by Stacy Walter Katz
Bug juice. N’kayon. Anaf project. Mud boy. T’fillot. Announcements. Lover’s Lane. The scent of Prell shampoo. There are still certain words, phrases, sounds and smells that trigger a flood of amazing memories and bring me right back to 9349 Moore Road in an instant. I spent ten summers – from 1985-1994 – at GUCI, and to this day, I still believe that those were some of the best summers I ever experienced. I can’t pinpoint exactly WHAT it was that made camp so magical and had this magnetic effect upon me. But, I think that there were a number of factors that combined together, like 200 voices harmonizing together in song on Shabbat, that created my love affair with camp.
1) The people. I met some of the funniest, smartest, most intelligent and inspiring people at GUCI. And, interestingly enough, I am still in touch with many of those who I was closest to as a camper, Avodahnik and counselor. We became fast friends, holding hands after a day of knowing one another. We sometimes laid in each other’s bunks at night, laughing so hard that Shmira had to come into our cabin for keeping up the girls in the cabin next door. We took our days and nights off together when we were counselors, dropping coins in washing machines in nearby laundromats. Some of us returned each summer simply because we knew others who were doing so, and we didn’t want to entertain the thought of spending a summer without them nearby. And, after we finally stopped coming back to GUCI, some of us studied and traveled abroad together in college. We have met one another’s spouses and children. We visit one another. We have reunions and find that the twenty years that have passed seem like twenty seconds. I am so lucky that some of my close friends are those who I met over 28 (!) years ago at GUCI. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find lifelong friends when I walked through those camp gates for the first time. I was so wrong!
2) The community. Our camp may not have had a lake or horses, but we had an *amazing* Jewish community where everyone was important and mattered. (Someone once told me that we were known as the ‘singing camp’…) People took care of one another and learned about the Jewish values and teachings of WHY our tradition dictates what it does. We were living and breathing Jewish community with almost every activity we undertook. We came together every morning at the Old Pool – as soon as we woke up and even before we ate breakfast – singing “Modeh Ani” – to be thankful for all we had. And, we concluded our days at camp each evening with T’fillot. We spent every Shabbat and Havdalah together, celebrating and sharing. Sometimes we strongly felt our Jewish communal ties at camp, and sometimes we didn’t pay as much attention. Camp was all about community. As a matter of fact, I remember thinking that it was hard to find time to be alone at camp. Unless you scampered off on Shabbat and hid behind the Oolam on one of those woodsy paths, it was almost impossible to escape the strong community that GUCI created. This had a profound impact on me, as I’m sure it did on others. I can’t say that camp was or wasn’t the reason why I became a Jewish communal professional, but I’m certain it played a role. There are so many other GUCI alumni who have also become Jewish professionals…rabbis, cantors, fundraisers, camp directors, social workers and so on. I love that we do this work together and that we are still committed to building and strengthening Jewish community today, just like we did during our days at camp.
3) Our legacy. Many of those with whom I attended GUCI with no longer live in the Midwest. Some do, but many of us have come to the West (California, Colorado, Washington, Arizona). Some of us have children, and some do not. I have two little ones who are years away from being the right age to attend summer camp. While it probably doesn’t make much sense for me to send my kids to camp that is 2000 miles away, there is nothing more that I want for them than to experience a Jewish summer camp like I did. I am 100% committed to sending my daughter and son to a Jewish summer camp so that they have the opportunity to sing Jewish songs at the top of their lungs, hold hands with their friends with reckless abandon, refer to camp buildings by their Hebrew names and to help create Jewish community in the most fantastic way possible. Yes, they can still do these things in other places, like synagogue or day school, but there is something magical about the Jewish camping experience that just doesn’t seem to be replicated anywhere else. Some of you may have heard about or read the recent Pew Research Study, which focused on the current portrait of Jewish Americans. One of the conclusions that has come from the findings, like other similar surveys have noted, is that Jewish overnight camp is one of the most successful ways to connect young Jews. Camp connects them to one another, and it also engages their families. We know, see and have experienced the power of Jewish summer camp; it is most definitely my responsibility to my own children to give them the gift that my parents gave me when they signed me up as a Shoresh camper in 1985!
My children may not ever find that the words “canteen”, “Chinese jacks” or “Chugim” have the same triggers for them that they do for me, but my hope is that they will have the opportunity to create their own Jewish camp memories and experiences that stay with them for a lifetime. I hope that they, too, can create and be part of a dynamic Jewish community, connect with amazing friends, and bring home a huge footlocker full of memories for years to follow.
Stacy Walter Katz is Associate Director for Philanthropic Resources at the Jewish Federations of North America in California.