As I write these words, July is handing off to August. It’s still pretty hot and humid (I still can’t wrap my mind around school starting up at the start of August!). The big buses picked up the 2nd session campers and headed home. This summer, I had the opportunity to briefly visit up at camp (Ramah Darom) three times. I’d like to share a few glimpses…
When a camp empties out, you feel a powerful silence, deeper than simple quiet. You remember that just a day earlier, the hundreds of campers and staff gathered in the lunch room or in a theater space were literally shaking the bleachers or pounding the tables with their rowdy exuberance. Once the final programs are over, the band unplugs, the last videos have played — it’s as if the magic spell has been broken. The same stunning waterfall, the winding streams, the lush mountain foliage — so quiet now — it’s really a different place, an empty shell.
This past Shabbat evening, I heard the kids chanting Lecha Dodi to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ – it’s quite stirring, no matter how many times you’ve heard it. And I can only imagine Mr. Cohen smiling down from his version of the afterlife, basking in all the voices of the youngsters. This last Shabbat, Zohar came up with me and he loved reconnecting with the kids who used to be his little campers; some are counselors now. When his kids talk about the way camp shapes their lives, I recall his early summers up there over twenty years ago. He recalls the tunes, the chants, the shtick — the old traditions, and some new bits that have taken root in the rituals of camp life.
I know I’ve mentioned this once before, but I think it bears repeating — earlier this summer NPR aired a wonderful segment about Jewish camping in America. I was startled to hear an audio clip from the early 1960’s from Camp Massad (in the Poconos), a camp I attended a few years later. In a flash my mind went back to a camp fire in June of 1967. While I was at camp, the Six Day Way broke out. I was among the campers whose relationship with Israel was galvanized by those dramatic events. The NPR piece was a powerful bit of American Jewish sociology. Jewish camping became one of the most important vehicles for the preservation and renewal of Jewish identity in the face of assimilation as well as antisemitism.
Not too long from now, our religious school will come into our shul and one of the important opening day rituals is about kids sharing things about their summer. Our synagogue’s kids have attended a few different camps. Each of those camps plays a crucial role in energizing our community here. I must also thank everyone who contributes to Federation, to the Haskins Fund, to the Zarks Fund, to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund — you all know that camp is quite expensive, and you also know that summer camp, along with various Israel programs, is an investment in the future of Jewish life. This is why we are challenged to up our game and ensure that all the families whose kids yearn for these experiences — can afford to participate. Jewish summer camp, programs in Israel — some folks see these as luxuries. My experiences — from my childhood (hey, my mom went to camp Massad way back in the day!), through the lives of my children, including my experiences as a rabbi — remind me that these programs are foundational. They’re necessities. They ensure the Jewish future.