The Gift of Jewish Summer Camp

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The Gift of Jewish Summer Camp

By Rabbi Michael Holzman

A friend told me that he saw me in a Harlam promo video, “Parent’s Perspective,” and seeking a bit of camp fame, I had to immediately click the link. Down the Harlam Vimeo rabbit hole, I found bright sunny days, RGBG clad kids and counselors, hugs, children jumping around, and images of grassy fields that I am sure never really looked that green. And this entire pandemic-filled year flashed in front of my eyes back to the moment when I heard the 2020 summer was canceled.

I did not grow up at camp, but in 2001, during Rabbinical school, Rabbi Danny Zemel told me to come visit him and his wife Louise during his weeks on faculty at Harlam. Within just a few hours, I was hooked, and from 2004-2019 I spent two weeks of 13 summers living in a variety of old wooden buildings, eating yellow meals, and absorbing as much of Harlam as I could. My daughter’s first summer was when she was one year old, and on my desk sits a picture of her and her older brother, Avi, clad in full sunproof bodysuits, next to a bright yellow slip and slide we set up on the lawn in front of the Green Houses. From then on, time in the Holzman house became divided between four weeks at camp and the rest of the weeks spent talking about camp.

I still cry when I think about the fact that the 2020 summer was meant to be Avi’s CIT year. Even when you’re on faculty, you still get very limited access to your kids, so my favorite hour of the year, every year, is the hour between when they get in the car for pick-up day, and when they fall asleep mid-sentence telling a story about some crazy adventure from the summer. In that hour I get to see how they’ve grown, how they’ve discovered a bit of their personality they never knew existed, how they struggled, and how they experienced a kind of deep joy that I know will provide spiritual strength for the rest of their lives. That this all happened in a little Jewish world makes the whole thing that much more meaningful and rooted and eternal. Losing that hour of 2020 felt like being struck in the gut with a sledgehammer.

After 11 months of the pandemic, online school, endless Zoom, and relentless physical distance between my kids and their peers, the videos in that Harlam Vimeo vault looked like images from a different planet. Did kids ever really do that? Did they smile and laugh with their arms around each other? Did their counselors lift them up in the Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall) during song session on Shabbat? Did they giggle while they watched those counselors shimmy during Rak Dan, or stare in rapt attention while learning how to climb the wall or do an Israeli dance or play the guitar? Did they paint their faces for Maccabiah (Color War) and hold hands for Shabbat and experience an island in time, in life, in a broken world? Did all of that happen?

And then I think about how Avi will return to Harlam for the first time in three years, since Chavurah, and I wonder about what it will be like for him as staff the first night he spends in a cabin with his campers. He will be awesome, all 6 foot 1 inch of him, towering over some Carmelian maybe, telling stories about how he used to be home-sick every summer for a few days, and then shimmy-ing or hugging, or dancing, or teaching and passing along that thing, that eternal thing that camp provides.

And I know that my kids will get to experience this incredible invention of American Judaism, camp, these endless, fragile, ephemeral summers spent around lakes, in mountains, under canopies of trees, and I realize the gift we have given these kids is beyond time and space and value and price. I know that the tears that fall on Closing Day are the moments they realize how much they are blessed, of how precious those summers are, and the tears that fall while I write this are the tears of gratitude for the blessing of having given a blessing to the people I love. An opportunity for which I will forever be indebted to a camp I never got to attend as a child.

Yes, losing 2020 was terribly painful, but the other dimension still exists out there, where American Judaism teaches young people how to be fully human, to become mensches, to learn the mechanics of friendship, of love, and to place the health and wholeness of a sacred community at the center of their lives. Yes, that exists! A miracle of pure childhood wonder. As the snow falls against a gray pandemic sky, that miracle is so hard to believe. It is too good, too rich, too much of a gift to be true. Kind of like the enhanced color of the grass in those online videos.

Rabbi Michael Holzman is a camp parent and faculty member and the rabbi at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation.