I WAS five and half years old my first summer at camp. I was in girls bunk #1 with three other girls my age and three counselors. We would share that bunk for eight weeks. It was customary to send your child to camp for the entire summer. “Good for the children” they said. Undoubtedly it was also good for the parents. Over the next 12 years I spent each summer at that camp in the beautiful Pocono Mountains, set in a fragrant pine forest that I never tired of walking through. It was a Jewish camp – of its time – before the denominations created camps that offered Jewish education. But my camp was kosher and we had services every Friday night and Saturday morning, and said the motzi before our meals. And the things I enjoyed most about camp were directly related to that.
Every Friday night, dressed in all white (if it was warm enough to wear shorts) we would line up outside the big recreation hall – that actually looked like a Quonset hut. Then to the strains of Chopin’s dramatic Prelude in C minor, Op 28 No 20, we all marched silently to our seats. To this Day, it is that music that puts me into a spiritual state of mind. As I got older, I was able to join the choir and sing every Shabbat. Somewhere among my memorabilia I still have the service booklet from camp.
The rabbi was conservative, but as any good camp rabbi did, he tailored his sermons for his young audience. But there was one other spiritual aspect to this camp experience. Despite Mordechai Kaplan’s concern that children were becoming more like Native Americans than Jews, we did have a Native American chief who, along with the rabbi was the counselor of Boys Bunk #1. (What a sight it was when at camp lineup, these two powerful spiritual leaders, the chief with his broad chest covered in a moleskin shirt with braids down his back, and the Rabbi in Bermuda shorts, and kippa with socks and sandals were followed by the darling little five-year-old boys.)
While Friday and Saturday were devoted to Shabbat, Sunday night was devoted to Indian Camp. We were awarded feathers for accomplishing certain feats, heard stories and learned songs that only later did I realize echoed similar themes we had heard on Shabbat.
So while camp was fun in many respects, I learned how to horseback ride and swim, what has lasted with me are those “spiritual memories” – the smell and feel of the pine forest, the Shabbat service and feeling of community, and the Native American rhythms that moved me as well.
And when I came home after eight weeks and was welcomed back into the bosom of my family, I brought Judaism back with me. Though definitely Jewish, we were not a particularly observant family. I asked my mother to light Shabbat candles, I wanted to study Hebrew and more than ever, felt a connection to the greater Jewish community. Even though my camp was not a traditional Jewish camp as we know so many are today, it did the job. It nurtured that love of Judaism I always felt, and spurred me on to know more and learn more.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.