I wish I could go back to Jewish overnight camp—now that I’m all grown up.
I’d appreciate it a whole lot more today than I did when I was a kid.
While most of my friends seemed to love it, the joy of overnight camp was lost on me. I only went once—when I was 9. After that, I never returned.
Maybe I didn’t like it because I had to swim in the freezing cold lake.
Maybe I didn’t like it because of those nasty shower shoes.
Maybe I didn’t like it because the guys would raid our cabin late at night. (I was too young to appreciate the novelty of boys hanging out in the girls’ living quarters.)
Maybe I didn’t like it because my overly earnest counselor terrified me about the evils of cholesterol as I gobbled down hardboiled eggs in the cafeteria one morning.
Or maybe I didn’t like it because once, while lunching at a picnic table, someone accidentally jostled a bee hive under the table, and they swarmed in my direction, stinging me five times before I could even finish my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But none of those--not even the bees—explain it.
Really, there was one problem and one problem only: I missed my mom and dad.
I think about how guilt-inducing my weepy and prolific letters home must have made my parents feel. “Why would you send me here?” the letters would read like lines from the Allan Sherman song.
I recall one lunch in particular, only three or four days into the three-week camp session. The entire camp sat in the cafeteria, singing the Birkat Hamazon, the prayer after the meal, followed by a bunch of camp songs.
As we sang, I couldn’t hold back anymore, and the tears started welling up in my eyes. Just as the campers began belting out the beloved folk rock song “Cats in the Cradle,” I leapt out of my seat.
“My child arrived just the other day…” the rest of the kids sang, appearing happy and totally un-homesick.
I bee-lined for the nearest exit before they could get a glimpse of my red, puffy eyes. I tore through the screen door in the direction of the camp flagpole, safely away from the room full of my peers.
And then I sobbed and sobbed.
I could still hear the faint sound of the campers singing in harmony. “Little boy blue and the man in the moon…”
The egg-hating counselor came out to find me. Turns out, she wasn’t so bad. “What’s the matter?” she asked. So I confessed: “I miss home!” She reached out and hugged me. In lieu of my mom’s hug, hers would have to suffice. And it did.
After that, camp improved. I only cried like another seven times.
I made some good friends, a couple laughably innocent crushes, and a wardrobe full of tie dyed t-shirts and friendship bracelets.
And I built on an-already budding love for Judaism, Jewish life, and community.
Statistics show that Jewish overnight camp, more than any other Jewish childhood experiences, drives adult participation and identification in Jewish life later on, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Foundation finds that, as adults, Jewish overnight campers are:
-30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity
-37 percent more likely to light Shabbat candles
-45 percent more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more
-and 55 percent more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel.
Despite not exactly being the poster child for Jewish overnight camp, I somehow found my “Jewish” way. Today, I can check all the boxes: I’m happy to report I donate to Jewish charities, light Shabbat candles, go to synagogue, and love Israel.
But my camp experience, even just one year of it, taught me other lessons that I've carried with me all these years. Most important: the ability to step outside my comfort zone—and survive—and even have a little fun.
So now, almost 30 years later, I'm ready for overnight camp.
Bring on the late night bonding sessions, campfire sing-a-longs, “Capture the Flag” games, swimming in the lake, camp dances, peaceful Shabbat services by the lake—oh and looooong summer breaks.
Where do I sign up?
Want to hear more summer stories from young Jews? Join us tomorrow night for Oy! Let Me Tell You’s storytelling event at Matilda’s. Click here for the deets.