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

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Kate Bigam

About Kate Bigam

Kate Bigam is the URJ's Social Media and Community Manager. Prior to this, she served as a Congregational Representative for the URJ's East District and at the Religious Action Center as Press Secretary and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Kate resides in Northeast Ohio.

4 Responses to “I Wish I’d Gone to Jewish Summer Camp”

  1. avatar
    Cantor Mary R. Thomas Reply July 20, 2012 at 7:59 am

    I couldn’t agree more! I figured out in undergrad that I really missed something by not going to Jewish camp. I, like you, didn’t know Jewish camp existed and I wouldn’t have guessed that it was for me at that point, I’m sure. In my early 20s, when I was at a crossroads of whether or not to become a cantor, I realized that HUC would likely provide for me some of what I longed for from camp: an intensive, peer-based Jewish living and learning experience. For me, HUC was an incredible opportunity to have those experiences and build those relationships.

    Thank you for bringing to light the Jewish adult longing for that missed camp experience!

  2. avatar

    Kate, I know exactly what you mean! I didnt have that camp experience either, and also grew up in a community where the only time I got to be with other Jewish kids was at temple on Friday night or at youth group. I did get to go on a couple of retreats back then (to Kutz!) and loved them, which is why I joined a temple when my daughter was small. She now has had the camp experiences that I had wished I had had. She went to Crane Lake for several years. She also went to Israel last year, another experience I did not have, but was glad to be able to give her (with much help from my temple).
    It’s probably why, as a Jewish educator, I want my students to get the most out of their Jewish experiences, whatever tat may mean to them. And it’s probably why I love going on the 5th/6th grade retreat with them (at either Eisner or Kutz)even though it’s not a requirement that I go.
    I WANT to go – its’ the only way I can grab a bit of that camp experience for myself 🙂

  3. avatar

    The camps have a sacred and immense responsibility on their shoulders, because they hold the keys to such formative and foundational experiences in the lives of young Reform Jews. I know that they don’t take this lightly, and have only the most wonderful intentions, but far too often I see clearly that the intensely positive experiences my undergrad peers had at camp also shaped their sensibilities in a direction of which I cannot approve, and which I think is ultimately detrimental to the integrity of liberal Judaism.

    When I first got involved in my college’s Hillel, and eventually became President, I was acutely aware of the little Hebrew jargon and buzzwords that people fell into when they reminisced about camp. Anyone who had not gone was instantly cut off from the conversation, unless they had a good enough working knowledge of Modern Hebrew to figure it out. When working together to develop a “minhag” for our weekly Shabbat meetings, half the group had organic preferences and sensibilities, and the other half was uncomfortable with anything that was not EXACTLY IDENTICAL to what they had done at camp. If I had a penny for every time someone whined “But that’s not what I remember from CAMP…” I would be rich enough to start my own camp! Most of these people had either gone to OSRUI or the Conservative camp Ramah. I was shocked that the OSRUI people seemed to be more attached to legalistic traditions like not re-lighting an accidentally blown out candle than the Ramah folks! Clearly, something is wrong here…

    I do NOT envy the people who “got” to go to URJ camp. Rather I thank God for giving me the opportunity of growing up organically and doing my own Jewish research and learning, rather than being brainwashed into a neo-traditionalist mindset. I think the camps have the potential to be wonderful, but at the moment they are closing young minds, not opening them. It would be nice if kids could have a fun, formative camp experience that instilled lasting Jewish commitment WITHOUT all of the deadeningly narrow neo-traditionalist baggage. I understand that in some ways the camps as they are also teach and reflect some liberal sensibilities and good values, but those are sadly not the parts that I see reflected in my ex-camper and ex-counselor friends.

  4. avatar

    There are so many youngsters who would love Reform Jewish summer camp but can’t afford it. We’ve become a religion of the rich, ignoring the plight of middle class families. For years when I worked in small congregations I begged the UAHC to offer 2 week sessions, or at least find more generous camperships for kids from towns where there are no Federation camp subsidies. I was talking to a wall. I am so sad when my relatives, and former congregants send their kids to sports camps or even JCC camps because with 2 or three kids to send it is impossible to pay the fees for Reform camps. We are losing so many great kids because we don’t reach out to help them.
    The URJ’s summer camping experience is the best thing going for Jewish identity. Why can’t we find the resources to help our less than affluent kids get the same experience?

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