The first time we kids are able to show autonomy from our parents is camp. I remember my mom taking me to get my annual physical. Many times, the doctor would ask about how I ate my bagels. “Rachel, how much cream cheese are you putting on the bagel? Do you think having less cream cheese and more bagel is possible?” This was a pediatrician’s way of saying, “Hey chubby Jewish American Princess, you’re healthy. You can go to camp, but don’t overdo it in the mess hall.”
So there I was, standing in the middle of the welcoming area. My dad’s huge orange sleeping bag from when he was a kid and my duffel, lost in the Jewish abyss we call camp. I stood around looking for people I knew. Oh wait, I was the only Jewish kid at my school. My mental list for survival: find my bunk, find another socially awkward kid to make friends with, stare at a dreamy Jewish “prince” all summer, play GaGa (don’t be a wimp), and of course sing the loudest and most off key during prayer time. Check, check, check, check, check!
Why are these pre-pubescent times so incredibly important to me? Clearly, for me, camp was not like “Wet Hot American Summer,” but it is important to realize that for me, like many others, Jewish camp is a rite of passage. That standing among a bunch of curly haired, brace-faced kids whose moms all swore they were G-d’s gift to humanity, made me see that community is important. Jewish camp also allowed me to see Judaism differently. Shabbat wasn’t the same from house to house. Not all Jews looked alike. I got to explore my religion without too many adults influencing my feelings.
These experiences drew me closer to the community. We read a lot about anti-Semitism. We also read about Israel and how it is condemned.
Camp is a place where people come together to celebrate Judaism and Jewish identity. The celebration began as soon as we climbed into my mother’s Crown Victoria station wagon and sang, “Shalom Haverim” and even evolved into my college, and post-college days singing at college rallies for Israel.
Nostalgia sets in when I sit with local OC community members benching after a meal as we all break into the same tune. It makes me feel more comfortable at a Nefesh Minyan shabbat. Camp also made me want to become a Jewish leader. It sparked a desire to make other Jews feel supported. It represents the idea of an inclusive Jewish community. Camp was a major stepping stone in my religious and communal growth.
Wow, I must sound like I billboard for Jewish activities. However, it is really important to understand that we are a product of our experiences. I know what it means to grapple with Jewish concepts around a campfire and walk away feeling empowered; it didn’t hurt that the cute guy’s cabin was not far from mine.