What symbolizes the official start of summer? It may be the day the community pool opens for the season, the last day of school or the first night that fireworks can be heard going off in the distance.
For me, the start of summer has always been symbolized by coach buses driving down dirt roads towards camp. But for the first time in almost 10 years, that will not be the indicator of the start of my summer.
For years, my summers have been all about camp. The day after Shavuot always meant it was time to pull out the camp trunks and packing lists. It meant trips to the mall for new T-shirts and bathing suits, buying enough snacks to feed a small village, labeling clothes, shoes, toiletries and other miscellaneous items. And every year, no matter how stressful the camp prep became, it made me happy because I knew that it all meant that in just a short amount of time I would be back in one of my favorite places.
The funny thing about my love for camp is that I do not like most things commonly associated with it. I cannot play any sports, I do not like the outdoors, I do not like being hot and sweaty and I am scared of bugs. I did always like arts and crafts, ceramics, baking and dance. However, those were not the things that earned my sleepaway camp experience such a special place in my heart.
When I used to step onto the porch of my bunk, I would take in the views of the grass, the trees, the vast lake, the blue skies and all of the people talking and laughing. Whenever I did this, a feeling of calm would wash over me. No matter my mood, whether I was a camper or staff member, when I looked around campus, I always felt comforted because I knew I was in my home away from home. I was in a place that was as familiar to me as the house I had lived in my entire life, but I was having experiences and growing in ways that would never have been available to me had I spent all those summers at home.
There are some things in life that cannot be taught, but can only be experienced. The Foundation for Jewish Camp says as part of its mission statement that the goal of Jewish camps is “to create transformative experiences.” Camp is a safe and welcoming environment where campers and staff members alike are able to grow emotionally and spiritually. I know that my summer experiences were vital to my personal growth in so many ways, and that I would not be the person I am today if it were not for camp.
I learned to be respectful of others and their personal space by sharing a bunk with anywhere from 10 to 20 girls. I learned teamwork through activities that required cooperation with a large group in order to win a reward such as night canteen or late wakeup. I learned that Jewish education goes beyond what is taught in classrooms a few hours a day September to June, that it is an experiential learning process as well.
As a camper, I did not recognize the lessons as I was learning them, but that is what is so special about camp. In school, kids are aware that they are learning because they are in a school setting with kids at desks and a teacher at the front of the room. However, in camp, lessons are taught through activities and experiences. Campers absorb values and life lessons almost unconsciously, but the effects of these lessons are obvious when those kids get home at the end of the summer.
My learning did not stop when I made the transition from camper to staff member. As staff, I learned to appreciate camp in a whole new way. I was able to see firsthand what makes camp function so smoothly. As a camper, I took for granted that there would always be a shuttle available when my bunk needed one, or that there would immediately be a backup schedule on a rainy day. Once I became a staff member, I witnessed the endless work the senior staff members put into every detail of the day to ensure the best outcomes of programs for all campers.
Seeing the behind-the-scenes operations of all camp functions gave me a deeper appreciation for my own camp experience. Not only did I see how hard the staff worked, but I also saw why they worked so hard. If you ask someone who works in a summer camp why they do it, it is unlikely that their reason will have to do with money. People who go back to camp year after year do it simply because they love camp. There is a feeling of oneness, of achdut (unity), of being part of a summer family. And that feeling is what draws people back.
When I think about not being in camp this summer, I am overcome by a bittersweet feeling. I know that the right thing for me to do is to get work experience that is not camp related, but it is still hard for me to accept that my time at camp—at least at this point in my life—is over. However, camp memories last a lifetime, as do the strong friendships I forged. The lessons I learned have guided me through life to this point, and the values I gained shaped me into the person I am today and continue to strive to be. Though I will not be in camp this summer, my heart will still be in the mountains with my camp family.
By Esti Ness
Esti Ness is a Teaneck resident, a rising junior at Queens College and a Jewish Link summer intern.