By Rabbi Jessy Gross
Lo b’shamayim hi…it is not out in the heavens…this is a piece of Torah that hangs in my office. It serves as a daily reminder that Jewish tradition and wisdom is not something to keep at a distance. It is to be a source of daily connection…a framework…a lifestyle. It’s also one of my favorites. It serves as a personal meditation and a professional reminder of what motivates my desire to work with the Jewish people.
I’m one of the lucky ones who nailed my dream job in a community that means something to me after finishing rabbinical school. In case it wasn’t obvious to me from the get go, when I saw my face on the cover of the Jewish Times with the tag line “A Rabbi Walks into A Bar,” I knew I found my place to start my work as a rabbi amongst my peers. I went to happy hour…a lot…and found myself meeting a lot of people in their 20’s/30’s who I started to refer to as having “dormant” or “hibernating” Jewish identities.
I would meet a young adult for a conversation at which time I would ask them both what they loved and didn’t love about being Jewish. I would ask them about the experiences they had in their youth and also how they imagined being a part of the community now as adults. I started to notice the following pattern: when a person was reflecting on their childhood experience, it was often as if they were transported back to a time and place. Often they would reflect on their summers at Jewish camp or weekends spent with their youth group, and they could recall every smell, sound and moment of a chapter in their lives as if it was frozen in time; clearly etched into their forever memory.
And then, almost like clockwork, they would “wake up” from memory lane to the realization that they “haven’t done anything in years…and there’s not camp for adults”. I founded and run a community initiative called Charm City Tribe in Baltimore for 20/30’s looking to tap into Jewish life and culture in creative and meaningful ways. Part of the inspiration for the model was born out of a deep questioning about whether or not the models of our youth have an expiration date. Obviously I can’t go to Kunkletown for a month or two every summer, but why can’t we glean on the wisdom of what made camp so special and apply it to our adult Jewish journeys? After all, if adult life brings with it nikayon and the occasional cold shower, why can’t it also engage with the playfulness, joy, and community that we recall so fondly from our youth.
Not only do I credit camp for laying the foundation for my Judaism along with what it means to be a mensch, but I also credit camp with the ability to create an alternate universe in which we could imagine the world as it ought to be…not just as it is. This, I believe, is a fundamental understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish enterprise.
We recently celebrated Shavuot, when we celebrate the momentous occasion of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. I imagine the community dressed in white, walking hand in hand, up the mountain (or the hill), coming together with song and music and then descending to share in a beloved meal of fried chicken, soup, challah and maybe a veggie meal if you’re signed up. And after, the most epic song session you ever heard.
It can be difficult as liberal Jews to create immersive Jewish moments. And, camp spoiled many of us into thinking the best of what that experience could look like is “behind from where we came,” but in the most unexpected moments I realize that camp continues to inform who I am as a person, as a Jew, and as a rabbi. But camp also gave us the model and the tools to reimagine what it can look like as an adult. As the summer approaches and most of us are not packing our bags to head to Kunkletown, I encourage you to bring a moment of camp past into your present life. Connect with some old camp friends for a nostalgic Shabbat dinner. Maybe have new friends over and recreate that Friday night experience to share some of your past with people of your now. Read an article about something happening in the Jewish world or around Jewish identity…and end with “Yay Shiur!” Take two of your oldest friends and bunk mates to find the perfect wedding dress. Ask yourself, “what is something that warmed my heart as a camper and how can I bring it into this chapter of my life?” Or, “How can I more deeply connect or reconnect to a community that celebrates the way we did at camp?” We all know…it will never be the same…but it could lead the way to what is now and allow for all that was good about camp to ooze back into life as an adult.
Rabbi Jessy Gross spent the summers from 1992-2002 at Harlam, as a Galil camper through Machon Assistant Director. She is the founder and director of Charm City Tribe and the current Director of Jewish Life for the JCC of Greater Baltimore. She was honored by being included in The Forward’s 2016 list of “32 of Most Inspiring Rabbis”.