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Jewish Journal

It’s not camp, but it’ll do

by Shayna Freisleben

September 8, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Camp Hess Kramer broke my young and fertile heart. It was an instance of pubescent love that evolved into unrequited passion. For eight years, I frolicked in the crisp Malibu breeze, danced maniacally to Israeli folk songs and celebrated the Sabbath each Friday at dusk. It was eight summers of sheer, unadulterated bliss. Camp was where I discovered my Jewish identity, and it supplied me with religious pride and a newfound zest for Jewish culture. It was a safe haven and a supportive community. Camp comprised my heart and soul.

This summer, Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps -- Camp Hess Kramer among them -- instituted a gap year for students going into 11th grade, encouraging students to go to Israel, a common practice among Jewish summer camps.

A summer without camp? The thought was incomprehensible. I had my life ahead to travel and explore the world, yet only childhood for camp. Soon, I would be inundated with the stresses of being an adult, and it felt as if I was being forced away from my youth. I wanted to be in Malibu; I wanted to be a Jewish camper.

With a stance adamantly against the gap year, I argued with everyone in hopes of changing the program. Camp administrators, directors, counselors, campers, anyone who would lend a listening ear would be the victims of my anti-gap-year tirade. But, regardless of my presumptuous hopes, it was to no avail. I was banished from my second home, and my secure identity as a Jew was seemingly obliterated.

I stood at a crossroads, faced with two options, either go to Israel and contradict my initial stand, or just find other summer plans. My inherently obstinate nature would not permit me to choose the former, although I knew the trip ultimately would have been an unforgettable experience. So this summer, I set out on a quest to regain my Jewish sense of self.

I reluctantly joined the workforce. I found a job working as an editorial intern/reporter at the Beverly Hills Courier, and I was initially hesitant. It was my first job, and I was now to be treated like an adult. The daily grind, incessant traffic, 9 to 5 -- could I handle it?

My worries dissipated the moment I entered the door. I was writing, earning bylines, and relaying information to a vast readership. I loved my topics, the work environment, the fresh smell of the paper off of the printing press every Friday.

But unbeknownst to me, through my job I was continually performing an act of kindness and righteousness. Each week, as I obtained information and then got it published for those who did not have the same resources, I was performing a good deed, a mitzvah. As acts of justice are imperative in being classified as "a good Jewish person," I was not solely writing for the betterment of the community, but for myself. As the summer continued, my words inscribed on sheets of paper became symbolic of my progress as a Jewish person.

I worked at the Courier three days a week and also volunteered each Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I made my weekly trek up to cardiology in my volunteer uniform and assisted the nurses in the department, whether by answering telephones or organizing medical charts. In my hours at the hospital, I gradually became closer to my Jewish enlightenment. I saw that an act of kindness as simple as a smile can improve someone's day, and I truly felt like a more righteous being when I observed the wonders of the nurses and doctors.

At camp I didn't really have an opportunity to help those less fortunate, even in the sense of health. Now, I could actually visualize the affects of my deeds and the joy they brought. My heart was steadily increasing with joy, and I could feel the outcome of repairing the world, one act at a time.

My Fridays were devoted to Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit organization that provides less fortunate Los Angeles residents with legal aid. Bet Tzedek, or "House of Justice" in Hebrew, warmed my heart while stimulating my left-brain. A brilliant staff has selflessly abandoned the inflated salaries of corporate law firms in order to help those who are less fortunate. While so much of Los Angeles dwells on monetary income, the best payment that Bet Tzedek receives is the joy of their clients.

Initially, I questioned whether I would ever regain my Jewish identity without Camp Hess Kramer. Yet, through my own path, I discovered that it does not take a camp or a synagogue to classify oneself as an observant Jew. My work this summer has empowered me to feel like a stronger Jewish person than ever. I hadn't really lost my Jewish identity -- I had just failed to recognize it.

Shayna Freisleben is a junior at Harvard-Westlake.

Speak Up! Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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