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.
After two 15 year old boys performed a passionate, if not pitch perfect, duet of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” after a cabin of girls brushed their teeth onstage using guacamole for toothpaste, after a slew of performances both great and courageous got unanimous rounds of applause, after all the hot chocolate in camp had been consumed, after all that was the Bogrim (young adults) Coffee House on Tuesday night at Camp Kingswood, the chadar ochel (dining hall) emptied out. And when the campers and counselors had all left to go to bed, that’s when the real magic moment happened.
I stayed after the Coffee House on Tuesday to have a conversation with six staff members, all new to camp, all from outside the United States. Three Israelis, two Aussies, and a Brit. We had a wide-ranging conversation about their impressions of camp, the people, the environment, the Judaism. One Australian, non-Jewish staff member spoke with pride at the fact that she had memorized Birkat HaMazon and loved singing it at the end of each meal with her campers. One Israeli staff member talked about how amazing it is that the kitchen can produce almost a thousand meals a day and still have the food be delicious! But those tidbits were merely appetizers for the best comment of the night.
Sometimes when it rains, it pours. In my 22 years of spending summers at camp, I have found that this axiom is especially true at camp. The storms are bigger in the summertime, in the woods. Or at least they feel that way when you’re hanging out in a wood cabin, hearing the raindrops pound the roof while you play rafter ball with your buddies. In the case of Camp Kingswood, by the time I got to camp on Monday it had rained nine of the previous 12 days. After I left on Wednesday, that number has risen to 11 of the previous 14. Not to say that people weren’t having the time of their lives – in fact, rain days at camp can be so much fun! Unless you’re on swim staff. Then things get interesting. You play games indoors, you come up with rain plans for evening activies…like casino night!
It was at casino night that one staff member, a member of swim staff whose hopes of teaching swimming had been stymied by mother nature for more than a week, fell down and broke her arm. It instantly became an impossibility that this staff member would get to teach swimming anytime soon, or even lifeguard down at the lake. One could imagine this staff member feeling a bit down, needing a boost from her childhood friends. We are at camp, after all. But this staff member was in her first year at Kingswood, traveling all the way from England to work on swim staff at a summer camp in Maine. So when she finished telling me her story, I was sure this staff member would talk about how frustrated she was, how disappointed, how bummed or sad. But that wouldn’t make a very good blog post, would it?
We were going around the circle, describing our summers, and this staff member declared with a huge smile on her face, that one thing has surprised her more than anything else at camp: not once has she felt homesick. After the broken arm, she spoke on the phone with her mother. And she told her mom the same thing. Sad about the arm, thrilled to be at camp. Not homesick one bit. I had to ask her why? What about Kingswood makes her feel the way she does? Her answer? Everyone at Kingswood treats it like it’s their second home, so I do as well. It’s like having a second family. How could anyone be homesick here?
Of course, many people do feel homesick at camp. Especially their first summer. Especially young campers and new staff. But Camp Kingswood has given us all an aspirational goal: to make our camps feel like a home, and our community like a family. Camp Kingswood is lucky to have a staff member with an indomitably happy spirit, and that staff member is lucky to have Camp Kingswood – a camp that’s more than a camp. A camp that’s a home.
I remember being a little kid, maybe four or five, when my dad sat me down with a workbook and began teaching me to read Hebrew. He didn’t know what any of the words meant, but he could read it and teach me to read it as well. I also remember it seeming really important to him. In fact, being so young, I think that Hebrew workbook is my earliest memory of homework. I don’t remember enjoying it one bit.
When I was in fourth grade, a Jewish day school opened in my neighborhood in Memphis. My parents transferred me there but my Hebrew comprehension was non-existent. I only knew how to read, but not how to understand. I was behind most of the other students…I struggled. And, again, I didn’t enjoy learning the language.
Then came the summer before sixth grade. My parents sent me to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, a sleepaway camp in the northwoods of Wisconsin. A camp where all the public announcements were in Hebrew. Where all the singing in the dining hall was in Hebrew. Where all the prayer services (and there were lots of these at Camp Ramah) were in Hebrew. And, most importantly, where all the musical theater performances were in Hebrew, too. I had already been bitten by the acting bug in my local community children’s theater in Memphis. So in my second summer in camp, when I had the opportunity to audition for a part in the musical (Free to Be You And Me) I was so excited! But Hebrew? I could read it, I could memorize my lines, but I still wouldn’t know what they meant. I was doomed. Until I wasn’t. Until I started learning my lines for more than just how to pronounce them, but for the meaning behind them. I got a solo song that summer. Singing, in Hebrew, alone in front of 600 people. The song? “It’s All Right To Cry.” And you know what? I did. The entire time I sang it. Cried. But I made it through.
And the next few summers I got to play Fagan in Oliver! and Kenickie in Grease and Berger in Hair. All in Hebrew. That’s when I really started learning the language. I was understanding Hebrew! Then I went to Israel on Ramah Seminar in the summer of 1998. And I was able to ask Israelis how much things cost, what time it was, and, most importantly, where the sherutim (restrooms) were. It was an amazing summer.
Fast forward to the summer of 2005. My family went on a trip to Israel – and it was my father’s first time there. Seeing my father see Israel for the first time was pretty special. Seeing my father watch as I navigated us around Israel, showing off my Hebrew? Priceless. I owe my Hebrew skills (which are still improving) to my father for teaching me how to read and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for teaching me how to understand. I couldn’t be more grateful to both. Todah Rabbah!
I have been fortunate to be on faculty for something called The Cornerstone Fellowship for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. And one of my favorite moments at Cornerstone is the first meal when everyone is gathered in the dining hall, finishing up their dinner, and a staff member gets up to make announcements. There is a phenomenon at Jewish summer camps to create a ritual around the announcements at meals and each camp has their own unique way of marking the moment.
Some camps repeat everything said by the person making announcements. Some camps bang on the tables. Some camps do all their announcements in Hebrew. Some camps start with birthday announcements that include a room full of people cheering and singing until said birthday-kid ‘skips around the room.’ My favorite, though, is the camps that, upon hearing the word “announcements” bust out into a quite annoying chant about announcements being akin to an unfortunate form of death.
It is that cheer, and that moment, that I look forward to at the end of the first meal of Cornerstone every year. Why? Because we always put a first time staff member in charge of making announcements at the end of the first meal. Whereas us veterans know how to handle the crowd (and avoid saying the dreaded ‘announcements,’ opting for other less lampoonable synonyms), the new person invariably makes the big mistake, launching the room into a good 45 seconds of uncontrollable mayhem. Rookies.
But truly, hazing is not the real reason I love that moment. I love that moment because of all the wonderful things that come from spending a summer at camp, I think one of most important is the instilling of self-confidence. Would a random eight year old kid, in a room with 300 other kids, most of whom are older strangers, stand up on a table and shout silly songs about announcements at the top of her lungs without inhibition? Only at camp. Would a twenty year old jaded college student, majoring in mechanical engineering at an Ivy League school, eating lunch at a conference in a room with 300 other 20 year olds, most of whom are strangers, stand up on a table and shout silly songs about announcements at the top of his lungs without inhibition? Only at camp. And Cornerstone.
Returning counselors are the “cornerstones” of their camp. Each spring, these staff members from Jewish camps varying in denomination come together from all over North America for a several days of professional development consisting of learning not only from the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s seasoned faculty, but also from each other. Fellows share “magic” and ideas between camps, creating a new type of camp community. Over the last 10 years, nearly 1,600 fellows have participated in the transformative experience of The Cornerstone Fellowship. This year’s program will take place May 19-23, 2013 at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA.
For many summers, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has had a robust theater program where, like many other Ramah camps, campers mount productions of Broadway musicals in fully translated Hebrew. The Ramah camps also happen to have a unique program called the Tikvah program, which provides opportunities for campers with intellectual, physical, and/or developmental disabilities to attend Jewish summer camp. In the summer of 2002, counselors at Ramah Wisconsin decided to try creating a platform for Tikvah campers to perform in their own, self-written Jewish play for the camp community. There were many in the camp who were nervous about this idea for several good reasons. But the green light was given and a project was born.
The idea was to create a play based on Breishit, the creation story in the book of Genesis. There were 12 campers.The campers were split into six groups with each group consisting of two Tikvah campers and one counselor. Each group focused on a different day of creation. And each group was tasked with not only writing a skit, but creating a visual image of their day (a sun, a tree, etc.). The performance itself was presented in a low-key atmosphere as a ‘lunch theater’ in the auditorium at camp. Just the oldest campers were invited to the performance and as they came in to the auditorium, everyone grabbed plates of spaghetti from the buffet and sat down to eat their dinner and watch some theater. One by one, each group got up to perform their scene, and then placed their visual image on the back wall of the stage and then sat back down to continue eating. It felt like a casual series of cute performances. And then for the last day of creation (Shabbat – God’s day of rest), all the campers came back on stage and fell asleep. The show was a huge success! Everyone talked about it for days and the campers felt so proud of themselves.
The next summer, a new idea was hatched. The counselors decided that for that summer’s Tikvah Lunch Theater, the rehearsal process would be opened up to several camper volunteers who wanted to work with the Tikvah campers to help them create their show. The only problem? 15 campers listed Tikvah Lunch Theater as their first choice activity. There were only 15 campers in all of Tikvah! So what did they do? They let them all in, and 30 campers performed in that year’s Tikvah Lunch Theater. No counselors had to help write the scripts or perform. The campers did it all themselves. It was a show about superheroes in the Torah (Joseph, Miriam, etc.). But it could have been a show about superheroes at camp. That’s what it felt like.
Fast forward to 2012: the 11th annual Tikvah Lunch Theater had a standing room only crowd. It has become a marquee event in the camp calendar. What is most exciting to me is that the staff members who were working on it this past summer had no idea that there hadn’t always been such a program as the “TLT.” They just assumed it was something that always existed at camp. This was culture change at its best. This is why people like me choose to work at Jewish summer camp. So we can watch campers and staff members become superheroes before our eyes.
I remember the meeting like it was yesterday. My parents drove me to the synagogue on a weekday evening for what they told me was going to be a ‘pizza party with all of my friends.’ What they didn’t tell me was that a man was going to be there representing a sleep-away Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin. Wisconsin!?! (I grew up in Memphis). My parents were right about all my friends being at the synagogue that night. We watched a movie about the camp, got to ask questions, and plotted secretly in the corner how we would make our escape from the camp should our parents actually send us away. Of course, our parents did end up sending us to that camp. And I went kicking and screaming.
Fast forward four weeks: four weeks of singing songs in Hebrew, of making new friends from places I’d never heard of (Omaha? Where’s that?), of playing kickball and swimming in the cold, fishy lake, of having no television, of being away from the comfort of home. That last day of camp, I remember clearly talking with that new friend from Nebraska as our ten year old selves plotted how we could avoid getting on the bus so we’d never have to leave this place. This place called ‘camp.’ Of course, our counselors did end up getting us on the bus home. But I went kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to leave.
And the truth is, I never did. I still go back to camp. This summer will be my 15th on staff. I am the starting second baseman on the senior staff softball team, not because of skill, but because of seniority; and I’m okay with that. And though my father-in-law has questioned if I might be too old for summer camp, my friends who grew up with me remain insanely jealous that I get to return to that amazing experience each summer. Is there a lesson in this? I have no idea. But I can tell you this: a couple of weeks ago I went on a road trip with a friend of mine. We’re in our thirties and jamming out to tunes from our youth with the windows down. And at one point during our drive, my buddy turned down the music and told me of his intention to propose to his longtime girlfriend in the coming weeks. When we got back to New York, where we live, he proposed. And the wedding? It’s scheduled for 2013…in Omaha.
Jon Adam Ross is a widely acclaimed theater artist, founding company member of Storahtelling and the Northwoods Ramah Theater Company. As a highly sought-after artist in residence, Jon leads workshops and facilitates the creation of theater using physical and emotional exploration of stories from ancient Jewish narratives.
Summer camps may seem to only be ‘open’ in the summer. But from September to May, the full time staff are thinking all about the next Summer season up at camp and how it can be an even more successful summer for our campers and staff than the one before. Of course, once the campers arrive, the camp community becomes one that dwells in the now; “Carpe Diem” is right up there with “Everyone’s a Winner at insert camp name here”. One of the luxuries of all the hours of thoughtful planning that happens before the summer is that, come June, there is room for everyone to just have fun and enjoy every moment at camp. Campers and their families do a lot of planning preparation as well, from shopping for toiletries to packing and repacking duffel bags to pre-stamping their pre-addressed envelopes in the hope for letters home. But recently, while sitting in synagogue reading my chumash (Torah), I found myself pondering all this preparation. It was a few weeks ago, Parshat Bo was being read in shul (synagogue)…
The Israelites are in a tough spot. Not only are they slaves in Egypt, but there’s this leader named Moses who keeps advising them to pack their bags and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And nine times now, the Israelites have been forced to play a frustrating game of red light/green light; after each of the plagues, Pharaoh has relented in the face of God’s wrath, and then instantly reversed himself. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know when the future will come. The Israelites are forced to live constantly in the moment. So much so, that when they finally do get to escape after the tenth and final plague, they do not even have time to let their bread rise and we get an entire delicious week free of chametz. But I noticed an obscure pasuk (verse) that put all of this planning and living into perspective.
This month shall be unto you the beginning of months;
it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Shemot Chapt 12, Verse 2)
It seems that God recognizes that the back and forth of the ten plagues might have planted the seeds for anxiety within the Israelites. I know…shocking. My neuroses goes all the way back to the Israelites in Egypt!? And here, all this time, I thought I inherited my anxiety from my Grandpa Marshall. God chooses this moment to talk about the calendar. How this month of Nisan is now a ‘first month of the year’, a new and fresh start for a people desperately in need of a clean slate. I often felt it jarring to hear this story of Pesach (Passover) read aloud each winter, so many months before I celebrate the seders with my family. But now it makes perfect sense to me. We just experienced the turning of a new year in the Roman calendar. And here we are learning about not just a new year in the Jewish calendar, but a new start for our people as they take steps toward freedom.
One can imagine the Israelites finally packing their belongings, loading bags on the backs of their camels. Our people were packing for what would turn out to be a 40 year journey in bags that, no doubt weighed about the same as some of the duffels that accompany campers on their pilgrimage to their summer haven. And, just as in the face of a camper about to head up to camp for the first, or second, or last time as a camper, one can imagine these Israelites…with one eye on the packing, and one eye on the future. A future when planning takes a backseat to living. I know it’s only February…but it’s okay. You may start packing now.