I am not quite sure when I first started to understand the notion of homosexuality. When Billie Jean King was forced to come out, I distinctly recall asking my parents about it and them telling me that she was “with another woman” and that woman was telling her secrets to the world. I remember having this strong reaction about how unfair it was for someone to tell another’s secrets. As I grew older, most of what I learned about LGBT issues was tied to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. And then, as time passed, it became less of a “thing” I knew about and more of a reality in my life. There was a cousin, who was gay, and died from AIDS. A friend from high school who came out and we all accepted. A close girlfriend from Jewish sleep away camp who came to me struggling with coming out and wanted my acceptance. In the course of 25 years, there has been a transformation from when being gay was this abstract thing in my life to being just a way of life. I am pretty sure that the planet around me has grown with me in this area too. I mean: same-sex marriage 25 years ago? People would never have even understood why it was a civil rights situation.
I am a pretty liberal person, probably more liberal than most. So it is not a real shock that much of this is totally a “non-issue” for me. However, I am always shocked by how much I have to learn and how completely encompassed I am in my own little world. When that friend from sleep away camp came out to me when I was 22, I was surprised. She wanted my approval so badly and I was not sure why. And I didn’t know how to explain that my surprise was just surprise, not disappointment or judgment. It took us a few weeks and then everything was back to normal between us. Today I am still friends with her as well as and her partner who she has been living very happily with for over ten years.
When I got my Masters in Social Work and Jewish Communal Service, there were plenty of LGBT people there and also plenty of people who thought this was wrong. I was shocked by the ignorance of those who thought this was a moral decision. I considered myself an advocate of anyone who needed me to speak up. That being said, I was still pretty separate from the LGBT world.
Then I had the chance to go to a Keshet training. WOW. I was one ignorant person. I was the only “straight” person and I was completely lost in the conversation a lot of the time. I needed to know what letters stood for what, that there were issues like why getting married was a political and financial choice as opposed to just some loving decision, why parenting was different when everything was showing your child that your family was not the “norm.” I was able to learn that people were struggling with such simple issues that I gave no thought to: what to tell their grandparents about their partner, when to come out to certain people, what companies were innately against the family they loved, how going to a public restroom was filled with angst for people who felt trapped in another body. All of this was just stuff I did … and took for granted.
I felt out of place. But I am a question-asker, and ask I did. It became apparent to me that being an ally of others required more than my mere acceptance. It required me to stand up, speak out, say something, look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
That was five years ago, and I now consider myself an advocate for LGBT issues. It has changed what I let people say in front of me and how I parent. It has let me know that there are people struggling with issues that are so deep and so involved for them that I cannot understand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and let them know that my world is a place where I will not only accept who they are but celebrate it. I will not allow people to be anything less than welcoming in my presence. I will cheer the camper who needs to figure out how to come out to the bunk and I will gladly explain to a parent about the transgender staff member we have working for us.
I am so proud that the LGBT community answered my questions and gave me a safe place to ask them. I am even prouder that as the counselors and other staff at our camp talk about these things, it is almost a “non-issue.” I learn so much from these 19- and 20-year-olds who just see this as the most normal part of life. Many of them have no idea who Billie Jean King is and they certainly can’t see why sharing someone’s secret would be on the news. They are infuriated by homophobia and champion marriage equality. They give my daughter a chance to see things from such a different perspective that she truly has no idea that there are people who think it is wrong for some people to be married or have children. As she grows, I am thrilled to share my anger and disbelief at those people’s stupidity with her.
I know that many people say they are accepting or tolerant, but I want more from all of us. I want celebration of differences. I want people to be comfortable to ask and answer questions about differences. I want to be a person who lives and works in a place where friends and strangers know that I am supportive of all people. I am working toward this each and every day. Don’t get me wrong: some days I mess up on a pronoun or I say something that is completely heterosexist. But as time passes, I can feel the difference happening and I am so lucky to be in such an accepting community like Camp JRF where I can ask and have questions answered, where I am made to feel comfortable even in my ignorance, and where I am celebrating people who love and care for each other and themselves.
Last August, when my son, Jonah, returned from sleepaway camp with a sunburn, an array of nasty-looking mosquito bites, and a desire to water ski again (though this time for longer than a nanosecond), he also had a deepening connection to ritual. At camp, he’d taken to the morning flag-raising ceremonies, the campfire singalongs, as well as the Friday evening Shabbat dinners. I’m guessing that’s what inspired him to insist, this fall, on fasting on Yom Kippur; it was a carryover from his summer of Jewish education. His effort not to eat was, for a 14-year-old with an enormous appetite, remarkable: he made it until lunch.
But then Jonah, who was diagnosed with autism a little more than a decade ago, has always had an affinity for ritual. In fact, one of the early signs of his autism, for me at least, was his habit of lining up his toys single-file from one end of his bedroom to the other. He would have done this for hours if we let him. He could always tell, too, when I switched one toy’s place with another in the line. And, under no circumstances would he tolerate the chaos of double-file or a semi-circle. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was a lot less interested in engaging in imaginative play with his tiny trucks and alphabet blocks and stuffed animals than he was in giving them an orderly world in which to exist. Which is, come to think of it, the whole point of ritual.
A point, I confess, I’m missing these days. After all, this was the year I deliberately passed on the apple slices dipped in honey on offer at my mother-in-law’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. It was also the first year, since my Bar Mitzvah, that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. My reasons were simple and admittedly childish: I was angry with God. The reason for that was simple, too. My beloved sister died this past August after contracting a mysterious illness and suffering for an excruciating six weeks in the hospital (Jonah came home from camp the day of her funeral) and I was determined to blame God. Childish, like I said, but once my initial anger subsided I had no need to see the world as an orderly place. I’d experienced this kind of thing before, decades earlier, when my mother and father died within two years of each other. When my sister died, I discovered the instinct to be vindictive was – like riding a bicycle – impossible to forget.
But now, it’s Hanukkah and Jonah is all in for the holiday, for the gifts, the candle-lighting, the dreidel spinning and the latkes; and I am doing my best to play along. Still, Hanukkah may be a good way for me to get back on the ritual bandwagon. As Jewish holidays go, it’s innocuous and undemanding. The emphasis is mainly on fun; the mood mainly lighthearted. No great physical, emotional or intellectual demands are going to be made on me. I also can’t help remembering that my late sister loved Hanukkah. She made mouth-watering latkes and, along with my other sister, devoted herself to finding and meticulously wrapping eight special presents for Jonah. It was just one of the many small ways she demonstrated her love for her nephew and also her acceptance of him, which was, from the moment he was born as well as the moment we learned he had autism, absolute and unconditional. So, for the sake of my son and my sister, I’ll put my holiday boycott on hold. The truth is I’ll be doing it for my own sake, too. And while I recognize it’s a lot to ask of any ritual to make the world seem less random, less cruel, it’s probably not the worst place to start.
On their surfaces, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a few banding together to beat the elements, and the power of having faith in community. We camp folk know that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. When they recaptured the Temple they found one small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. The third miracle of Hanukkah is that the story of the second miracle of the oil overshadows the first miracle of a civil war.
Now we turn our attention to Thanksgiving. It is a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year. This is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached Plymouth Rock.
But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There we read:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.
Like the third miracle of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrims, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the recreation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers.
We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its true origins. Camp in its essence is a self-made community built on rituals, traditions, and history that is created by its members and need not be based solely on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real. I hope you have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.
Growing up in Odessa, Ukraine until I was 15 years old I knew about two dozen Jews personally. Of those, only about five of them were under the age of 50 and did not open every story with: “When I was your age we shared one pair of shoes between five siblings and could only wear them to stand in line for food.” Until I was 15, what I knew of being Jewish was limited to my grandmother’s cooking, some Yiddish curses, matza babka for Passover, occasional stories about family members who perished at the hands of Nazis and random outbursts of antisemitism at school or on the bus. And then there was summer that changed my life forever. Three unforgettable weeks at a Jewish Agency for Israel summer camp by the Black Sea that blew my mind. It was a summer of firsts: meeting an Israeli for the first time, learning “Hatikvah” with 300 other Jews my age, and most importantly –finding out Jews could be significantly taller than my family’s average 5’3”!
My Jewish camp story began on the coast of the Black Sea and continued to the other side of Atlantic when my family immigrated to the United States. It turned into a life-long mission of making sure thousands of others like me have similar experiences. Why? Because while we make up at least 15% of the North American Jewish population (20% in some larger metropolitan Jewish areas) most Russian-speaking Jews have not spent time at Jewish camp.
There are many historical and social reasons why Russian-speaking Jews are not coming to camp. Though the Soviet Jewry Movement made it possible for nearly a million Russian-speaking Jews to successfully resettle in North America, almost eight decades of living a very different kind of Jewish life – life that led to a very individual, intellectual and cultural Jewish identity with no ties to Jewish religion, community or traditions – left Russian-speaking Jews on the sidelines of organized Jewish life. Therefore, over twenty years later Jewish camps that could be providing transformative Jewish experiences to tens of thousands more children are not even on the radar for Russian-speaking families.
Last week, Sarah Benenson, a 17 year old from New Jersey born to a Russian-speaking family, shared her Jewish camp story with a group of major philanthropists who came together at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Funders Summit: Engaging Russian Speaking Jews in Jewish Camp. Her story, not unlike mine, began with very little interaction with the organized Jewish life until she followed her friends to spend a summer at Havurah, a Jewish camp program for Russian-speaking teens at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, NY. The experience led to three amazing summers as a camper, a summer as staff at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and an upcoming year course in Israel. Sarah’s camp story is a success – a success that could be achieved for thousands of children and teens from Russian-speaking families. But such success can only be achieved when approaching engagement of this significant part of the Jewish community with intention and understanding of their unique interests and challenges; when hiring and training staff; and building programs that can address their interests.
I consider myself lucky. I found Jewish camp and strong ties to the Jewish community as a result. I spend every day at work making sure more great Jewish camp stories are written and shared. It is my hope that mine or Sarah’s stories are not unique and by sharing them we can engage families in Jewish life and build a stronger Jewish community.
Huge drums of food overflow in Jewish Studies classrooms at school.
A formidable stack of brightly-colored pieces of artwork perch precariously, threatening to tumble off of my desk.
This isn’t exactly a blog post about meetings. What kind of blogger writes about meetings? After all, you don’t get lots of numbers for writing about how “at 1:45PM, every Monday, she meets with her supervisor and talks about the tasks at hand.”
And yet, this is a blog post about meetings. Last year, when I first met my contact at Atlanta, GA’s JF&CS, I had no idea what to expect. Let’s review your agency’s good work, I thought, and figure out how to make some mitzvah happen at our machaneh (Hebrew for camp, and also because I love alliteration). Sheri was insightful and helpful and inspired URJ Camp Coleman’s Donate Duplicate Dental Supplies for a local dental clinic. She was good for camp and I continued to appreciate our relationship as I bugged her over the year for suggestions on ways to make mitzvot happen.
This is my job. I have to figure out how to make mitzvot happen.
This year’s Mitzvah Meeting couldn’t come soon enough! In addition to make sure mitzvot happen each summer at camp, school also is always looking for ways to be more involved and to teach our core value of Tzedek/righteousness. And so, after a really cool and long meeting about mitzvot for all ages and stages – starting with what the youngest kids do in the Lower School and through the Philanthropy work the Machon CITs do at camp – more cool ideas emerged.
First project? Making place mats for a Holocaust Survivors’ Chanukah Party. Taking a few study halls, volunteers joined our the Middle School Jewish Life Leadership representatives in sketching, scrawling, coloring and gluing. The finished results will be laminated and distributed soon!
Again, it seems kind of boring to talk about meetings. But these meetings, so filled with purpose, meaning and tzedek, are what yield these incredibly moving and positive results. Youth, ages 4 and up, are impacted by the Jewish commitment of their school and/or camp – the commitment to values and mitzvot.
We’re not just together to learn and to have fun – although we are really good at fun and great at learning. We’re together to make a difference. To create meaning. And to fill the world with more light and love, as a result of our commitment to mitzvah. And that is the most inspiring thing, isn’t it?
More thoughts on giving.
‘Tis the season of thankfulness and giving. Are these words synonymous in meaning when it comes to the holidays? For some the answer is yes and for some no. When I think of the holidays I generally think of family and then quickly think hmmm, what am I going to get everyone this year? Then the thoughts become about me (obviously) and I think, what do I want for the holidays this year? There is so much about this happy exchange, ripping wrapping paper and watching the reaction when exposing the innards of such gifts that make the childish giddiness resurface.
This year when thinking about Hanukkah and gift giving, I am feeling intrigued by the calendar collide. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving join forces forming what is being marketed as Thanksgivukkah. The holiday for which we reflect on what we are thankful for and a holiday that has become a celebration of eight nights of presents. A funny symmetry, receive a gift for one holiday and be thankful for it for another… no, that’s not what this is about? Or is it?
When I was a young girl, part of the requirement towards becoming a Bat Mitzvah was to complete a certain number of hours of community service. I was set up with an organization and once a week after school I went to this office space and stuffed envelopes. I had no idea what I was folding. Not a clue what I was shoving into those white envelopes. And even less of a thought as to whom these envelopes were being sent to. Did I think to ask? Nah. There wasn’t internet at the time and if there was, would I have cared to look up what this organization did? Probably not. I did what was asked of me and earned my necessary community service hours and I am proud to say that I achieved my requirements towards becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Mazel Tov (congrats) to me and anyone else who walked through these motions to meet the requirements of our adolescence.
Flash forward to present day, a time in my life where I use the Hebrew phrases, tikkun olam (heal or repair the world) and tikkun midot (heal from the inside out) almost daily to describe a portion of the Jewish values that we focus on at “my” camp, Passport NYC and at 92Y. Values that help to find meaning in the actions of each day. Meaningful in the way that we reach out to the community within the space we live or the space that surrounds us. Meaningful in the way that helps those around us and the earth beneath our feet. Each and every one of us have the opportunity to find meaningful ways to give, whether it is our time, our money, our leftovers, our unused clothes, our energy, our knowledge, our passion, our friendship, our love – giving lends itself to you, the giver.
Recently I was invited to the 4th birthday party of a close friends son, included in the invite was a link to donate to a charity of the child’s choice in lieu of gifts. I was amazed and impressed. I was thrilled and surprised. I was even more in awe when the child himself told me that he knows there are kids out there that could use the gifts more than him. Yup, 4 years old.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3rd a day has been dedicated to just this, Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday). Our modern day has allowed us to turn the days after giving thanks into days in which sales blast stores and the internet, known as ‘Black Friday’ followed by ‘Cyber Monday’ and within these great sales and opportunities for us consumers to consume the day has come where we can give, however you feel empowered to give.
Maybe this holiday season you choose a charity that means something to you and stuff white envelopes or share a link to a charity you connect with for holiday gift donations or indulge in the wrapping paper ripping, but whatever route you take- giving doesn’t only have to take place when we’re saying thanks. There are so many ways we can give and be thankful that don’t need to come wrapped with bows and dreidel printed paper. We can come together with family and friends this holiday season and give with meaning. I hope you can take your Thanksgivukkah moment to be thankful, to give gifts and to give back and feel thankful for the ability to do just that.
We continue our series on giving.
Autumn is definitely my favorite time of year. I love the change in weather, the trees changing color, getting to wear comfy sweaters, and above all, I love the holiday traditions that span the fall months. Thanksgiving has got to be one of the best American holidays ever. Does it get much better than celebrating with friends and family, expressing gratitude, and sharing in a delicious feast? I think not. I also love that leading up to Thanksgiving, I see a lot of people on social media actively thinking and talking about they are grateful for and how they are celebrating the holiday through acts of giving.
Giving is a concept that is very deep-seeded in Jewish tradition (as is celebrating with loved ones and eating lots of food in the process) and one that I’d like to briefly explore with you here. In Judaism, we commonly use the word tzedakah to describe charitable giving. The Hebrew word tzedakah actually means “justice” or “fairness”. This implies that according to Jewish tradition, giving of one’s self to another, whether with money, time, or kindness, is less about going “above and beyond” and more about acting in a righteous way that that is really just expected of us.
At Ranch Camp, we provide opportunities for campers to take part in tikkun olam projects each summer. Our teen travel programs for instance, all have components in which campers go and volunteer in a variety of worthy settings. It is an important part of the trip program experience, giving our teens an opportunity to develop leadership skills, humility, and compassion. Our hope is also that their volunteer experience instills a sense of the importance of tzedakah in our campers and encourages them to undertake such work throughout their lives. After all, giving of yourself to others feels good. Camp is a great setting to develop a love and passion for tzedakah and tikkun olam – it certainly did for me.
The work projects I took part of through my childhood synagogue and at Ranch Camp made me love volunteer work, and in my adult life, I try to take advantage of any opportunities in my community to give back to others in need. In September, certain areas of Colorado were devastated by flash floods. It was heartbreaking to see homes, businesses, and synagogues in Boulder County destroyed knowing that so many in our camp community were being effected by this unprecedented natural disaster. The Denver JCC organized a group of staff to go up in the aftermath of the flood to one of the synagogues to assist in clean up efforts. Seven of us spent the day moving out sludge, taking down dry wall, and trying our best to wipe away the damage that four feet of water had inflicted on the synagogue’s basement. We worked side by side with men and women who call the synagogue home, both figuratively and literally. You see, this synagogue not only is a spiritual home for congregants but also serves as a community homeless shelter. These special workers were giving of themselves to a place and community that had open their doors them in their time of need – they were giving back. It felt incredibly good to be there that day and volunteer my time to this effort. I felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself and that I was making a difference, even if it was small.
During this holiday season, I ask you and your family to consider dedicating part your Thanksgiving celebration to giving. A donation of money, time, or kindness to those in the community that could use support or aid is sure to enhance your own holiday cheer. I have really found that there is something about getting involved in giving to others that is in turn very beneficial for my own sense of well being and psyche. As Maya Angelou noted, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”
I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving and Hanukkah season ahead!
Last month I wrote about new ways of looking at the same old foods as a way to take an important camp value and bring it home. In general, this speaks to the greater lesson of creativity and ingenuity that kids often learn at camp. It may sound odd at first to say this, but creativity is so important in Jewish tradition. The Israelites had to find innovative ways to sleep and eat while wandering in the desert for 40 years, the rabbis of the Talmud constantly had to find interesting solutions to complex legal problems, the Jews of the Inquisition had to find new ways of secretly practicing Judaism, and many of the modern Jews of our time have found unique paths that bridge the religious and the secular in a seamless and meaningful manner.
The confluence of creativity and tradition could not be more relevant than this month, when the first day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fall on the same night. Here is an opportunity to be creative with our Jewish tradition and to create new secular traditions. It’s an opportunity not only to make some interesting Hanukkah-Thanksgiving fusion dishes (see recipe below!) but to talk as a family about the meaning of both holidays and how we can integrate them in our minds and at our tables in order to understand and appreciate both in new and meaningful ways.
As a means of getting you started, try out these delicious low fat cranberry pecan sufganiyot (Israeli donuts traditionally eaten on Hanukkah) in muffin form- what could be a newer, more interesting pairing of cultures?!
Cranberry Pecan Pie Sufganiyot
Makes 24 mini doughnut-muffins
1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons plus ¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup buttermilk
½ cup dark molasses
3 large egg whites
3 tablespoons canola oil
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2-3 tablespoons cranberry juice
¼ cup roasted pecans
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Spray 2 mini-muffin tins generously with cooking spray. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar to coat, then tap out the excess.
- Whisk flour, the remaining 3/4 cup granulated sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl.
- Make a well in the dry ingredients and set aside.
- Whisk buttermilk, molasses, egg whites and oil in another bowl.
- Fold the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula just until blended, taking care not to over-mix.
- Spoon about 1 generous tablespoon of batter into each muffin cup, smoothing the tops.
- Bake until the tops spring back when touched lightly, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Loosen edges and turn the doughnuts out onto a wire rack to cool. Whisk confectioners’ sugar and cranberry juice in a bowl to make a smooth, thick glaze. Pour onto a small plate.
- Chop the pecans into small pieces.
- When the doughnuts are completely cool dip the tops in the glaze and place them on a wire rack (place wax paper or paper towels under the rack to make clean up easier!) to allow the excess glaze to drip off.
- Sprinkle the chopped nuts over and enjoy.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Jerusalem where I participated in two important gatherings: the Planning Summit for a new proposed Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry and the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. For those of us who are dedicated to bolstering Jewish identity and creating a more vibrant Jewish future, these proceedings demonstrated a paradigm shift – a new two-way street between Israel and the Diaspora – with exciting possibilities. Despite the diversity of perspectives and approaches, we worked together in an open and collaborative way. And I was personally very encouraged to hear the almost universal consensus that the transformative power of Jewish camp mandates further investment and expansion.
The Government of Israel initiative represents a huge opportunity for world Jewry to work together to confront assimilation and to enhance Jewish identity. Building on the success of Birthright, the new initiative will be comprised of a significant investment by the Israeli government which will be matched with philanthropic contributions in order to reposition the place of Israel in the hearts and minds of young Jews throughout the world. We hope to leverage opportunities by taking advantage of the “adjacent possibilities” that emerge from the successes we are already having. This would include two areas which would impact our camp community in particular: enhanced Israel education at camp and increased immersive teen travel experiences in Israel.
During the GA, JFNA board chair Michael Siegal and CEO Jerry Silverman shared their priorities in response to the issues raised in the Pew study. With clarity and purpose, they called for the significant expansion of Jewish summer camps. When asked who had attended or had sent their kids Jewish camp, the vast majority of the GA delegates raised their hands affirmatively – a clear visible demonstration of how camp creates adults committed to our Jewish community. Federation leadership from across North America expressed to me their commitment to expanding that which we know is working.
Read the rest of this feature on the Times of Israel.
When I was a kid, I stunk at sports. I did. I don’t like to think I did, but I know the truth. My basketball shot looked like Bill Cartwright’s on a bad day. My baseball career? Let’s just say I was a defensive replacement. My soccer game? Oh, is that a dandelion?!
But I went to Jewish summer camps (Beber, Ramah Wisconsin) that were multi-purpose camps instead of specialty camps. These are camps that let kids do theater AND sports. Where campers might spend a period of the day learning about Jewish holidays, then playing basketball, then swimming in the lake before going to play practice! Camp was heaven for a kid like me, who liked to do lots of different things – some of them well, some not as well.
Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly something to be said about the value of specializing. And had the fantastic specialty camps that exist now been around when I was a kid, I’d no doubt be the first one to sign up to spend all summer doing theater. In some ways, I regret that I never had that opportunity. For kids who participate in one main activity during the school year, summers are a chance to hone skills that can be put to immediate use, furthering kids’ natural talents and abilities. But part of me is also okay with the fact that I never had the chance to attend a Jewish specialty theater camp because I learned a ton about myself by being pushed in other directions. I learned that summers can also be a chance for kids who are narrowly focused during the year to try something new with lower stakes. Archery? Horseback riding? Reading Torah? These might not be activities that are as readily available to kids during the year as they might be at summer camp. And I am grateful that my parents sent me to places that would expose me to lots of different activities.
To be clear, outside of camp I was that kid. I started acting professionally when I was 12. I chose a conservatory instead of a regular general education college experience. I have only worked in theater since I graduated over 10 years ago. And that is why I value even more the time I got as a kid to play softball, to ride horses, swim in a lake, and learn Torah. No, playing tennis at camp never got me into Wimbledon. Like I’ve said, I wasn’t an athlete, I was a performer. But thanks (in a great deal) to camp, I loved sports. And so, in high school, when I wanted to spend more time around the athletic teams, I contributed in the only way I knew how: I became the mascot.