By Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Assosciate Director URJ Greene Family Camp
The story of Passover is a story about moving forward, about overcoming challenge and adversity and ultimately finding freedom. We tell this story year after year at our seders.
We know the story well: The Israelites were enslaved for centuries in Egypt. Under Moses’ leadership and with the help of God, the Israelites fought Pharoah, and in a hurry, marched through a split sea from slavery to freedom.
It’s a dramatic story, with a great plot line, and lots of action. But let us not forget that it wasn’t just big moments and magic. Each Israelite had to pack up a home and a life; each person had to leave home suddenly, without knowing what would come next; each person had to have faith that it would all work out in the end, that freedom was just around the corner.
Coming to camp has many parallels with the Exodus story. When campers get ready for that first summer at camp, they are leaving everything they know; they are leaving home for an unknown land; they have to have faith that it will all work out in the end. (And, no, I’m not saying that our lives at home are Egypt or that parents are enslaving their kids… it’s an imperfect metaphor, but still one that is valuable.)
Camp begins with song and fun and lots of cheering. I have long felt that the moment the summer really begins is that first dinner in the Chadar Ochel, when a once-eerily quiet room is suddenly bursting with cabin cheers, dancing, laughter and lots of talking. Suddenly, GFC has come alive again, and another summer is here.
Camp also begins in hundreds of homes much more quietly. Campers (well, really, parents) are going through packing lists, buying sunscreen and water bottles and labeling clothes. Still, campers have much more time to prepare for camp than our Israelite ancestors did for the exodus.
Once camp begins, it’s easy to become caught up in the magic and big moments. Those times are so memorable: the whole camp singing at the first all camp song session; Shabbat, looking over hundreds of people, all dressed in white; the Maccabiah break… and you never know when (or if) it’s coming; and so much more. These moments make camp stick with us, and create the silliness and fun that makes camp what it is.
Camp, though, is more than those big moments. It’s the late night whispered conversations during flashlight time. It’s comforting a friend who is missing home, or realizing how many friends you have when you, yourself, begin to miss home. It’s reaching the top of the Alpine Tower or jumping that first blob into Lake Jake, when you weren’t sure if you could do it. It’s looking around your cabin and realizing that you didn’t know these people 3 weeks ago, and now you can’t imagine life without them.
For so many children, camp is the embodiment of freedom. When the Israelites left Egypt, they didn’t know where they were going. They couldn’t forsee the years of wandering or what the Promised Land would be like. It was the journey itself that made our people free. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan writes that “Redemption is not an abstract or philosophical construct. It’s a fine-tuning of the human soul that helps us to love more… and grow into a complete human being
So too it is for our campers. It’s impossible to predict what a summer of camp will bring, what growth will happen, or how campers will change. But positive growth does happen at camp, each and every summer. The joy of seeing what that change will be, is part of the quieter magic of camp and of the Jewish tradition of seeking freedom and redemption.