I am far beyond the personal experiences of both my own camp years and those of my grown daughters. Nonetheless, my Jewish overnight camp past is still alive and well, living within my soul.
How do I know this? Let me count the ways.
First and foremost, the summer camp schedule is baked into my DNA. As a proud alumna of New Hampshire’s Camp Tevya, I always think about the first day of camp in late June. And I knew that last Sunday would have been Visiting Day, as well as the turnover day for single-session campers. In my day, there were only eight-week camp sessions, so Visiting Day played a very special and slightly weird role in the mid-season, reminding campers that we actually had parents we would eventually be returning home to, sadly! (Of course we loved them dearly, but the reality check that the summer was half over was a bit ominous.)
A bit past mid-summer came the all-camp observance of Tisha B’Av, the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar. We always marked this with a very somber and meaningful evening program. Though we did not, to the best of my recollection, chant “Megillat Eicha” (the Book of Lamentations), we engaged in meaningful outdoor rituals. I recall the entire camp seated on the ground around the volleyball court, surrounded by candles, singing in Hebrew “Al Naharot Bavel,” known in English as “By the Waters of Babylon.” My sole experience of fasting on Tisha B’Av happened the summer I served on the Jewish culture staff of educators.
Most of our small culture staff also fasted, so I joined as well in the conviction that it would have been hypocritical for me not to do so. I confess I’ve never fasted since, but I have continued to attend Tisha B’Av services and am always aware of its date on the summer calendar.
Despite the fact that very few liberal Jews observe Tisha B’Av, it was a gift to have been exposed to this sad day signifying the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel. If you did not grow up Orthodox and did not attend Jewish summer camp, you basically had no opportunity to learn about and experience Tisha B’Av.
Every summer, a part of me still feels deprived of the camp experience as my work does not allow for an extended break. Even now I long for the magic of the camp experience: living in simple bunks with best friends and spending the better part of every day outdoors, not to mention daily swimming and boating on a glorious lake, playing games, singing songs, attending nightly fun-filled evening activities, eating in a large, noisy dining hall and marking Shabbat on Friday and Saturday outdoors among the pines with their unforgettable fragrance. Marking the end of Shabbat with Havdalah’s mystical feel was another special Jewish experience rarely observed in the off-season.
Ah, total bliss!
And when the first days of August hit and the evenings in New Hampshire became just a bit chilly, we were once again reminded that we were in the countdown to that depressing return to reality, also known as the school year.
So, now it’s August, but this summer I am obviously not so much envious of the summer camp community as I am pained to think of the terrible loss they are experiencing. They have in a way become me: yearning for a magical summer at camp and losing something they cannot recapture. God willing, they will return to their “summer home” a year from now, but even that is not guaranteed at this point.
One way I have compensated for my own lost youth is to participate in weekly Zoom meetups with my camp friends—women I have known from the age of 9.
It’s of course comforting, though we don’t spend each session on camp nostalgia, which I for one would be perfectly happy to do. Why talk politics (depressing) when we can nostalgically live in the glorious past?
Nonetheless I feel very blessed to have the rhythms of Jewish overnight camp embedded deep in my DNA, even though the sense of loss makes me wistful. I am eternally grateful to my parents who sent me, to the counselor staff who created the fun, to my old camp friends and to the founders of the Cohen Camps who had the vision and provided the funding to create such an incredible experience that has given so much to so many to shape our Jewish identities and instill within us the values of friendship, loyalty and love of Israel and Yiddishkeit. The immersive camp experience that allowed us to live within the Jewish calendar for one-sixth of the year remains with me forever.
We are now barely post-Tisha B’Av, and I only know that because of the legacy of Camp Tevya.
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