“And go round and round and round in the circle game…”
The words of Joni Mitchell’s classic folk song have been sung many a summer. Now, truly, I feel as if my life has come round and round and round, full circle in the circle game… thanks to Jewish summer camp.
In the early 1970s, I was a young girl from a classical Reform congregation in New Orleans. Back then, for me the most engaging thing about going to Temple was wearing my new patent leather shoes. All I knew about attending Shabbat services was to stand and recite the Shema, and beyond that to sit still and be quiet until it was over. The service was an endless stream of responsive reading in “high” English, and frankly even on Family Night, the sermon was highly intellectualized. As a kid, it wasn’t for me.
I was very lucky, though—because my family did celebrate joyously at home on Shabbat and holidays, and my sisters and I got sent to Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi.
1971, my very first summer at camp, was absolutely magical! Services were filled with the music of Debbie Friedman, there was joy in prayer, Hebrew was an engaging and new thing for me to learn, and not only did the campers participate in worship services, but also the sermons were actually geared to teach young people.
That summer changed my life forever. I had found my personal Jewish self and was lit on fire. The experience was so powerful that out of my cabin of eight girls would ultimately emerge two rabbis, two synagogue presidents, a URJ National Board member, and a Captain in the United States Army! Leadership and a love of Jewish life were things we all developed, that summer and each summer we returned.
Macy B. Hart, who served as Jacobs Camp’s Director for 30 years, was and remains a force of nature. One of his most distinguished qualities is that he is a seed planter and a seed reaper, each summer and over the course of many years. Long after I was a camper, we stayed in touch, and when the time was right for the ISJL to offer me an opportunity to become a Jewish professional, he called and I said YES!
I still am delighted to be the Director of Programming for the ISJL. Last year I was doubly blessed to marry a wonderful man, move back home to New Orleans, AND become the Director of Education for my home congregation, Temple Sinai. A lot has changed since I was a kid in the 70s, and I have a chance now to be a part of the continued growth of my community, as a congregant and staff member.
This summer I had the privilege of serving on staff as a guest educator for a week at Jacobs. I arrived on Friday afternoon and during Shabbat dinner I looked around in awe as I realized that there were 20 of “my” kids from Temple Sinai in New Orleans, with whom I was sharing this beautiful Shabbat!
And now I get to be a part of their circle game, just as they have become a part of mine. Generation to generation, on a small campground, learning to be the next leaders and shapers of Jewish life. That’s the magic of Jewish summer camp.
This past Thursday, my wife and I got up early, packed our car with trunks, suitcases, plastic drawers, and sleeping bags, and drove our two daughters to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Actually, at first we stopped outside the gates to wait in line with a hundred or so other cars. The “gate opening” tradition is a long one at Jacobs. People get there up to three hours early and wait in 95 degree heat. The kids walk up and down the rural road reconnecting with old friends from summers past. Many of the parents who are Jacobs alumni do the same.
Finally, at 11 am, the gates are opened, we receive our cabin assignments, and we help move our kids into their bunks and cubbies. As soon as we help them unpack, we are encouraged to hit the road, so the “magic” of camp can start.
I suspect this experience is quite common for parents who send their kids to summer camp. But there is something about Jacobs Camp that makes it rather unique. For many of the kids “walking the line” on this hot summer morning, the friends they reunite with make up most if not all of their Jewish social life. My two daughters are the only Jewish kids in their classes at school, and most all of their friends at home are non-Jewish. In places like Jackson, Mississippi, where we live, and other places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, where many Jacobs campers come from, this is not uncommon. Each summer, my daughters look forward to experiencing the immersive Jewish social environment of the camp. For the past 43 years, Jacobs Camp has helped make sure that Jewish kids in the Deep South become Jewish adults, not something we can take for granted down here.
This function is no accident. In fact, it was the central reason the camp was created in the 1960s. Jewish parents from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Tennessee decided that such a camp would help provide a desperately needed Jewish peer group for their kids, many of whom lived in small, isolated communities. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to which most congregations in the region belonged, did not support the plan, fearing that the region’s Jewish population was too small to support a camp. But the small Jewish population was precisely the point for the camp! Once the congregations in the region raised the money and broke ground, the Union agreed to take ownership of Jacobs as part of its national network of camps.
No other camp has to attract anywhere near the same percentage of Jewish kids in residing in its region to fill its beds (nearly 30%!). The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named for the former executive director of Temple Sinai in New Orleans who died while the camp was being developed, was truly a grassroots effort of the region’s Jewish families. Because of this, there is a pride of ownership and a strong sense of connection to it.
Our forebears built the camp with the dream of providing a Jewish environment for the next generations of Jews in the Deep South. My children are now part of that generation. While much has changed in the Jewish South over the past 43 years, the challenge of raising Jewish children in an overwhelmingly Christian environment with little in the way of a Jewish peer group remains. And so each summer we continue the ritual of labeling shirts and shorts, pulling trunks out of the attic, packing the car, and walking up and down the line, eagerly waiting for the gates to open.
Do you have memories of going to summer camp growing up?