By: Tzivi Nochenson
I was a camp kid. I counted down the days until the school year ended. Freedom from school, early wake ups, endless homework and the constant grind.
From the age of 10 my summers were filled with weeks away from home at Jewish summer camp. Camp was my heart and soul. Until this day, a part of me wishes I could stuff those duffle bags full, find the perfect shower caddy and put together a stationary box for letters.
As I was getting ready for Shabbat a few weeks ago, I heard the news that one of the camps I attended would be closed this summer due to COVID-19. I couldn’t believe it. Hundreds of children would have their hearts broken.
The cancelation of camp is more than just a loss of activities, games and opportunities. For many Jewish kids this is their chance to have Jewish experiences and make Jewish connections. Jewish songs, Israeli staff members, Hebrew words, Shabbat dinner and services, a pride and sense of identity bigger than oneself; a community. As someone who attended public school with a small Jewish population, all of those summers I spent at camp filled with positive memories planted the seeds for the life I live now.
At camp I learned that being Jewish meant more than bagels and lox. It meant being a part of something so much bigger. I discovered that Judaism could actually be relevant to me.
Shabbat felt special at camp. Everyone showered, dressed nicely and the activities were different. It had a unique feel. When I would spend my first Friday night at home after camp was over, I used to lament at how I missed those special camp Shabbats. The feeling in the air on Shabbat at camp was truly one of a kind.
Almost 15 years later, as I light my Shabbat candles in my home in Israel, I am taken back to those experiences and feelings many summers ago. I can still picture myself walking arm in arm with camp friends down the long gravel path overlooking the lake that led us from the serene Shabbat mood in the dining hall, to the lively and upbeat services that awaited us in the Chapel. I learned at camp that being proud to be Jewish is a beautiful thing.
At camp, I met many other Jews who became best lifelong friends. Since I wanted the opportunity to relive that sense of Jewish camaraderie and see my friends throughout the year, I got involved in various Jewish community opportunities, including traveling to Israel.
As I built on those positive Jewish experiences growing up, I found myself growing closer to Torah Judaism. Today I am a committed observant Jew. I am happily married, living with my kippah-wearing husband and two beautiful children in Israel. I live in a thriving community of other committed Jews and we care for one another in many ways. As a wife and mother, I aim to infuse Judaism into my home each day and use the Torah’s incredible framework of wisdom as our guide. I am grateful to wake up each morning and know I am a part of something much bigger than myself.
Jewish summer camp shaped my life and as campers across the globe are left without their Jewish home this summer, I mourn with them. The loss is real.
I encourage parents and campers to build on that loss and inspire themselves to keep camp alive this summer. Whether camp has everyone wear white on Friday nights or serves a special dish on Saturday, bring that experience home. Perhaps take an online tour of a site in Israel, since many camps aim to recreate the Western Wall and the Dead Sea in their Israel programming. Keep up with camp friends and make a “Zoom” cabin. Whether it is songs, dress, food, a certain activity, or a certain person, figure out a way to keep it in the picture this summer. Infuse a little bit of camp in daily life and create positive Jewish experiences at home. If parents and campers can keep the spirit of camp alive, they will grow together.
At the end of camp tears would stream down our faces as we had to say goodbye. The staff at camp used to tell us, “It’s not goodbye, it’s only see you soon.” So remember, it is not goodbye to camp this summer; it’s only see you soon.