At each of the three camps I attended, I only knew one person in my bunk the first year I went to that camp. I went to camps which mostly attracted kids from different neighborhoods, schools and synagogues. It was a chance to re-invent myself, to have a different identity. And having different girls around, who knew nothing about me, unlike the girls with whom I attended school from kindergarten on, was, looking back, liberating.
I was a “smart” girl in school but that didn’t really matter in camp since there was only one period of shiur (learning Jewish subjects) which was, of course, my favorite even though most everyone else slept through it. I was not good at sports so I experienced being really, really bad at something which had never happened in school. I can’t say that was fun but it did help me figure out how to negotiate difficulties. I admit it: I lied. I pretended I had ear aches, had my period four times in eight weeks, sprained my finger.
I did like arts and crafts and eventually I helped do scenery for the camp’s plays and then for our school productions. I also became the art editor of my high school year book a few years later.
My all-girls high school didn’t give us much opportunity to hone our flirting skills. But camp did. Apparently, I was a natural.
The girls in my bunk were much more interested in clothes than I was, knew the latest songs on the radio which I didn’t, and came from suburban areas, rather than the big city that I was from. For the most part, they were less religiously observant. It was good to be with a different group and each time I changed camps, I chose not to go to those that most of my school and neighborhood friends went to.
So it was very interesting to me that when my twin grandsons went off to camp last week, and learned that they knew 10 out of the 16 other boys in their bunk, one shrugged but the other was distressed. He told his mom that he “wanted to be with some friends, but also wanted the chance to make new friends – because that’s what camp is all about!”
I was surprised that he really “got it.” That camp is, indeed, an opportunity to stretch, to get to know different kids, try different things, form new friendships.
But I don’t think he yet realizes that meeting new people helps you meet yourself in a different way, too.
Do you think you could sum up your camp experience in just six words? If not your entire experience, what about a summer? How about a session? I’m sorry if it sounds like a pretty impossible task. (To be honest, I completely understand.) After all how do you sum up weeks (or years) of memories in just six words?
You see I pose this question to get at a larger question … how do we tell stories at camp? How do we use these stories to build friendships? One of the absolute best things we do at camp is help kids build friendships with one another. Same thing goes for our staff too … ask any counselor why they come back to camp summer after summer, and rarely will they say the food. Sometimes these friendships burn hot and fast for a summer, and sometimes they last an entire lifetime. Regardless of their longevity, how our kids create these friendships is almost as important as the friendships themselves. Staff, counselors, specialists … friendships are what keep everybody coming back to camp summer after summer.
However these friendships don’t just magically appear out of thin air. We create them by sharing stories of ourselves. This can be really difficult for even the most seasoned camper and staff, let alone new ones. Last week I wanted to get our supervisors thinking about the importance behind sharing stories, so I asked if they could sum up one of their camp experiences in just six words. This particular project, which is based off the Six Word Memoir on Jewish Life project from Reboot and Smith Magazine, takes an inherently Jewish concept (asking questions and telling stories) and re-imagines it in a way that would challenge even the most Twitter-savvy person.
Some of them were funny, “New Facebook Profile Picture. Shabbat Shalom!” Some of them were personal “Felt Invisible. Cried. Found A Home” and all were in some way universal “Here For Summer, Home For Life.” 25 supervisors participated in this program, and I felt like I got a glimpse into a hundred different camp stories. All it took was six little words. What’s yours?
Jewish camps across North America have opened, or are preparing to open, their gates to over 75,000 happy campers this summer. Whether you’ve already sent your trunks up to camp, or you are just starting to gather items on your packing list, remember that some of the most important things to bring with you aren’t things at all!
I recently received a pre-camp note from one of our camps. In it, was a suggested “Packing List” from Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. I’d like to share it with you.
Don’t worry – this packing list will not require another run to the store, more labeling of clothes, or any added concern about how any person is going to be able to lift the bags into the car!
So please remember to pack your kids with:
- A Helping Hand – Don’t forget to bring a caring spirit, always willing to help out a friend in need.
- An Open Mind – Remember that camp is built to offer new experiences, some of them challenging, but bring an open mind and you might just discover you found a new talent.
- A Love of Learning – Ramah is about growth; expanding horizons, and learning about Judaism, about Israel, and about the modern Hebrew language.
- A Mental Camera – Because sometimes the best moments and memories in life are captured in our minds, and shared with our friends; and not posted on Facebook.
- A Desire to Make New Friends – As you are packing, don’t forget what camp is all about – friendship! Make sure you bring a welcoming smile, a good joke, and who knows, you might just make a new best friend this summer!
I love this message. Yes, sunscreen and sneakers are necessary items, but instead of focusing on actual things we should be bringing, let’s focus on the things that allow us to get the most from our summer. After all, while it’s common for kids to forget their towel or socks at camp, they always bring their experiences home with them. And unlike material things, those experiences are irreplaceable.
“If this is supposed to be such a great experience for her, why do I have such a pit in my stomach?”
“Half of my life is on their way to camp…more emotional than I thought I’d be, but still so excited for them.”
If the soundtrack playing in your head at the moment stars “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” by Moby, chances are that you’ve just put your first-time camper on the camp bus, or dropped them off and driven away.
I get it. Last year around this time, I was pregnant and hormonal, but neither of those were the real reason that I started sobbing as soon as we shut the car doors.
Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?
1. Because your child is nervous.
Any kid going to camp, particularly for the first time, is at least a little nervous. The question is to what extent they are willing to admit it. Some just act sullen and withdrawn. Others engage in last-minute panic filled negotiations (“I won’t use the iPad for the whole summer if I can just come home with you!”). Some cry. Others hold back the tears. Everyone is nervous. That bus is a bus full of nervousness that it is the counselors’ job to transform into excitement. That particular transformation is out of your hands. Which leads us nicely into reason 2.
2. It’s out of your hands.
What your kid wears, whether your kid showers, who your kid hangs out with and how your kid deals with nervousness. For the next week, or two, or four, or seven, it’s out of your hands. In this exercise in simulated adulthood, your child will have his or her first taste of semi-independence. In our era of helicopter parenting where many parents won’t even let their kids walk to school by themselves, this can be disorienting. Which leads us nicely into reason 3.
3. You’re old.
Okay, you’re not OLD old, but you’re indisputably not the camper anymore. You’re not even the counselor. You’re a parent, and you’re sending your kid to camp. You’ve crossed over. But what’s most disorienting about this crossover is the fact that you really, really clearly remember what it was like to be on the other side. You remember what it was like to cry in your bed the first night of camp because you were homesick, and to cry in your bed the last night of camp because you had to go home. You remember being a counselor and emptying out shampoo bottles the night before Visiting Day so the clueless parents would think their kids actually showered during the previous weeks. Those days all seem so close that you could touch them, but you can’t. This drives home just how far away they are. And…
4. They’re getting older, too.
Remember those days when you were up all night burping them? When you could put them in a sling and carry them around while you put away laundry? Those days seem pretty recent, and yet, when your kid goes away to camp, it’s the first of many steps that they will be taking for the rest of their lives—steps away from you. It’s a bittersweet moment.
So no, it’s not just the exhaust fumes of the bus making your eyes sting.
I can’t wait for my daughter to go to camp and learn how to talk to boys.
My parents claim I walked into my room at 13, picked up my swatch phone and didn’t reemerge until I was 17. There were concerns that they would have to surgically remove that thing from my ear. Now as my daughter is entering that same phase, I actually wish she would pick up the phone. Her conversations are all done through texts—it’s like Pavlov’s dog waiting for that bing to come from her “friends.” I wonder if this can even be considered a conversation:
What r u doin’
Hangin with DK. Bball. U
Like my insta pic
Put me in ur bio
C u ltr
Yup, they are besties. She will see this same boy when we are out doing an errand in town and they’ll give each other that teen head tilt greeting and maybe mumble something that resembles a hello. God forbid they should actually talk to each other, especially when they’re with their parents no less (apparently, it is totally uncool to have parents—unless 12 kids need to be transported somewhere or accompanied to the midnight preview of Fault in Our Stars then it is completely acceptable).
As it turns out, this social media stuff isn’t all that social. We have a generation of kids that can barely muster the courage to call each other to borrow a forgotten text book, make an after school plan or chat long into the night pushing the limits on bedtime (maybe if we played up this part, they would be more apt to do it.) Thank God for grandparents and other relatives that still use a landline or my kids would never have learned how to have a conversation on a phone. I make it a point of teaching my kids how to talk to adults—they thank their coaches after every game and practice: if they can’t find their size in a store, it is up to them to ask a salesperson for help and as soon as they could; they order for themselves in a restaurant. But I can’t teach them how to talk to boys.
I married one of those guys I talked on the phone long into the night. And learned how to talk to him, and other boys, at camp. In this video we made to talk about camp one of the girls says “the girls are my sisters; the boys are like my brothers.” Truer words have never been spoken. We learned to swim together, ate together, lead song session together. Everyone is cool at camp. What made us different and unique was celebrated, where in middle school we may have been made fun for the very same thing. We learned how to be part of a community and get things done—and sometimes that included sharing secrets of who liked who.
Even if these days our main form of communication is just a text to share old song lyrics that popped into my head or just to say I am here for you when you need me, I consider my camp guy friends some of my closest based on those early years. I hope my daughter will be able to build a foundation like this too, creating deep friendships that last a lifetime.
It’s been almost a year, yet I still can’t quite forget the odor that permeated the car as we drove my son home from camp last year. He’d been away for almost four weeks, and though the day was pleasant up in the Hudson Valley, he requested air conditioning in the car. We obliged and closed the windows. Not five minutes later, the smell presented itself.
“What smell?” my son responded. I looked in the rearview mirror at him to see his smile, but saw none. He was genuinely curious.
“Hon, is it possible that you packed a dead animal in your bag?” I asked. “Or maybe an animal crawled into your duffel bag and died there? Because it smells unbelievable.”
“I don’t smell anything,” he responded, without a trace of sarcasm. “And no way, Mom, nothing died in my bag.”
“You realize,” my husband muttered to me as he turned off the air and cracked the windows, “that means this is a smell he is USED to.”
I turned around in the front seat to get a better look at him. And was immediately sorry I had.
The boy had taken off his shoes. Correction: he had taken off shoes that I didn’t recognize. These were shoes that were gray and hideously disfigured, pockmarked by holes, stains and unidentifiable sticky things. I’m sad to say that the socks underneath them were similar in both color and condition.
“My GOD! PUT THOSE SHOES BACK ON!” I said as I held my nose.
“You think it’s the shoes?” my son said with genuine curiosity. He leaned forward to sniff them, like a patron at a fine dining establishment presented with a particularly esoteric vintage.
“DON’T SMELL THEM!” I practically yelled. “Yes, it’s the shoes! Or maybe the disgusting socks! Didn’t the camp have laundry?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But I only used it for my dirty stuff.”
I shuddered, thinking of what awaited me in the “clean stuff” duffel bag. “But whose shoes are those?” I asked. “What happened to the shoes we bought the day before you left for camp?”
“Huh?” he responded. “Mom, these ARE the shoes we bought the day before camp.”
Reader, I can assure you that the sneakers I had purchased for camp were bright blue with a streak of orange. These shoes looked like they had emerged from Pompeii. And then fallen victim to a mudslide.
I tell you this story as a reminder to both you and I as we prepare to Pack for Camp, an activity involving multiple Sharpies and often multiple trips to Target and online shopping locales of your choice. The morals of this story, which we should take to heart in these times:
1. Assume nothing you send to camp will return anywhere near the condition in which you sent it.
2. Except, in my case, the unopened shampoo bottle. But that is another disgusting story for another day.
3. Therefore, there is no real point to getting “nice” things for camp. Camp isn’t supposed to be about things anyway.
4. When they eventually come home from camp, do yourself a favor and open the duffel bag outside. While wearing a hazmat suit.
Here in New York, the temperature is eking up into the 70s, and after continuous blizzards this winter, I couldn’t be happier! This weekend I celebrated as most New Yorkers with tragically little closet space do—I took out my summer clothes. And amongst the sundresses and tank tops, I found the cutest white skirt that definitely didn’t belong to me. OOPS. You see, last summer’s camp visits brought me to southern California, and I was in need of some white clothing for Shabbat. I was in a bit of a bind, so I happily accepted when a fabulous friend (and old bunkmate!) offered to lend me a white skirt. And here we are, one year later, and I still have that skirt. (Sorry Melissa!)
And then I laughed. How many times did I come home as a camper with clothing that didn’t belong to me? I remember my mom’s frustration when it came time to do post-camp laundry and she’d find shirts and dresses that she’d never seen before. “Why do I even buy you summer clothes?!” she would say. But trading clothing was just a part of camp life. Most Friday afternoons were spent finding a Shabbat outfit from a bunkmate’s cubby before someone else called it. And sometimes, if you liked it enough, if you were really lucky, that friend would let you take it home with you.
Those were my most treasured items of clothing. Looking back at photos, I’m sure it wasn’t that I looked any better in them; I was an awkward pre-teen all year long. But wearing them reminded me of faraway friends and gave me the courage to “try on” something new. And though not always as tangible as a dirty shirt, that’s the important stuff I brought home from camp every summer. At a time in my life where every day was a new (and sometimes scary) adventure of figuring out who I wanted to be, my summers at camp provided a safe place for me to try new activities, practice being “me,” and yes—try out some new clothing styles.
So if you send off your kid this summer with a duffel full of new camp clothes, only to find what looks like someone else’s return, take a deep breath. Maybe those new white sheets were perfect for tie-dying, or the hoodie you bought was the latest victim of paint twister. Or maybe your kid exchanged lucky socks with their new best friend. Whatever comes home in that bag, know that they are the remnants of a summer well-lived. They are the reminders of new skills, new interests, and new friendships. They are the physical proof that your kid tried something new. And no doubt they will be smelly. Wash those things quick.
Tomorrow on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Arik Einstein z”l. Einstein, who passed away at the end of 2013, was from Israel’s “Greatest Generation” that built the country. His 1971 classic song Ani Ve’ata became the anthem of optimism for a young nation. I do not recall ever learning the song for the first time, but I am sure it was at camp. It is strange how knowing something by heart means that you hardly ever give it any thought. Inspired by his passing, I decided to take a closer look at this song.
What did Einstein mean when he wrote “You and I, we will change the world”? Why does he need someone else to help him make change in the world? It is popularly understood that we need large groups of people to make change in the world. About this conception the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In terms of bringing about change, quality is more important than quantity, but we always benefit from partnership and support. In the wake of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut we take pause to think about the founders of the state. That small group of people jumped in where others had just talked about it and made the modern miracle of the rebirth of a State of Israel a reality. The sacrifices were serious, but it is noteworthy that none of them did it by themselves.
It was at summer camp where I first formed my connection to the Israel. It was also there that I forged a relationship with a small group of people that thought “You and I, we will change the world.” Maybe a meaningful thing to do on Yom Ha’atzmaut would be to reconnect with your bunk age group. It might be time for a check in to see where we can support each other in making the world a better place.
“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” ~ Maya Angelou
When I think about the most significant experiences in my life to date, events that helped propel me into adulthood and that gave me the confidence to venture out on my own, my last year as a camper here at the Ranch Camp always comes to mind. At age fifteen, I participated in Ranch Camp’s TASC (Teen Adventure and Service Corps) program, where I learned a lot about the art of surrender.
Ranch Camp’s TASC program consists of a 10-day trip away from camp where campers go backpacking, whitewater rafting, enjoy a Colorado hot spring, and participate in a community service project. My parents were never especially outdoorsy, so I went into my TASC year as a total backpacking novice having never spent any length of time on a camping trip. We went to a camping store to buy all the gear I needed (most of which I still have to this day) and I headed off to camp that summer facing “the great unknown” both excited and nervous.
During our first day of hiking in Colorado’s beautiful backcountry, we were plagued by heavy rain. One boy on my trip was especially slight of build and was weighed down by a very heavy, ill-fitting pack. He had been headstrong and not listened to the staff when we were packing for our trip as they warned him against carrying so much weight. A few miles into our route, he was visibly weak and was having trouble maintaining his footing on the now slippery trail. Seeing his distress, we all stopped and together unpacked his pack and redivided his gear amongst the whole group in order to lighten his load. By each of us taking on a little more, the boy was able to continue and succeed during the rest of our hiking trip. From this experience, I learned the importance of surrendering one’s pride in order to accept the kindness and help of those around you.
My next big lesson came a couple days later when we arrived at the most memorable campsite of our trip. The site was reached after a long, exhausting day of hiking. The site was located next to a gorgeous circular lake that was nestled beneath a horseshoe shaped mountain. And although we were all tired from the long hard hike that day, seeing that the conditions were ripe for a beautiful sunset, one of our staff members invited anyone who wanted to join him to go on an optional hike to catch the sun as it set across the vast mountain range that surrounded us. About six of us decided to join him that evening and we quickly scrambled up a hill to the high vista above our campsite. There we were rewarded by the most spectacular sunset that I’ve ever seen, even to this day. The views were breathtaking and the colors were so vivid – it was majestic, magical, and memorable. I felt like I was on top of the world that evening and it was there that I learned the beauty that can be beheld when you surrender your bodily exhaustion and push yourself to find your inner strength.
We finished an amazing TASC trip and headed back to camp for the final few days of the session, and suddenly the last day of camp was upon us. Like all last days of camp, I remember there being hugs, tears, and prolonged goodbyes. It’s never easy to leave camp, your friends, and the staff members you grow to love. For me, this particular last day of camp was even more difficult because I knew that I was never going to come back to Ranch Camp as a camper. This chapter in my camp life was ending and the next time I would come back to camp, I’d be returning as a staff member. Nothing was ever going to be the same and I had no choice in that moment but to let go and embrace the future. It was here that I learned the importance of surrendering what has passed for the prospect of what is to come.
Camp has taught me so much over the years but my TASC trip at age fifteen was a profound learning experience. During that summer, I learned that not only was surrendering honorable but also empowering. For giving yourself over totally to an experience is as awesome as it is fulfilling.
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As I think back on the past 20-some-odd summers at camp, there are probably about a dozen programs that I remember—really remember. I think back on them not only in that I can remember what we did or what we created, but I remember how they felt: the moment of insight, the powerful conversation, the unique energy that was created through the experience.
Tuesday night was one of those programs. Except instead of being at camp, this program happened at a convention of rabbis. But I think that it’s no coincidence that nearly all of the rabbis that participated in this particular program were camp rabbis. Experiential education is so much a part of our thinking that we can’t help but create these moments for ourselves—and use those moments to live out the values that are inherent in the Jewish camp experience.
Tuesday night, I was one of about 53 rabbis who shaved my head. On stage. In front of the rest of the convention. And on livestream.
And like the programs from various summers that I remember, it was a night that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was an experience that really changed me—more than just my hair.
Not only that, it was an experience that enabled me—and the other participants, as well as everyone who supported us—the chance to change the world, and to use the values that we preach and teach.
It was a little over 4 months ago that we became the 36 Rabbis Who Shave for the Brave. But the story really started in June of 2012, when Superman Sam Sommer, son of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, was first diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. While Sam’s life ended with his death in December, Sam’s story has continued (and will continue) for a whole lot longer than the 8 years during which he lived.
Through sharing and reading about the experience of Sam and his family, so many of us have realized so much. Seeing their pain, struggle, and grief, we have understood reality in a different way. Seeing that reality, we’ve learned about the devastating facts about pediatric cancer: Only 4% of federal funds for cancer research goes to childhood cancers; 13,500 children each year are diagnosed with cancer; 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year — treatments that, because of the need for more research for childhood cancer, are out of date and dangerous; and every day, in America, 7 children die of cancer.
Because of what we’ve come to understand, we realized we needed to take action. And so, we joined Sam’s parents in a campaign for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that provides funding for childhood cancer research. We started with the goal of raising $180,000—the week of Sam’s funeral we surpassed that; we’ve increased our goal a few times now and have raised (as of this writing) $574,724. Our current goal is $613,000—I’m not the only one who hopes (and believes) we will surpass that goal…and the next.
Which brings us to Tuesday night, when we shaved our heads as the culmination of this experience. And really, it was a lot like camp. We even made t-shirts. First, we took a ton of pictures. Next, we had a service of healing—praying and singing through tears, as a community. Then, we had an intense, transformative experience—as we took action on an issue we feel is important, and stood in solidarity with our friends—with more tears and much laughter. Then, we put our arms around each other and sang Shehecheyanu.Then, we took more pictures. Finally, we stayed up way too late, talking about the experience we had just shared.
At camp, we talk about Jewish teachable moments. This experience has been a Jewish teachable couple of months. We’ve used our experience and our actions in order to teach others—raising awareness and inspiring others towards action. At camp, we learn that every individual makes a difference. Looking at the donations, most of the shavers and volunteers have raised small amounts; more people participated in this project by donating money—at least according to my own experience, most of those donations are small donations; even more people participated by telling our story, and telling Sam’s story, and helping inspire others—and inspire us.
I am a camp rabbi for many reasons. One of those reasons is that camp gives me experiences like this one. Another is that the things I learn at camp translate to the rest of my year. Another is that I know how much of a difference a really good program can make.
And so, if your rabbi has a new—and much shorter—haircut this summer. Ask them about it—they have a story to tell.
Rabbi Elisa Koppel is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, TX. Her experience with Jewish camp started at age 10 at her first summer at Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, PA and continues each summer (currently as visiting faculty at Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX). To support her effort on 36 Rabbis, click here. Follow her on twitter at @rabbiisa and check out her personal blog, Off the REKord.