By Sara Cohen
I did not grow up going to overnight camp. Neither did my husband. So when my oldest son started asking, at the age of 9, if he could spend a month at URJ Camp Harlam over the summer, I said no. The following year he asked me again, was a little older and a little (a lot!) more persistent, so I looked into it.
The first time I sent him to Camp Harlam was as a Kineret camper (going into 6th grade). I’ll be honest, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t understand why he wanted to be away from us. I didn’t understand how complete strangers could possibly give him what he needed for a whole month. But I sent him. Thankfully he received scholarships from Rodeph Shalom, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and from Camp Harlam, so it was what he wanted and was affordable for us.
Charlie came home from camp that first summer a different kid. He had grown and matured, and I was shocked by it. He was offering to help with dishes, making his bed without being reminded for the fifth time, and happily playing cards or chess rather than video games. He also came home talking about all of the future summers he planned to spend at Harlam.
Yikes! I realized I needed to understand more about Camp Harlam if I was going to keep sending him there.
Because I am a full-time registered nurse, I decided last year to inquire about their need for nurses at camp. I was hired for the summer of 2018 after background clearances, letters of recommendations, and interviews to spend two weeks working on the Harlam health services team. I was excited and nervous, and really had no idea what to expect.
After only a few days on staff, I understood why my son was planning his future summers around time at Camp Harlam. The bonds that are created among the staff, among the kids, and between the staff and kids were something I couldn’t have understood without experiencing it myself. The days are packed with activities to the point that it feels like one day lasts a whole week. Yet at the same time, a week goes by in the blink of an eye and I couldn’t believe it when my two weeks on staff were over.
The way that Judaism is woven into every aspect of every activity and experience at Harlam seems magical. It is everywhere…sometimes in subtle ways and other times in loud ways…so much so that coming home to my non-camp Jewish life felt somewhat lacking. I came home wanting more Jewish influence in my everyday routine and recognize that interest in my son as well.
As a staff member, I have truly never worked harder. It wasn’t just the Health Center’s staff that work hard though. I was truly amazed at how hard every single staff member works. Staff were troubleshooting and planning and problem-solving well into the late-night hours, every night, and yet they were up early every morning with smiles and enthusiasm and excitement for what was to come that day. I have worked in intensive care units for 17 years as a nurse, and I have never worked harder, had better teamwork, or been more fulfilled than I did in my two weeks at Camp Harlam.
One last point I’d like to make is how connected the staff members were to every single camper there. There are a lot of kids and a lot of staff, and I was amazed and delighted to see that every staff member recognized every kid in some way. There were connections everywhere, there was awareness of various needs, and staff went out of their way to help make every single camper feel at home. After a few days there, I myself was forming connections with these kids and was sad to leave them. As a mother, this was so comforting to witness, and I feel silly for how sad and worried I was leaving my son at camp that first summer.
I am excited to be going back to Camp Harlam again this summer as a nurse. I have made friends with staff and cannot wait to reconnect. I have also watched, with far greater appreciation, as my son has stayed in close contact with his camp friends. These are bonds I couldn’t replicate if I tried without the camp experience.
This piece was originally published in the monthly bulletin at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.