Many people who attend Jewish camps speak of the total immersion into Judaism and the sense of connection it offers. The experience can be life-changing. Take it from a rabbi and a rabbinical student who were influenced by powerful memories of Jewish camp. Now they are paying it forward.
Rabbi K’vod Wieder related that he never grew up going to Jewish summer camp. His epiphany came later.
“While I had some strong family experiences with Judaism, they weren’t enough to keep me connected through high school,” Rabbi Wieder said. “It wasn’t until college, that a friend invited me to work as a counselor at Camp Tawonga—a Jewish summer camp in Yosemite that drew on mostly unaffiliated Jewish families in the Bay Area.”
Rabbi Wieder added that his motivation in working there was to make some money, be in the beautiful outdoors and meet some new friends. As he explained, “And, while all those things happened for me, the greatest treasure of my summer was unexpected. I connected with my Jewish soul.”
He recalled his first Shabbat, helping his bunk of kids get showered and don nice white shirts. One by one, each bunk joined the “Shabbat Stroll,” a line of campers and counselors singing with guitar as they walked around the lake, welcoming Shabbat outside like the mystics in Northern Israel.
“Blessings and dinner in the dining hall followed by singing and dancing woke me up to a joy that I had never known,” Rabbi Wieder explained. “The day that followed was filled with learning, activities, reflection and fun. On Saturday evening, we said goodbye to Shabbat with flame, spice and juice, arms locked in a circle of song, ready to enter the week with the awareness that we are never alone.”
He concluded, “For the first time in my life, I realized that I was a part of a people who embraced holiness and honored connection with each other and with G-d. There is no question that Jewish summer camp helped me discover who I am as part of B’nai Israel and awakened the desire to help create these meaningful Jewish experiences for others.”
Miriam Hoffman, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, did have the benefit of attending Jewish summer camp. She believes that it was one of the things that motivated her to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Rabbi Robin Foonberg, educator at Congregation B’nai Israel, into the rabbinate.
According to Hoffman, “Like so many other Jews, my Jewish identity only grew stronger every summer at summer camps. There is something magical about being Jewish, away from home, with other young Jews. One of these magical moments happened on a Saturday morning in the summer of 2010 at Camp Mountain Chai. I was sitting on a log bench in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by tall trees and seemingly one thousand mosquitos. The sun was shining down on us and we were singing Mi Chamocha.
She continued, “I took note of the sweet smell of the nature around me, the sound of so many Jews singing the prayers, the sights of wild squirrels running around our feet. I took a moment to breathe in the peacefulness I felt on that Shabbos morning. Then we sang Adonai yimloch l’olam va-ed, and it started pouring rain. We all screamed and ran for cover under the trees, all huddled together. After about three minutes of semi-dry solace, we all burst into laughter. Then the magic happened: we stepped out from under the trees and we danced in the rain—all of us. For the next ten minutes, the song leader played guitar, singing Oseh Shalom, Kol Ha’Olam Kulo and a slew of Dan Nichols songs. The rest of us sang along and danced until the rain stopped. I have never felt more connected to my community than I did that day.”
Hoffman said that summer camp is where she learned how to be Jewish without constantly thinking about Judaism. She could just be Jewish.
She concluded, “I have at least a hundred memories like this one, all of which lead to my decision to become a rabbi. The immense joy I felt during the downpour, the deep conversations I had with my bunkmates when we were supposed to be asleep, the obnoxious cheering for grilled cheese on grilled cheese day (G-R-I-double L-E-D GRILLED CHEESE! GRILLED CHEESE!), it all just seemed so easy and so good. And I wanted to make Judaism that easy and that good for others. I hope that by learning more about this amazing, complicated religion that I love so much, I can help others find the Judaism that is meaningful for them. Camp had such an astounding impact on my life, and I am excited to make Judaism as fun for others as camp made Judaism fun for me.”
ILENE SCHNEIDER IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.