I Fell in Love with Judaism at Camp
By Rabbi Amy Schwartzman
We are just a mile from Camp Harlam, and my daughters are singing along with the camp CD at the top of their lungs. I am trying to hide the fact that I am crying. I too love those songs, but I am overwhelmed with a feeling of joy – my own children have fallen in love with the place where I fell in love with Judaism.
When we pull the overstuffed van into Girls Camp, a flood of memories come back to me. “I was in that bunk in 1973 and that one in 1981 and we had the best…” They cut me off: “Mom, you tell us these stories every year!” They can’t wait to get to their own bunks, hug their friends, and start another summer filled with soccer and singing, campfires and canoeing, tefillah and tie-dye.
Of course, there are tears (mine) when we say goodbye, even though I will see Hannah and Ellie in a few weeks when I return to work on the faculty. Before I start my long drive back to Virginia, I take a slow lap around camp. I look like any other parent exploring these picturesque grounds, when in truth, I am reliving some of the most important moments in my Jewish development. I am reconnecting with the places where my identity as a Jew was crystalized.
My first stop is the chapel in the woods. Despite the noise of campers and parents in the bunks nearby, it is peaceful in the shady expanse of benches and trees. A huge rock that seems to have been in this place since the beginning of time serves as the ahmood or lectern. On Shabbat, the Torah rests in a tree, nestled between three thick branches. This is where I first participated in a Shabbat service when I was 9 and in the youngest unit, Emet; I read a poem I wrote about peace. I don’t recall the words, but I clearly remember feeling so proud of myself – pride that became connected to being Jewish.
I walk past Omanut, the art center, and peek in. When I was a counselor, this building was open to staff a few nights a week, and some of the Israeli staff and I were frequent visitors. Those evenings were filled with discussions and debates. I saw a different Israel than the one I had visited. Making mugs and copper enamel on those summer nights, my understanding of Israel grew – and so did my bonds and my questions and my commitment.
My next stop is the infirmary. My old friend, with whom I shared many camper years, is now the camp nurse. We have our yearly reunion, talk about the old days, laugh about the silly things we did, and cry over our camp friends taken too early from life. This is one of many lasting friendships born in the bunk and by the lake and on the trails of camp. I met my dearest friend in Girls 8 when we were 13. My daughter is 13 this summer; perhaps this will be the summer that she finds her lifelong friend.
Finally, I take a few minutes to sit on the benches under the pine trees. I have had so many significant conversations here: I was a child making friends here; I was a teenager sharing secrets and hopes and fears; I was counselor consoling a homesick camper under these trees. My decision to become a rabbi grew out of long talks with the patient rabbis who came to work for a few weeks in camp as I do now. Last summer, I spoke to a young woman about becoming a cantor on these benches. In a few weeks, the many members of my congregation who are attending camp this summer will meet me at the pine trees for a group photo. In the words of Harry Chapin, whose songs we still sing around the campfire, “All my life’s a circle.” It certainly it feels that way at camp.
At the end of the session, my family will leave Harlam until next summer. My children will cry as they say goodbye to their bunkmates. I will likely be crying, too –tears of joy as I watch them fall in love with the place where I fell in love with Judaism.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, the Senior Rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, is spending her 29th summer at Camp Harlam serving on the faculty for two weeks this month.