I wish I could go back to Jewish overnight camp—now that I’m all grown
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
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
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.