I had lunch the other day with an old friend I had never met before. How can that be, you might ask? The woman I had lunch with serves on the board of directors of Camp Ramah in New England and although we had never personally met, our common experiences and strong feelings about Jewish camping and Ramah, in particular, made it seem like we had.
She had invited me to lunch on that day, both because I am a former Ramah camper and staff member, and because I am a synagogue president. I learned from her that Jewish camping remains vibrant and dynamic, but faces challenges in the areas of recruitment and accessibility (read: affordability).
I was not always so gung-ho about Jewish overnight camp. In fact, it took years of persuasion by my parents and some friends to convince me to take the plunge, which I did not do until the summer of 1982, the summer before I turned 15. That put me in the second oldest age group in camp and, although I was one of several first-time campers in my division that summer, it was immediately apparent to me that many of my fellow campers – those who had attended for years – had formed incredibly strong bonds with one another and with the camp itself.
I view the summer of 1982 as a changing point in my life. I learned more about independence, leadership and living Jewishly that summer than at any other point in my life before or after. It is nearly impossible to articulate exactly what I mean by this, but I have discovered that many people who attended camps like Ramah had similar experiences.
My time at Ramah – 2 years as a camper, a summer in Israel, and 3 years on staff – has left me with amazing bonds with the people I spent those summers with, over 20 years ago. Some of them I speak to or email with frequently, others rarely. But the bonds remain strong, year in and year out. Marni and I met during one of those summers at Ramah, and we apparently are one of dozens of now-married couples that met there.
In a time when our connections to people are simplified through My Space, Facebook, LinkedIn and similar e-venues, getting in touch with old camp friends has been that much easier. They form as important a part of my “network” as my college and law school friends. And I know that the Ramah experience is not unique. The Camp Laurelwood alumni network, for example, is extremely vibrant, and I am sure that the same can be said for other Jewish camps.
I do believe, however, that there is something unique to the Jewish camping experience that distinguishes it from the “secular” camping experience. When Jewish kids spend a summer together, living Jewishly amid a full menu of typical camp activities – swimming, sports, boating, arts & crafts, etc. – the equation changes in a special way. Whether the camp adheres to Kashrut, includes opportunities for prayer or study, or imbues campers with a sense of social action, it sets itself apart from other camps. I know that Ramah was for me, and apparently still is, more than a camp. It is a community. And as much as I appreciated its impact on me in 1982, I have even greater understanding of that impact in 2008.
During my lunch the other day, I confessed that a few years ago, Zachary asked Marni and me to write down on a piece of paper that he would never have to go to sleep-away camp. So far, he hasn’t asked us to tear up that piece of paper. But one day, I think he might.