Imagine a scene: approximately 600 individuals sitting in a room together. The “learners” are no older than 16; the “mentors,” university-age or recent college graduates. They’re seated in small circles on the floor throughout the room.
In the circle, there are candles, one for each participant, flickering in the darkness. The sound of voices, quiet at first, but growing with intensity, fills the room with the beautiful sound of Hashkiveinu, the prayer with which we conclude each day. On this night, we conclude more than a day – we conclude a successful summer, reflecting on four weeks of fun, friendships, laughter and Jewish journeys.
This scene is a perfect example of just one moment in time at Jewish overnight camp. Each summer, thousands of campers and staff flock to small towns around the country. Most people have never heard of these towns – towns with names such as Waynesboro, Kunkletown and Palmer. But we have. Not because of what occurs there between September and May, but for what takes place there during the summer, when a beautiful piece of land comes to life with a vivaciousness and energy difficult to replicate.
We tell parents that the best gift they can give is the “Gift of Camp” – that precious, unforgettable experience where one truly makes his/her best friends in the world and deepens his/her Jewish identity. And, it truly is a gift: the opportunity to try new things, take a few risks, meet new people and learn what it means to be independent.
In recent years, studies have shown that individuals who attend Jewish camp have a deepened sense of Jewish identity, a stronger sense of community and better developed independent living skills. We see it later in life when our campers become staff members, and when they head off to college and create their own Jewish communities.
Camp is about growth. It is about the opportunity to sharpen skills in activities like soccer, dance and drama. It is about trying new things among the support of friends, such as conquering a fear of heights in reaching the top of the climbing wall. It’s about learning the remarkable history of Jewish heroes by “meeting” them as they walk through a cabin full of inquisitive minds. Every activity is designed to inspire our campers – and our staff – to grow, to question and to learn. And, we do it all while having a great time.
Fun is an essential aspect of camp. I know camp is fun when I see the look of sheer joy on children’s faces, as they leap off the diving board, as they seal a game of basketball with a free throw, as they paint the last stroke of a mural, and as they cruise down the zip line over the lake. The combination of meaning, growth and fun begins to define who that individual is, as well as who he/she will become.
In the circles on the floor, 600 individuals reflect on four weeks of fun and friendship. They look at the person to the right, and to the left, close friends who have become another brother or sister. They gaze across the room at someone who helped them play their first chords on the guitar. They stare into the flame, remembering the flicker of the Shabbat candles.
And, they resolve to be sitting here again, 11 months from today. The countdown begins now…