It’s hard to believe that we’re now less than 50 days away from the start of another summer! Many campers have been counting down the days with excitement since they returned home from camp last year. “OMG I get to be a CIT this year!!” is one example of a recent Facebook post. And, to be honest, there were many more exclamation points than that.
Indeed, Facebook and other virtual spaces are used more and more by kids, parents, and alumni to connect with one another and build Jewish community. But camp works in part because it gives kids opportunities to feel connected to something larger than themselves. This connection can happen, and increasingly does happen, for more than a few weeks each year.
We recently posted something on our Facebook page that asked folks to complete the following sentence: “Camp Alonim is where I _____.” The range of responses was extraordinary, as was the range of respondents – campers, staff, parents, and alumni. Here is what some of them said: Camp Alonim is where… “I found out what makes me Jewish.” “I started my first band.” “I learned to love Shabbat.” “I feel safe leaving my kids.” “I met my first boyfriend.” “I cowgirl up!” “I developed my Jewish identity and danced!” “I want to be right now.” “I am home.”
Because a picture can be worth a thousand words, we also recently ran a photo contest during which folks shared all sorts of images on our Facebook page that they felt best represented camp. Sprinkled throughout this blog post are some of the pictures that were submitted.
At this point, you might be asking yourself: why all this talk about Facebook when camp is about unplugging from electronics and getting away from the always-on world in which we live? I think the answer is best illustrated by the following story. A few days ago, Jamie, who was one of our teen program advisors last summer and who currently is studying abroad in Israel, posted on Facebook that she just “casually ran into her children” at the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. The “children” to whom Jamie was referring are her former campers (by the way, don’t you love how staff refer to the campers as “their kids”?). Jamie shared a surprise reunion with some of her teens, which generated “likes” and “comments” from campers, staff, parents, and her other “children.” This chance encounter in Israel involved generations of camp, and the connection and reconnection extended further than it ever could before.
The connection has to start somewhere. For many kids, camp can be the first link in a lifelong connection to deep, meaningful friendships and active communities infused with the joys of Jewish living. Much of my job as a camp director is to help that first connection form, and then to help incubate all sorts of budding connections so that they can grow and thrive for a lifetime.
As I write this, staff members are being hired to “give back to camp;” parents are searching for white Shabbat clothing; alumni are reuniting with camp friends to celebrate life’s simchas and to support one another when life throws its curve-balls; and new and returning campers are counting down the days until summer. It’s community. It’s connection. It’s camp! And, when it comes to camp, there’s no such thing as too many exclamation points.
Josh Levine is the director of Camp Alonim in Brandeis, CA.
One of the reasons I am delighted to be one of the regular bloggers in The Canteen is that at Camp Alonim, where I grew up and where I’ve been the director for the past three years, our canteen is a favorite spot. It’s where mail and packages are distributed each day. It’s where the campers go each night for their bedtime snacks. It’s where the boys and girls in each age group get to hang out together one more time before they wish each other a “laila tov” (good night) and go their separate ways. Mail, food, and being with friends – can you see why it’s such a popular place?
The Camp Alonim canteen, as a physical structure, is just a simple shed, really. It’s made of river-rock about four-feet high, then wood, capped by a shingled roof, with a large window built into one wall and a side door. It’s just a normal building – there’s nothing innately special about it. It’s what’s been done with it by human beings – it’s what we make of it and bring of ourselves to it – that makes it special. Its exterior design, which is best described as a groovy homage to Noah’s Ark, was painted years ago by staff members who wanted it to be kid-friendly and welcoming. The interior, which is not visible in the pictures posted here, is a dense swirl of people’s names and the years they were at camp. It’s a privilege to be old enough to get to “sign the canteen,” and it’s something which campers look forward for years. (“Why do you want to be CIT?” we ask in interviews. “Well, among other things, I want to finally sign my name in the canteen!”) Campers regularly crane their necks to locate the names of their counselors, and their counselors’ counselors. In doing so, they both feel connected to and aspire to a tradition that’s larger than themselves.
The Camp Alonim canteen is more than just a place at camp. It reflects a legacy that has been passed down from one generation to another, its timelessness magnified by its being re-created and re-fashioned by each successive iteration of camp citizens. It’s an example of something ordinary that, because of the visible and less-visible contributions of the community, has been made holy. It’s what countless individuals have called home. It’s alive. In other words, it’s Jewish.
This online canteen, as a virtual edifice, is just a simple website, really. It’s based on an HTML template and its data is hosted on servers somewhere in the cloud. Blogs can be about anything. This blog is, of course, already special because it’s about Jewish camp! But, this blog has the potential to be even more special because of the community that arises in, around, and through it – the community that can make it “camp.”
At Alonim, the canteen is a hub for mail, food, and friendship. My hope is for this online canteen to be a hub for all sorts of communication, mental nosh, and community building – in the posts themselves, in the comment threads, and perhaps beyond. “Camp” can happen in cyberspace, too – if we let it. A canteen isn’t a bad place to start.