I Wish I’d Gone to Jewish Summer Camp
I often find myself saying, “I never went to summer camp” – but that’s not exactly true. I did go to camp. I went to Camp Y-Noah, a YMCA day camp where I excelled at archery, in particular. I went to Camp Ledgewood, where I joined other Girl Scouts horseback riding, sleeping in tents, and calling our counselors things like Bubbles and Ginger in place of their real names. And I went to Kent State for Kids, a college-style day camp that allowed me to pick “classes” on topics that interested me, like acting, more archery, and learning Korean (yes, at age 8, and no, it didn’t stick).
What I mean, of course, is that I didn’t go to Jewish summer camp. Don’t get me wrong, I liked my childhood camp experiences a lot. My time at Kent State for Kids, in particular, probably qualifies as a “formative experience,” and I think back fondly on my four summers there – but the more I immerse myself in the Reform Jewish community, the more I regret never attending a Jewish summer camp.
To be fair, until I was 22 years old, I had no idea that Jewish summer camps even existed. I suspect my mom didn’t know either – or that if she did, she assumed either that I wouldn’t want to go or that she could not afford to send me (or maybe both). I grew up in a small suburb south of Cleveland, just far enough away from the city that I was one of only two Jews in school throughout my childhood, even in a high school of 2,000. My Jewish friends consisted only of the handful of kids in my b’nai mitzvah class, all of whom lived in other cities and attended other schools, making our Jewish experience strictly limited to the times we were at synagogue together.
My first boyfriend (in that middle school sense) was a boy named Harrison with whom I attended Hebrew school, and I spent more than a few weekend nights at giggly sleepovers with Jen and Amanda, my two closest friends from temple. Largely, though, there was no pervasive sense of Judaism in my everyday life aside from frequently having to explain what being Jewish meant to friends who had no idea – but because I was never entirely sure myself, this mostly meant I spent a lot of time explaining that, no, I did not believe in Jesus, and yes, I celebrated eight days of Chanukah instead of Christmas. I enjoyed my Jewish experiences as a child and as a teenager, but always wished I could find a more meaningful way to engage with the Jewish community.
In mid-June, I spent 36 hours at the URJ’s Kutz Camp for a staff retreat with fellow URJ employees. While there, we stayed in cabins on the campus, ate meals in the dining hang, sang with Jewish musician Josh Nelson in the outdoor theater, and toured the sprawling campgrounds. Though we were just 80 adults in attendance for a few short hours rather than a couple hundred teenagers there for months at a time, it was easy to visualize the buzz of activity that populates Kutz during the summer. Surfaces across the camps are covered in photos of campers past and present, and one wall boasts a massive board signed by campers professing their love of Kutz and the way camp changed their lives. The staff’s enthusiasm for their work was evident in everything from their smiles and helpfulness to the placards they left on our beds reading, “Welcome home.” At the end of the retreat, Kutz Director Melissa Frey was near tears giving a closing address to our group: “When we say ‘Welcome home,’” she told us, “we really mean it.” And you know what? I believed her. In fact, I found myself wishing I could stay at Kutz longer to experience that rest of what camp has to offer.
Yes, I went to summer camp, but I never went to Jewish summer camp, and I desperately wish I had. In the summer, I follow our camps’ social media presences with a voracious fascination, hoping to live vicariously through the campers and staffers who seem to love being at camp more than I have perhaps ever loved being anywhere. I read their blog posts, watch their videos, and flip through their pictures in the hope of feeling connected and inspired by proxy. Heck, I even bought a pair of Eisner Camp sweatpants to show my New England Jewish pride… despite having never stepped foot on Eisner Camp’s grounds!
Although I can’t go back and create a more Jewish childhood for myself, I can help inspire other young Jews to become more engaged. I confess that camp season makes me a bit sad, if only because I am again reminded of all the wonderful experiences and relationships I missed out by not engaging with my Judaism until my adulthood. It thrills me, though, to see our young people enjoying camp the way they do, to read memories of alumni whose camp experiences have stayed with them throughout their lives – and to know that although I will never count myself among those alumni, I am still, in working for the Reform Movement, part of a community that enriches lives and strengthens Judaism.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah