In the summer between 4th and 5th grade, my parents sent my sister and me to Camp Swig in Saratoga, CA. I retain a few really clear images from those ten days:
1. The look on the face of the poor counselor who had to figure out what to tell me when she realized that the powers that be had accidentally assigned me to a boys cabin (to be fair to them, my full first name is Dustin. To be fair to me, they did receive medical forms for me).
2. Song session, where I first interacted which such camp classics as “I don’t want to be a chicken, I don’t want to be a duck, so I shake my butt quack quack quack quack” and “Artik menta shokolad banana,” and jumped around the dining hall doing the Miriam’s Song Dance and screaming “AND THE WOMEN DANCING WITH THEIR TIMBRELS” at the top of our lungs.
3. The truly hideous long-sleeved white turtleneck shirt I wore on Shabbat because it was the only white shirt I owned and so that’s what my mother packed.
I had an okay time, I guess, but I was a pretty quiet, definitively quirky kid, and I didn’t really connect with the other girls in my cabin. My parents and I decided maybe Jewish summer camps weren’t “my thing,” and moved on.
Ten years later, I found myself barreling up the California coast in my old beat-up Subaru station wagon, headed toward Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, where I had applied to work for the summer. The moment I arrived, that same somewhat-out-of-place feeling reappeared. I knew almost no one. No one knew me. Everyone knew each other.
And then something magical happened.
The kids arrived.
For three and a half weeks, my co-counselor Francesca and I were in charge of the health and happiness of twelve 13-year-old girls. They were all varying levels of adorable and awkward, mired deep in the muck of figuring out who they were themselves and who they were in relation to the world. And so, to a certain extent, were Francesca and I.
And so the two of us counselors shepherded these phenomenal rising 9th graders through their camp experience. We sat on the stoop late at night and listened to them swoon over boys, and then yell about boys, and then cry over boys, and then swoon again. We told elaborate bedtime stories to get them to actually go to bed, and then let the one girl who could not fall asleep read for awhile anyway, even though it was really late. We traveled with them to the pool, and the climbing tower, and the mirpa’ah (health center). We led them in prayer and they led us in prayer, too.
That summer, I fell in love with camp.
In the past month, I have had the opportunity to spend time with our Temple Beth El campers at both URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA and URJ 6 Points Sports Camp in Greensboro, NC. Each camp is unique and wonderful in its own way (as, I’m sure, are the many camps our kids go to that I wasn’t able to visit!) and I feel honored to have been welcomed into our kids “homes away from home.”
Twenty years later, I still get nervous when I arrive at a camp I haven’t been to before, and I still feel a little bit out of place. But the feeling dissipates more quickly now, replaced, each time, with a moment that reminds me that “God is in this place.” (Genesis 28:16)
God is in this place as two Camp Coleman rising third graders carefully and excitedly speak into the microphone during all-camp services, reading an introduction to Barchu.
God is in this place as Natalie Benson, my former confirmation student and 6 Points Sports camper, decked out terrifyingly in her mouth guard and special lacrosse eye protection thingies, yells “That’s My Rabbi!” as I try unsuccessfully to get the lacrosse ball past her and into the goal.
God is in this place as Camp Coleman campers compassionately cheer on their fellow camper during a talent show. His talent: “Eyes-closed lanyard-making while holding my breath.”
God is in this place as 6 Points Sports campers pause at the end of their evening together to breathe and remember the importance of being in the moment.
I tell people I became a camp kid as an adult, but in truth, I may never fully be a camp kid. And in the end, I don’t think that matters. Each time I go to camp, I learn lessons you don’t have to be a “camp kid” to understand:
Get excited about Barchu.
Find Judaism on the lacrosse pitch (or soccer field, or tennis court).
Celebrate each other’s talents.
And always try to be in the moment.