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.

Rabbi Schwartzman sits on her daughter's bed in a bunk where she was a camper in the '70s

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 Schwartzman's bunk picture from the early 1970’s

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.

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10 Responses to “I Fell in Love with Judaism at Camp”

  1. avatar
    Sherri Berman Carignan Reply July 9, 2012 at 11:42 am

    I’m in that picture above from Bunk 3 in 1973. I now drive my 3 children to Camp Eisner since we live in Northern New England. I too get the same responses of “You’ve told us that story a hundred times”. Each year I miss Camp Harlam and I have the same feelings that Amy describes knowing that my kids are all loving camp and the Judaism that they find there. Camp Eisner will be my kids’ Camp Harlam and each year I look for my friends’ son, a few rabbis I know, and have a chat with a camp Dr. who used to be a co-congregant. I wish I could sit in the Chapel on the Hill and under the pine trees, but I am so happy to have my son point out the Tzofim Bet Am, the gaga pit and the tree that’s a bush (the tush) and hope that his camp experience will have as much of an impact on his life that mine has had on my life.

  2. avatar

    Thank you for relaying my feelings EXACTLY. I even have the friend I see once a year (working at camp and dropping her kids off). I just took my daughter, to Greene Family Camp yesterday.
    I texted my mom when I got home to say thanks (for the millionth time) for sending me every summer and she wrote back “it was the best thing I ever did!”
    I replied, “now I can say the same thing.”

  3. avatar
    Donna (Rosenberg) Corbin Reply July 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I too am in that picture.. Girls 3. It was 1973 and my first summer at Camp Harlam and I was there until 1986- I LOVED Camp. I too found my jewishness at camp. I grew up in a small town where the only contact I had with other MOT was at Sunday School. When I went to camp I was totally connected to other people who were jewish. I too have some of the most amazing memories of camp and I am proud to say that it shaped the me I have become. I believe that had I not attended camp I would probably not care about being a jew. My oldest son was Bar-Mizvah this year, and he too is Jewish because I went to Camp Harlam.

  4. avatar
    Judith Borden Ovadia Reply July 9, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Amy, you were my CIT, a counselor, teacher, and friend (you too Donna and Sherri). I enjoyed reading your reflection on that place that is so dear to us. Amy, we shared many experiences at camp, and I hope you know what an important role model you were for me in my journey to becoming a cantor. To watch you evolve from inquisitive, spiritual, high school senior from my home town into a learned and caring rabbinical student inspired me to follow in your footsteps. Today, as one of your clergy colleagues, I continue to admire you and find inspiration in your leadership. I hope to see you (and Sherri and Donna and all of our other friends) on Alumni Day.

    • avatar

      Judy, You are too kind and I’m sure you are doing the same for others – what comes around goes around. Sorry I will be in Israel on Alumni Day this year. Maybe we’ll run into one another in LM or CH or… Israel.
      B’didut. Amy

  5. avatar

    Very nice piece, Amy. Your memories echo those of my own and my siblings. They’re why our daughter’s now at Camp Louise (we thought about sending her to Harlam, partly to be with you, but it was just too far).

    And we’re lucky to have you leading our congregation! 🙂

  6. avatar

    I started Harlam in 1978 (in emet and then sharon)and stayed until chavurah. I stopped going because I fell in love with a boy from home-who I ended up marrying. Just like my parents drive me every year from Massachusetts to Kunkletown, I now do the same for my daughter Madeleine who is experiencing her 2nd summer at Harlam-in Kineret ( unit didn’t exist when I went to camp).
    I had tears dripping down my face as I read your article. Well written, we’ll said and you thoroughly echo my memories of the most special place on earth (besides Disney of course)…Camp Harlam. My 7ywar old wants to start next summer…ooy! Anyway-I could have taken the girls to Eisner which is appx 4hrs closer to my home but there is no substitute. Anyway…Mazel TOV to you and thanks for the great article. Now we need new girls bunks built ASAP!

  7. avatar
    Dena (Sackstein) Magid Reply July 14, 2012 at 2:35 am

    Beautiful Amy…I am sitting here at my computer with tears running down. Your words touch me and tug at my heart strings as did all of my years at Harlam. I especially remember having a special conversation with you under the pine trees, discussing life, and the life of our dear friend Marika, who as Camp Harlam did, made a significant impression in my life and my relationships with friends and Judaism. I will treasure those moments and thank you for those special conversations…and hope to see you again in the future…
    We live far (Phoenix), but I hope someday, when my my girls (Molly and Anny) are older I can bring them, and my husband, to Harlam to match the actual physical place to all the memories I have shared with them. :o)

  8. avatar
    Marcia Leventhal (now meyers) Reply October 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I was at harlem in the late 70’s..best summers of my live. 76, 77, 78…chavurah had amazing teenage memories for me. I loved the feeling of being in a Jewish environment and loved Camp Harlem.

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