I never gave much thought to the intentionality of the summers of my youth. I am not sure how the plan was devised, but early on, I had my summers all mapped out. It started with summers at URJ Camp Harlam (at the time UAHC), NFTY in Israel with my Confirmation class and JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corp. For as long as I could remember, this was the plan. When I was in 9th grade (you know that awful teenage, hate everything age) I was lucky enough to have an older cousin on JFTY Board, who invited me to winter conclave. Mini-Camp in the winter? With no parents and song session to boot? I was hooked and JFTY conclaves began to weave together the long winters before my next summer experience began. Each summer different from the previous, each an exercise in building community, exploring my Judaism and developing leadership skills. And all the while, I had no idea – I was having a blast and hanging with my friends!
I was fortunate enough to have grown up in Westfield, NJ – a NY suburb with a fairly large Jewish community. There was always another kid in my class eating matzah with me or racing off to Hebrew school. I was very active in my temple and my parents surround our family with a chavurah that grew into my extended family. It wasn’t until I got to camp that I realized not everyone was lucky enough to have this. Some of my bunkmates had barely even met another Jew, let alone been friends with one until they came to camp (At the time, not realizing the factors that went into deciding where to live, I thought this was so mean of other parents).
Song sessions, Maccabiah, Israel staff, discussions about G-d. I would have laughed if you had told me some of this magic I thought was “just camp,” was intentional, that I was there to actually learn something. All I thought I was learning was how to shave my legs or plan a raid on boys camp (and yes, I would have to say this was one of my first lessons in getting a disparate group to agree to a plan and it has served me well in my career!). I didn’t realize that I was learning how to be, well, Jewish. I was experiencing Judaism in a way that isn’t taught sitting at a desk in Hebrew school. Religious school is the skills and drills part. I could recite my prayers, tell a bible story, explain why Hannukah was 8 days. But at Camp, Mitzvah Corps, Israel – I was being Jewish all day, every day. I was learning to be spiritual and to love being Jewish in a new way – every day.
During these special times, no one was reading me a bible story that I could barely relate to. We weren’t being told to be Kosher in a certain way or observe Shabbat in the strictest manner. I was experiencing how to be Jewish in a way you can’t anywhere else. Hundreds of us, dressed in white, would walk up to Chapel on the Hill or Chapel in the Woods to celebrate Shabbat (celebrate Shabbat – I didn’t even know at the time that you could celebrate it and not just observe it.). We would sing songs in a way I didn’t know they could be sung – with song leaders and counselors at the helm – and a Rabbi in the background. Yes, it was called a Chapel, and you went there for services, yet the experience of sharing Shabbat this way is incomparable to sitting in a folding chair on Rosh Hashanah in a big cavernous room. I remember my mom telling me that saying the Sh’ma at a URJ Biennial years ago was one of the most intense Jewish experiences of her life. And all I could think as she was a saying that – ‘hey you should try camp or a conclave’.
I never sat around the kitchen table with my parents saying I wanted to work for a Jewish non-profit. But as I look back, the handwriting was on the wall. I wanted to write ads. But instead of the Absolut ads that I would admire as a kid, I write about Jewish camp. I am lucky enough to go to work every day and relive those carefree summers and tell everyone about the magic of Jewish camp.
Alison Rosner Cohen
Director, Marketing & Communications
Foundation for Jewish Camp