor sanctuary. The auditorium is packed with campers, counselors, staff, and, as honored guests, more than 200 people here for a camp Alumni Shabbat weekend. The youngest campers, Bonim (builders), are taking their turn on the bimah, leading services with a skit, a dance, and ample song, accompanied by the folksy guitar strumming of the camp songleaders and the voices of preteens and teens joining wholeheartedly in singing the prayers. The atmosphere is relaxed: Counselors aren’t shushing campers (except during the Shema) and the campers feel free to have a whispered conversation, get up to greet a friend, even peruse a comic book. After everyone joins in singing Birkat Shalom, Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, a visiting rabbi who is officiating this evening, comes up to the microphone. “Look around at the other campers,” he says to them, “and think, there might be someone here that you might end up marrying.” The room fills with giggles, and he adds, “I said might.”
And now comes the highlight of the evening: Jaffe, himself a former Eisner camper, calls to the bimah twenty of the alumni couples who had met at camp to reconsecrate their wedding vows. Several rabbis and prominent Jewish leaders, including then URJ Board chairman Robert M. Heller and Union Vice President Rabbi Daniel Freelander, are among the group. So are Paula and Rabbi Herman Blumberg. Paula, Rabbi Jaffe tells the crowd, was here at camp in 1958, the year Eisner opened; the couple met the following summer. Later their son Jonathan attended; this summer he’s back as a camp doctor. And Jonathan’s son, 11-year-old Joseph, is Eisner’s first alumni grandchild.
The alumni couples exchange vows, the Bonim campers sing a love song to the group, some preteen boys collapse into paroxysms of nervous laughter, but in the row in front of them, an older boy puts his arm around the girl next to him, who leans into his shoulder. Once again, camp is working its magic.
“Camp magic” is a phrase that comes up all the time when talking to former campers and camp staff about Jewish overnight (or resident) camps. And it’s a phrase that, increasingly, educators and philanthropists are banking on to ensure that the Jewish communities of North America groom future generations of engaged Jews.