The Perfect Crime: “Breaking in” to Jewish Summer Camp

Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Last Shabbat, my parents sneaked onto URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. They were caught, red-handed, by the director himself, who sent them on a “tour” so that they wouldn’t be wandering around unsupervised.

My mother pulled the same move 14 years ago, when I was a counselor. That time she made it all the way to my cabin and tapped me on the shoulder while I was sleeping. How times have changed!

As an Eisner alumna–she attended camp in the late sixties–my mother has a hard time wrapping her head around the ever-increasing safety measures at camp. For her, as for many of us, camp is home, sometimes more than home is home. Nothing–not even the passage of nearly 50 years–could change that for her. How could it be that she has to sneak into–and be politely escorted out of–her own home?

Fortunately, I don’t have to pull any covert maneuvers to come home. Returning to camp year after year was one of my original motivations for becoming a rabbi, and I have been blessed to spend time as faculty at URJ Camps during many of my summers.

It isn’t exactly a “perfect crime” though, as they really put us to work! We engage the younger units in fun learning activities around themes of Mitzvot (Sacred Behaviors), Middot (Jewish Values), and Tikkun Olam (Healing the World). For the older campers (entering 8th-10th grade), we teach electives: this year mine was a social justice module called “Game of Loans.” We tutor b’nai mitzvah students, help with daily and Shabbat tefillah, and offer support to staff as they continue their own Jewish journeys.

It’s a big change to go from attending camp to teaching at camp. But even as a working adult, we still get to see some of the magic that makes camp camp: both the things that have changed and those that have stayed the same. For instance, projection screens have replaced songbooks and prayer sheets, but campers still bang on the tables in (mostly) the same spots. There are new songs (Don’t Waste the Milk and this version of L’chu Neranena were my favorite musical acquisitions), but there is also the same sense of loud, chaotic abandon that campers and staff exhibit as they sing and dance.

Young people are coming to camp from an entirely different culture than when I was a camper, but that makes it all the more wonderful to see them surrender their devices and engage with their low-tech selves: making friendship bracelets, playing make-believe (one cabin I visited was involved in a pretty intense game of “lice clinic/hair salon”), and talking to one another face-to-face.

This year was my first year as faculty at URJ Crane Lake Camp, Eisner’s neighbor, and it was incredible to see how much the camp has grown and changed in the 19 years since it became a URJ Camp. They’ve worked hard to develop their own unique identity, and, even though I grew up at URJ Camp Harlam, Crane Lake is absolutely a place I’d be proud to call home.

One thing that I loved about Crane Lake was its community culture. Some of the camps I’ve worked with are so large in population that they rarely bring the entire camp together. Crane Lake, on the other hand, has opportunities throughout the day for everyone to be assembled. Every meal is an all-camp meal, where birthdays are celebrated, lost teeth are commemorated, and clearing the table is accompanied by music and dancing. One morning, the youngest campers even treated us to a Modeh Ani flashmob.

Each morning after breakfast, the entire camp joins in a short, lively, musical tefillah that feels much like a giant song session. On Shabbat, campers can sit wherever they want at dinner, giving siblings–and synagogues–a chance to bond across their age differences. Afterwards, while the community is at Shabbat services, the entire dining hall is cleared to make room for a massive song and dance session!

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Ending Shabbat with Havdalah at URJ Crane Lake Camp

Coming together as a community reminds us that we are all a part of something larger. We aren’t a cabin, a unit, a specific camp, or even a generation of campers. We are part of something that stretches beyond age, geography, and time. Camp connects us to an endless chain of people who have called camp home. And I’m grateful that, at least for two weeks out of every summer, I get to come home again, too.

Join me next summer! Visit http://urjnortheastcamps.org/ to find the summer experience that’s right for you. And stay tuned for my report from URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy!

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