I was not the happiest camper on earth, but it’s probably better to start by describing the kind of kid I was before we get to that. Here are a few hints—my first imaginary friend was a rock. No, not one of those “pet rocks” that were popular in the ‘80s, just a gray, roundish, palm-sized rock that a girl of about 3 found in the front yard of her parents’ house in Needham by digging it up with a stick about as long as her arm. Later, I made other friends—real friends. Most were from my neighborhood, school chorus and temple choir. Then there were my books: Sherlock Holmes stories, Nancy Drew and historical novels. You get the picture.

created at: 2014-02-24My younger sister, Julie, on the other hand, had a gazillion friends from gymnastics, school, Girl Scout Brownies, temple and little league baseball. When we set off for Camp Pembroke together at ages 9 and 12, she was adorable with golden hair, a tiny fit frame, a tan and a big, toothy smile, while I was overweight with pasty white skin and blemishes. Our mother was convinced that we would both have fun, or at least that it would be good for us. I’m now sure she was grateful to have some peace in the house for a few weeks during the summer since she was working full-time, raising three kids and telling anyone who asked that she deserved a break.

Getting to camp was the easy part. It was less than an hour from our house, a quick drive that ended with an organized drop-off. After that, the Ginn sisters split up and headed for their bunks. I remember beginning to sweat when I saw the popular girls from my school. That was before I realized they already knew all of the other girls too. Oy! In fairness, no one was mean to me. They even let me use their Noxzema facial cleanser. Yet I still wrote many letters home dripping with sad-sack emotion and preteen angst.

Except for having to listen to my whining, Julie had a great time. She trooped to her activities holding hands with one friend or arm-in-arm with two. She loved the waterfront, arts and crafts and Color War. She wrote letters home only when we had to write to get into the dining hall. She went to camp for six more years, while I lasted for only one more summer.

Fast forward to today: We are both connected to synagogue congregations. We’re also both mothers. My sister and her interfaith family belong to Temple Beth Elohim, and my family belongs to Temple Sinai of Sharon. Each of us feels Jewish, but what it means to us is different. Julie has more of a spiritual, meditative practice leaning toward Eastern philosophy, while I practice through social action and enjoy a good Friday-night service.

Even though my camp experience wasn’t the happiest, I’m grateful for the songs with words that still resonate, prayers over food that I didn’t learn in Hebrew school, learning how to water ski, realizing that embarrassment wasn’t fatal and for slow-dancing for the first time with a boy. Julie will tell you she’s grateful for the eight close friends that she still has in her life to celebrate milestone moments and the ups and downs of everyday life (I can name seven  of them: Cheryl, Lisa, Jackie, Beth, Jenny, Katie and Amy). She’s also grateful for the years of great summers and a rubber bracelet from an Israeli soldier (lost long ago).

Do we live more Jewish lives because of camp? Probably.

Do we know ourselves better and connect with people differently because we went? Without a doubt.

Thinking about Jewish overnight camp for your kids? Register for Camp Rocks on March 9, an afternoon of supervised fun while your family explores camp options and meets local camp directors.

Learn more about Jewish overnight camp here.

Claire Winthrop is a consultant with CJP Camping Initiatives. She’s the wife of a former Camp Young Judaea camper and the mother of a Camp Ramah camper. Claire and her family live in Sharon with their cat, Drummer.