4 Things I’ve Learned at Jewish Summer Camp
Written by Raina Scherer
Illustrated by Nina Scherer
Growing up at Jewish summer camp has endowed me with crucial knowledge about life and people. There’s something special about being in a temporary community for two months, surrounded by children and Jewish programming 24/7; it really brings out all sides of people’s personalities. As someone who intends on having a career in the Jewish camping world, I’m a huge advocate for the value that camp can bring to one’s life. After spending nine summers as a camper and four (going on five!) summers as a staff member at my reform Jewish camp, I’ve gathered some essential nuggets about myself and how I relate with others, as well as how I connect with the broader, spiritual world.
Self-Care Is Crucial
Camp is an incredibly hectic environment. Between trying to adhere to a schedule and organizing programming for campers, stress can easily and quickly accumulate. When you’re in the middle of the chaos, it often seems impossible to even conceptualize taking a break for a minute. Eventually, your internal engine is bound to give out and you’re sure to break down.
I learned this the tough way through tie-dye, of all things. One can only take so many hours of preparing and rinsing tie-dye before endless blends of rainbows begin to infect your dreams at night (yes, this really did happen to me). When your day job becomes a comatose graveyard shift, something’s got to give. I wasn’t taking care of myself or my mental health, and I suffered immensely because of it. Luckily, one of my mentors taught me the wonders asking for help and taking breaks for myself. This might sound like common sense to a lot of people at work, but camp has a way of transcending the feeling of a normal summer gig.
Being Completely Engulfed in a Jewish Space for a Whole Summer Is a Liberating Experience
One thing I often have trouble explaining to non-camp people is the particular experience of being surrounded by Jews and Jewish culture for an entire summer and the feeling of acceptance that comes along with it. Growing up as a Jew from Northern California in a moderately practicing family, most of my Jewish activities outside of camp happened at my synagogue once or twice a week. Compared to the sparseness of Sunday school classes, camp is a whole different beast entirely.
Instead of learning a bit of Jewish content in class and going back to the secular world at home, at camp you exist in a Jewish environment for an exponentially longer amount of time. With the exception of my Birthright trip to Israel, I’ve never experienced anything else comparable. Hebrew and Yiddish phrases are part of the camp vernacular and are understood by everyone. Everybody knows what Shabbat is or why we say certain prayers. We’re able to relate to each other through stories of our crazy families on Passover and how we all have a cousin named Rachel. It’s the only place that I’ve really felt like I can live a truly Jewish life with other Jews, all day every day. Even though it’s temporary, camp provides me with my annual dose of feeling understood. I don’t feel like an outsider there because I don’t have to explain or justify my Judaism and Jewish identity to anybody. Instead of my Jewish identity setting me apart, it brings me closer to my community.
Spirituality Can Take On Many Different Forms
After my Bat Mitzvah, I was very adamant that I was “done with Judaism except for camp.” My 13-year-old self was exhausted from all the preparation my parents and rabbis were telling me to do for my big day. It all felt ingenuine to me because I had to abide by so many guidelines, and frankly, I was just overall disinterested in the whole production. Camp never felt that way to me, though. During t’filah, daily prayer service, at camp, we got to be more creative with our services than I ever got to be at my temple. We could journal, meditate, sing secular songs in place of prayers (even Chance the Rapper!), and make art and crafts relating to the themes of the prayers. We were able to mold our spiritual experiences with methods of reflection and intention that connected with us individually. We were also able to explore alternative creative means of prayer that our peers connected with, broadening our scope of what spirituality looks like. Praying in these ways felt more comfortable to me because I could express myself more fully than I could with the ways I had been taught at home. These methods are what got me interested in Judaism again which has ultimately shaped my chosen career path significantly.
Camp Friends Just Hit Different
You can learn a lot about others when you’re stuck with the same people all day every day for weeks on end. All sides of one’s personality come out during the camping season— the good and the bad. Part of living in the camp environment is learning how to navigate relationships with peers and coworkers through all of it. It has caused me to look at conflict resolution in a whole new light, because without effective problem solving, the entire camp machine is doomed to malfunction.
Additionally, I’ve learned to have more compassion and empathy for others through these relationships. Working at camp is the hardest fun you can have; it takes a whole lot of energy but it’s always worth it to be a part of making the magic. Supporting each other while going through the whirlwind of the summer forged strong relationships that have stood up to the test of time. My camp friends are my best friends, and it’s because of our crazy shared experience in our camp careers and the fact that we’ve been there for each other through it all. Camp taught me how to take care of myself and how to love with my whole heart. It also allowed me to reconnect with my spirituality and my Jewish community in ways that felt honest and true to myself. The two months out of the year when I get my juiciest life lessons make waiting out the other ten worth it.