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.
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.
He was bubbling over with excitement. He had heard so much about this place. This was his first time away from home. And somehow he knew that his life was going to be different after coming here. While he knew that he was going to miss his family, he was excited to make new friends, and yes he was excited to possibly meet a special someone. As they arrived he could not stay in his seat.
I am sure that this story rings true for you if you remember going to camp for the first time. All of the excitement, all of those expectations of what that summer has in store. As the bus lurched forward you felt yourself opening up to the people on the bus. You were hardly able to sit in your seat as the bus pulled off the main road and you saw that first sign for your camp. You had never been there before, but as you pulled in you knew that you were home.
While this is my story of going to camp for the first time, this definitely echoes what I heard from my eldest son after his first summer at camp, or at least what I got out of him. Similarly, the story of Rebecca that we read in last week’s Torah portion says:
Then Rebecca and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. Now Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell off the camel. (Genesis 24:61- 64)
Rebecca was that first happy camper coming “home.” She fell in love at first sight. Just as I fell in love as a camper. It was not with a person – those crushes and relationships came and went. It was not with that place, even though it will endure in my memory as a place filled with kiddusha, holiness. I fell in love with who I was at camp.
Many years ago my camp supervisor mailed me the following story:
Once there was a Rebbe who had a Yeshiva. His son studied in the Yeshiva. One day the son took off the afternoon to go walking in the forest. The father said nothing. But over time the son took to taking off every afternoon to walk in the forest. At this point the father realized that he needed to confront his son. The Rebbe said to his son, “I hear that you are walking in the forest every afternoon. Why are you doing this?” The son replied that he was looking for God. The Rebbe was puzzled and asked, “Did I not teach you that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Abba, I know that God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”
When and where in my life was I more open to being all of whom I aspired to become? It was when I got off that bus for the first time, and it was at camp.
While I love the place and I love that time in my life, I realize that I owe a lot to my counselors. More than what I saw in them as role models, it was what my role models saw in me when I tumbled off that bus. They shared with me a glimpse of the person that I am still working on becoming. And that is why I fell in love with camp.
A camp professional in my adult life, I have always been a camper at heart. I have the deepest, most meaningful relationship with my camp experiences, memories and friends. So much so that five of my friends from my summers away at sleepaway camp and I took a weekend away from our lives—leaving behind significant others and children to escape to the place where time has no meaning. A place where six, 30-something year old women can play, dance, relax and, most of all, laugh like not a moment of time or space has kept us apart. It was a camp weekend away together in the traditional camp setting of sports, arts, waterfront activities, buffet meals and awkward encounters with perfect strangers that rejuvenated my love for why I do what I do.
Much of this year I have spent questioning myself as to why do I do what I do? If I told you this past summer was sunshine, rainbows and easy breeziness I wouldn’t just be lying to you but I’d be lying to myself. This past summer, like the previous in my camp professional career, was hard work. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t laugh uncontrollably or appreciate moments like I did in the days when I was a camper I pushed through, sometimes counting down portions of the day or week just to have time goals to achieve. Was it harder than usual? Maybe. Was it different? Possibly. Was I still doing something I love? Yes. But did I want to cry? If you know me then you know the answer is yes and some days I did (in the privacy of my own moment—although these are few and far between in a summer camp day). Do I want to go through this again? Absolutely… and the reason is because of the long lasting benefit of what this time (these times) can and will stimulate for my camp community. The community we create over the course of 3 weeks of a summer, twice a summer.
On my recent weekend away, one of my dear friends poetically captioned a posted photo “time is meaningless,” actually it was #timeismeaningless. I have spent days reflecting and reusing this simple yet completely complex statement. If you were to replace the word ‘time’ with any other word, this statement would carry a completely different feeling. Try it… Right? But when it comes to time, when it comes to the distance, the space, the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years…when it comes to your camp friends, time really is meaningless. You can pick up from the exact moment you are in and nothing has changed. Even if everything has changed, that friendship in that time has gone unscathed. The time between the two has no meaning but the friendship has all the meaning in the world.
It is times like these that I hope cultivate each camp season. It is this meaningless sense of time that acts as the gift I can provide to my camp community and in turn, the reward for me is the reminder how these times have shaped me. As hard as a day feels, as frustrating or difficult as a conversation can be, the times that we create at camp and the friendships that create those times are the definition to why I do what I do and why I will always remain the camper at heart.
ALYIA & MAX CUTLER
When/how/where at camp did you meet?
Max and I met for the first time at Camp Edward Isaacs in 2000; I was a camper and he was a CIT. My girlfriends and I would give him a hard time about hanging out with our counselor. In 2006, on the first day of staff week I walked into the canteen during a showing of “The Matrix” to say hi to a friend. Max was sitting next to him and immediately stood up and yelled out my name with big open arms. I must have looked very confused because for the past 6 years since we met we had hardly exchanged two words! Max gave me a huge hug and told me he was so glad to see me.
Was it love right away?
Max says he knew that night in the canteen… I took a little longer to warm up. Everyone seemed to know he had a crush on me and when they told me I would just roll my eyes and say we were just friends and it would stay that way! Then one night when I sat OD in my tie-dye pajamas and oversized sweatshirt, he came by and kissed me. At that moment everything changed and I knew he was the last person I ever wanted to have a first kiss with.
What happened between you when camp ended that summer?
Heartbreak! Straight out of a sad movie. We both decided that since we didn’t go to the same school and we were in “different places in our lives” that we would end the summer romance and just be friends after camp. After a long, drawn out goodbye I remember driving away down the dirt road sobbing by myself until I got home…and then for days after that.
That first winter we talked on the phone every so often, checking in to say hi and happy birthday. When we were home from school we would see each other. The next summer I went back to camp but Max didn’t. He would come visit though and we fell right back into the days of summer love. I spent my days off with him and we began to talk and see each other more and more as the months went on. For the next few years as I finished college and he began his post college “adult life” we dated on and off, taking breaks to study abroad and “find ourselves.” In 2010, during my last semester in college, we became serious and last year he proposed during a bike-ride on a pier in Riverside Park.
Will you send your kids to your camp?
Sadly, Camp Edwards Isaacs closed in 2008 but if it were open we would say, “Absolutely, we’ll send our kids to Eddie I!” There is no question though, that we will send our kids to Jewish sleepaway camp to have transforming summer experiences, and maybe meet the love of their life too.
Alyia and Max were married in September 2013 with their camp friends and former camp directors in attendance. They currently live in Brooklyn, NY with their Sphynx cat, Abby. Alyia is an Assistant Program Manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp and Max is a therapist at the Jewish Child Care Association in Brooklyn.
A couple of years ago I was walking to synagogue with my two boys on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and I wanted to engage them in a discussion about the holiday. At the time Yadid was seven and Yishama was five. To get the ball rolling I simply said, “Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin. So besides celebrating a new year, it is also the time when we reflect on how we might want to improve ourselves in the coming year.” At this point I felt a huge urge to just tell the boys how I wanted them to improve. I know that I am not alone. I want my children to be the best they can be so if I love my children so much, how could I stay silent and not tell them how to improve? It seems so clear to me what they need to change to be the mensches I so desperately what them to become, so of course I should just give them a list, right? I decided that instead of going in that direction, I would shift the conversation and said, “So since today is the day we work on our improving ourselves, let’s start. Tell me what you think I need to be working on to be a better abba (father).”
Wow, what a difference! Not only did they give me amazing feedback that I use until this day, but without any additional prompting they started giving each other feedback. What a blessing to be part of this conversation. Holding back my own voice at this moment created room for us all to grow and improve. I know that this internal voice of the overbearing parent is coming from a good place, but I also know that it does not always get the desired results. So, where did I learn this?
Upon reflection, I realized that I learned this technique as a junior counselor at Jewish overnight camp. It was there in the context of managing a bunk of children that I learned how to create an ideal learning environment. It was there that I learned how I might get more bees with honey then vinegar (another important message for Rosh Hashanah). I also learned the important difference between being authoritarian and authoritative. Seeding power actually creates space for other voices. So years later as a father I knew that suspending my own need to share my love created space for us all to share our love with each other. I cannot say I got it right that year as a JC, but I deeply appreciate the space of camp and what it taught me. Someone else who was more experienced could have done it better, but in the spirit of Jewish camp, they got out of the way to make room for an 18-year-old to find his voice. I in turn learned how to make room for my campers and eventually my own children. Jewish camp is magical. Yesterday’s campers are today’s counselors and tomorrow’s parents. If it was not for camp I am not sure I would have been blessed with the loving, powerful, and thoughtful critique from a five-year old. Jewish camp has cultivated in me the desire, skills, and confidence to be a more accessible and loving parent.
Shanah Tova -May we all be blessed to make more space for more loving voices this year.
I can’t believe it’s over. All of a sudden, I transitioned from the tie-dyed 24/7 magic of camp to the polo shirts, big binders and giant potential of a year of learning and teaching at a really cool school. I can’t believe school has started. All of a sudden, I’m transitioning to the daily magic of the classroom buzz – and non-classroom activities – at school from the 24/7 constant young role modeling of camp.
Kids, for sure, can’t believe camp is over. Take a look at their Instagram accounts, their most recent tweets. Picture after picture. Camp dates and rates for summer 2014 are already being re-tweeted. Countdowns have begun – only 330 more days until I get to go home again!
As I look around my office at The Davis Academy, it’s like I never left. My Moses action figures kept my office safe, and my eclectic collection of books and toys are perfectly positioned to get pulled at a moment’s notice to teach learners yet again! But, if you look closely, you’ll see changes. A new water bottle from Sustainability Shabbat at Camp Coleman. A copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, ready to teach about silent prayer to Davis 8th graders before they go for a hike in the shady wooded areas on a retreat at Coleman. My Coleman laptop, perched in an unprecarious but funny-looking position next to my Davis desktop. A ceramic mug and a new picture frame on the wall, both gifts from awesome camp staff.
I look at your kids (former campers, future campers, current students) and it’s like they’ve never left. The bright eyes. The shy smiles. The neon-colored backpacks. But again, look closely.They’re taller. Their hair is less Bieber-esque than last year. They learned to read Torah, or lead blessings, or how to climb a tall tower or to make shattered glass into a stunning mosaic. They can’t wait to talk about the sights they’ve seen: The waterfall! The South! The capitals of Europe!
Looking at it both ways, it’s hard to decide what to love more – school or camp? Camp or school? Without school, who would these kids be? Without camp, how would their lives turn out? The combined experiences in our communities (camp, school, home, synagogue, JCC, a university alumni’s mommy and me group, whatever works) are shaping our Jewish future. So I don’t love one place more than the other. I love the promise of a bright and exciting future.
ALEXANDRA & ERIC SPITZ
When/how/where at camp did you meet?
We attended Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, CA as kids and met in the Summer of 1993 when Eric was 13 and I was 12. We were camp crushes for two summers in a row.
Was it love right away?
Absolutely! We adored each other even at that young age. We even have a “Shabbat-O-Gram” that Eric had written Alex the first summer we met signed, “I love you, Eric Spitz”
What happened between you when camp ended that summer?
We lived about an hour away from each other but at that age it may as well have been across the country! Needless to say, we lost touch after that last summer of 1994. Fast forward to 2006 when I finally gave in and signed up for a MySpace account. I had always remembered Eric and his infectious smile and fun-loving attitude so I decided to look him up. I was still living in Los Angeles and I discovered that he was living in Miami. We were both in other relationships at the time but it was so nice to catch up over email. A year later, in June of 2007, he emailed me to say he would be in LA for his brother’s wedding the following month. We made a plan to meet for a drink (to be safe!) on Tuesday when he arrived in town. Drinks turned into dinner which turned into many more hours of laughing and catching up. We had both recently broken off the relationships we had been in so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We spent as much time as possible together over the next five days while he was still in town and by Sunday he had decided that he was going to move back to LA so we could be together. He went back to Miami, organized the move and on September 6th got in his car and drove cross country. We hadn’t seen each other since he had visited in July so we were both taking a huge leap, though it felt completely normal and as if we had been together for many years. We had a connection at 12 and the feelings came back instantly when we saw each other again. We were engaged about 10 months later and got married in May of 2009 at the only venue we could possibly imagine: CAMP!!! We had our close friends and family stay for the weekend and we enjoyed all of the activities camp had to offer. We transformed the camp grounds into a gorgeous, rustic wedding setting and could not be happier with how it turned out!
Will you send your kids to your camp?
There is no question and we cannot wait to! Many of our friends and family members also went to camp…it is a huge part of our lives. We attended our first family camp weekend when our son was 16 months and we can’t wait to do it every year until he is old enough to go on his own.
Eric and Alexandra Spitz currently reside in Orange County, CA with their 2 year old son, Jack and dog Lucy. Eric is an Account Manager for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. serving the entire Orange County region. Alexandra is a Certified Parent Educator and Certified Newborn Care Specialist and is currently taking care of their son while running her new business, OC Mommy and Me, a program for new moms in Orange County with babies 0-12 months.
When “Camp Gyno” came out last week I immediately sent it around to all my friends with the subject line – “Camp – Hysterical.” And at first watch, it is. The writing is fabulous, the actress is brilliant. The tie-dye t-shirts, string bracelets, totally authentic (full disclosure: it was filmed at Surprise Lake Camp – one of the camps we work with here at FJC). I am sure tampon creative execs are reeling about how this mom got it so right out of the gate and they still make commercials full of 20-somethings prancing around in white jeans and jars full of blue liquid to prove absorbency.
It was the nostalgia that got me. The commercial is an ode to every female camper, ever – a compilation of our story, our language, our history. Every bunk had a period guru – Menstrual Mommy, Auntie Flo. We all have a story of whispering in the back bathroom trying to learn to use a tampon so we could swim and no one would know. I always felt bad for non-campers. How the hell did they learn this stuff?!
The video deals with some really important themes in a minute and 47 seconds – being an outcast, gaining and managing popularity, and just talking to your friends about periods. Kudos to Hello Flo founder Naama Bloom and BBDO for that. I love how they talk in real language too. It may not be the correct language, but it is the language we use – “vag,” “gyno” – it is how we talk. It makes the “icky” accessible.
But as I watched the video a few more times, it got a little less funny each time. I started thinking: does this fabulous video send the wrong message in the end? It gives great insight into a teen girl’s first period experience. So why are we willing to take that conversation and tuck it away into a plain brown box? I am not really a women’s libber, but are we still so embarrassed that we can’t go into a store and buy a box of pads? Is it necessary to have them “discretely” delivered to our door every month? Do we really want to teach our daughters that they need to hide it away? Yes, it is hard at 12, 13, 14, 28, 42 years old to walk around with pads and tampons in your knapsack. Hard, yes. Shameful, no. I think that good parenting is giving your kid the tools to help them through hard things. Sometimes that tool is a extra pretty Vera Bradley pouch that you would never buy for a 12 year old, but will make carrying pantiliners that much less hard. If I can’t show my daughters that I can walk into CVS and buy a big old box of tampons as easily as I do shampoo and Altoids, how will she learn to do it?
The commercial starts out with campers having a dialogue about periods. They just put it out there. No shame, no pretense because camp is the place where kids learn to overcome fears, to have hard conversations, and gain independence.So I’ll be damned if I am going to throw that all away because periods are a little hard to talk about.
Who am I to rain on an entrepreneur’s idea? I am jealous that she was brave enough to go after a dream. (She probably learned that at camp too. She went to another one camp in FJC’s network, Camp Galil). I am always tempted to sign up for subscription commerce – I love new stuff and can be as lazy as the next person. If two days go by and I don’t order from Amazon Prime, Jeff Bezos himself delivers chicken soup to my door. But in this case, I’ll wear a red badge of courage on my sleeve. I learned how at camp. I’ll see you in the feminine hygiene aisle.
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.