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Couples Camp

Program brings newlyweds together at Brandeis-Bardin for a unique Jewish experience

by Rob Kutner

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

It was 6:00 on a Friday evening. My wife, myself, and 50 complete strangers had just managed to light two candles, each on one tiny table, without burning ourselves. Our names, printed in a groovy font, glistened under the nametags hanging around our necks. We were sitting in a circle, introducing ourselves and saying what the experience reminded us of. Was it any surprise that two-thirds of us answered, "Camp?"

In some ways, that was an apt description of the Cotsen Family Foundation's Newly Married Couples Weekend at Brandeis-Bardin. Surrounded by the woods of Simi Valley, we were assigned cabins and warned about snakes. Our meals were communal and ended in songs and a distinctive version of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meal. Everything was circles, from discussion sessions to the "Circle of Community" room we met in; to the Israeli dancing; to the not one, but two songs comparing someone's life to a circle (Chapin and Taubman) found in the Brandeis-Bardin songbook.

And, just like every camper I know, we were there on someone else's tab. The Cotsen Foundation, endowed by philanthropist and former Neutrogena CEO Lloyd Cotsen, makes it possible for five groups of couples in their first 18 months of marriage to enjoy such a weekend annually, free of charge.

The Foundation also made possible our übercounselor, Rabbi Scott Meltzer, director of Education for the Brandeis-Bardin Institute and leader of 13 of the 14 Cotsen Weekends to date. Never without a knitted kippah, sandals and pager, he offered guidance through the thorny woods of newlywed life, using as his compass everything from rabbinic teachings to personal anecdotes to his dry, thoughtful wit. And like any good camp counselor, Metlzer kept us steadily programmed and somewhat hazy about our purpose in being there. That he saved for the last day.

On Saturday, our Torah service involved all 25 couples sitting knee-to-knee to form a long line of laps, across which an entire Torah scroll was unrolled. Saturday night was given over to the talent show.

As at the camps I attended, this talent show featured a lot of acoustic guitar. But when "Dodi Li" and "Shalom Rav" ended, "Twist and Shout" and "Everything's Gonna Be All Right" began, thanks to some real guitar veterans. In fact, despite the connotation of "Newly Married," the weekenders ranged in age from twentysomethings to fiftysomethings. And not all were on their first marriage, either. One multigenerational clan included a remarried father, his new wife, his two daughters, and their respective new husbands. I hope their rabbi gave discounts for hitching in bulk.

At a certain point, of course, the camp analogy wears thin. No camp I ever attended allowed couples to room together, albeit with separate beds. The couple dynamic seemed to reduce the usually raucous level of "Jewish Geography" and "Do you know's?" heard when two or more Jews are gathered. In fact, the weekend seemed more designed to bond us as couples than as a group. And in no rec hall, mess hall, or cafeteria did I ever have such excellent food.

What, then, was the purpose of giving the 50 or so of us this experience? Like our counselor rabbi, I've saved it for last. The mission of the Cotsen Weekend, according to Meltzer, is "to get newly married couples together, give them an intense Jewish experience, then cut it short -- so they'll be hungry for more in their own lives." By giving us a space, a time, and an occasion to explore our values, our lifestyle, and our stories, this camp empowered us to make Jewish choices and bring those choices home together. On a deeper level than I thought possible, we returned to urban life as happy campers.

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