Sleepaway camp kept my faith

It’s July. I hope if you have kids of appropriate ages, you’re sending them off to sleepaway camp — and I mean a Jewish camp.
If you’re a grandparent, I hope you’ve encouraged your offspring to do the same. I recommend this because although I came from a Jewish family, it was really camp that made me an active Jew.
My grandparents were immigrants who held onto the old traditions, but my parents were those first American-borns who ignored so many of them. My Boubby the Philosopher was, as always, philosophic: “The first generation goes away,” she would say, resigned to the change. “But the second comes back.” She was right about me: Her influence was great. But, truth be told, the camp experience was even greater.
Neither of my parents was a shul-goer. Dad was a cardiac Jew — the religion was in his heart, but not in his actions. Mom was a gastronomic Jew — she bought kosher meat and made blintzes, but synagogue appearances were limited to the High Holy Days, and brief even then. I went to Sunday school and fell in love with our people’s history; Boubby would meet me in synagogue for holiday celebrations, and brought gelt and nuts to our house for Chanukah’s dreidel games.
Having been barred from his chosen career in engineering because “no Jews need apply,” Dad returned to school and became a doctor. Among his community service projects was doing the mandatory medical checkups for kids headed to our area’s Jewish summer camp; my freebie camper status was his payback.
I started going at nine and never stopped until after I graduated from college, having by then moved through the ranks to earn my own way as counselor and unit head.
My first year was 1943 — World War II. Our activities combined patriotic and Palestinian; it was at camp that I first learned about our people’s pioneers, sang their songs and danced their dances. Friday evenings were the best: We all dressed in white and intoned Come O Sabbath Day as we made our way to the central mess hall for candlelighting, Kiddush and a traditional (Ashkenazi) Shabbat dinner. To this day, I can sing all three verses of that archaic hymn; my voice is long gone, and old-fashioned words like “thy,” “thou,” and “behest” wouldn’t cut it with today’s kids anyway, but I credit that particular weekly ritual for turning me into a real Jew.
And of course I became a Sunday school teacher immediately after confirmation, first of the kindergartners in the same shul where I had been a student myself, later finding my true love in working with teenagers.
Inventing ways to interest and involve them is the worthiest of challenges. (How to get across the idea of why most Jews didn’t leave Germany at the first whiff of Hitler? Role-play: You go home after our class and find your parents meeting with some friendly Christian neighbors over coffee at the kitchen table. They’re advising that your family pack up and get out immediately. What would your response be? Or: How to explain to the non-Orthodox why “Black Hats” wear black hats? Together, read about and discuss nuns’ habits and Amish attire.)
Speaking of Amish: My beloved camp was near a Pennsylvania mountain town named Harmony by its founder, the Mennonite Jacob Rapp. Climbing to a high-up stone perch the locals fondly called “Rapp’s Seat” was a great way to learn many things I could later work into some very lively lesson plans.
All these are wonderful, still useful memories, but the best of all resurfaces at sundown every Friday, when — no matter where I am — I again walk, in my “mind’s I,” into that mess hall with my fellow campers, dressed in pure white and singing “Come, O Sabbath Day, and bring — peace and healing on thy wing — and to every troubled breast — speak of the divine behest: Thou Shalt Rest…”

Leave a Reply