Jewish Journal

Camp Food Fills More Than Bellies

Chaos rules, but dining halls offera taste of life away from home.

by Zan Romanoff, Contributing Writer

Posted on Jul. 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Camp is just a polite word for controlled chaos. Adults mind adolescents minding children, and everyone is not just permitted but encouraged to sing and scream and bang on tables. This is particularly true at mealtimes in overnight camps, when the animals come to feed, and there are prayers as well as songs, and the entire camp community is assembled as audience to the cheers of particular bunks and units. To witness a camp at its feed is to come to an entirely new understanding of the very notion of disorder.

It is also, however, a particularly intimate time, and there is always a moment (sometimes extraordinarily brief, but a moment nonetheless) when everyone is chewing and mm-ing, and the sound becomes less a cacophonous din and more a sweetly contented hum, everyone’s attention turned, however fleetingly, inward. To see this is to see community as it is being created: a hundred or several hundred young people feeding themselves and eating together. This communion, however, is reached differently in the various sleep-away camps across Southern California. I was recently allowed to break bread in five of them in order to talk about ritual, tradition and vegetarian options, and bring the civilized world a look at what goes on when the kids are away. 

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Camp JCA Shalom

Dinner at Camp JCA Shalom, located high in the hills over Malibu, begins with the bracha for hand-washing said over gigantic dispensers of Germ-X, an antibacterial gel, placed on each table along with the water and napkins and silverware. This is the summer of swine flu, and everyone is being extra careful. Two weeks after my visit, meals will move into a newly refurbished dining hall, but for now the camp comes together in a large white tent, each unit seated at its own table along the periphery of the room. Campers on toranut (duty) have set out the basics beforehand; they’ve even helped the kitchen prepare parts of the meal.

Dinner is simple — chicken fajitas, chips, salsa, bug juice — and it is consumed in a matter of minutes. This is the ideal camp meal: all of the food groups wrapped up into something that can be consumed in 10 to 12 big bites. Its most salient quality is how convenient, how serviceable it is: afterward, I remember its shape rather than taste. It does, it should be noted, taste fine; good, even, though it seems that few in the hall have time to notice. Mouths are in high demand at Shalom, and meals seem to be seen mostly as a distraction between cheer time and song sessions.

The Birkat ha-Mazon is sung in lusty chorus, and banging on tables and English additions are permitted when it is not Shabbat. (“They always go ‘DON’T YELL, IT’S SHABBAT’ instead, which, we thought, OK, that’s at least in the spirit,” notes Allison David, the camp’s assistant director.) The staff is at least as rowdy and good-spirited as their charges, and the din is formidable despite the fairly low enrollment for this year’s first session. Two units are away on overnights, so on this day there are approximately 140 kids in the tent — about half of the number expected to come for the second session. The mind boggles, and the eardrums cringe at the notion.

After dinner comes song session, with campers moshing around enthusiastically under the direction of song leader Robbo (Robb Zelonky), who stands on a chair in order to preside over the mass of leaping bodies. One kid is so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of fun that he looks pained, fists clenched and eyes squeezed shut as if just listening and singing is already too much to take.

What is invisible underneath all of the shouting and singing is the very real seriousness with which the camp treats the conversation around food, both its preparation and consumption. The Marla Bennett Israel Discovery Center and Garden, located on a hill overlooking the rest of the campus, is shaped like Israel and is seen as a vehicle for teaching about the Jewish homeland, but also about organic and sustainable farming, where food comes from and what vegetables look like before they get to a supermarket. The camp composts leftovers from the dining hall and is looking eventually to start sourcing some of their produce from the garden and orchard of newly planted fruit trees. As in many of the camps I visit over the course of the following week, the discussion about food seems by and large to take place outside of the dining hall: By the time the kids get their hands on food, they’re too hungry to talk, and once they’re done eating, they have too much energy not to sing and dance.

Camp Alonim

Alonim is set on the Brandeis-Bardin campus of the American Jewish University in Simi Valley, and upon my mid-day arrival there is something almost eerie about the quiet of the wide green lawns and landscaped hills. It is not exactly lush — the plants are distinctly Californian, succulents with pale thick leaves accustomed to big, dry heat — but it is very beautiful and very adult. My sense of being in slightly the wrong place is confirmed when a slender boy of about 14 slips out of the dining hall doors as I am about to enter, fixes me with a steely glare and says shortly, “You can’t go in there.” It turns out that the CITs are practicing a top-secret skit that will begin the camp’s several-day color wars and I, all 5-foot-4-inches of me, have been mistaken for a camper. I can’t decide whether to be embarrassed or pleased.

When kids start to gather outside the dining hall for a pre-meal Israeli dance session, the place picks up and begins to sound camp-like, the large white paving stones echoing with chatter and shouts. The din continues inside, though the airy dining hall, with its high, slanted ceiling, does much to muffle it. This space was built a couple of years ago, as the old facility was too small and crowded, particularly in terms of kitchen space. The kosher meals served at Alonim require double the equipment and thus double the storage — the new dining hall has an entire dairy section, marked off from the main room by folding doors, which is known affectionately as the “Udder Room.”

Jordana Flores, the camp’s director, stresses the number of options presented to kids as an important aspect of their menu planning. In addition to the vegetarian chili, baked potatoes and cornbread brought to the tables by campers on toranut, there is also a salad bar. The cornbread is a subject of much discussion: the kitchen runs out midway through the meal, and various campers swing by the staff table to try to pilfer from a still-full tray. It’s a slightly unusual meal, one that threatens a big mess but is also particularly hearty and comforting. I recall my days as an extraordinarily picky camper, always hungry but never tempted by anything but reliable carbs, and sneak cornbread to the next kid who comes by.

Song session will happen later in the day, but the kids are by no means contented to eat and talk; several of the bunks stand up to perform traditional, age-specific cheers handed down over the years. Announcements are read out as dessert is distributed (the only dessert I am served, lunch or dinner, and a delicious one at that: ice cream, either vanilla, chocolate or chocolate chip), and there is a certain amount of buzz about the various challenges issued (gaga, or Israeli dodgeball is taken very seriously here) and affections pledged (mostly counselors to their bunks, sometimes camper to camper).

Most of Alonim’s food is sourced through traditional, large-scale companies, though there is an on-site garden that produces zucchini and avocado. Campers visit that space to learn about farming and sometimes make pizza in a wood-fired oven, topped with ingredients from the garden.

Camp Ramah

Ramah, nestled in the hills of the Ojai Valley, is difficult to describe without lapsing into resort-brochure rhapsody. The campus is spacious and rolling and lush, equipped with tennis courts and a Frisbee golf course. I arrive just before dinner to find the camp at its leisure, groups of kids dotted over wide green lawns. There is an off-site orange grove that provides freshly squeezed orange juice every morning, as well as a bakery that churns out all the bread and rolls and croissants the camp consumes.

I am taken on a tour of the kitchens, which are kosher and scrupulously well maintained. Tables are even covered in butcher paper for meat meals, like the one we are having tonight: baked chicken, soup, rolls and salad. The size of the camp requires that there be two dining halls — one large and populated by campers, CITs and counselors and the other much smaller and quieter, reserved for senior staff. It also requires the service of waiters, as having approximately 800 youthfully exuberant bodies popping around to score the last basket of rolls has been deemed too perilous. Dispensers of hand sanitizer decorate pillars in the main dining room, and the meal opens with a blessing over hand washing and a reminder to use the sanitizers.

It is a warm, early summer day, and soup seems an odd choice; campers, however, slurp it down with gusto. The rolls are fresh, as promised, and the chicken, though nothing to write home about, is not as dry as institutionally cooked poultry has taught me to fear. I eat well, if quickly — at Ramah, as at all other camps, no one seems to sit still for more than 15 minutes at a time.

After each meal, leftovers are taken to a local food bank with which the camp has a long relationship, and the meal is followed by the quietest Birkat I have yet witnessed. The campers here substitute a complicated series of hand motions for the table-banging to which I have become accustomed, at some points even standing up to wiggle around, Macarena-style. Dinner is followed by announcements made entirely in Hebrew by the camp director before the kids disperse for the evening’s activities.

Ramah has recently begun a foray into composting, spearheaded by Tamuz Shoik, a counselor who’s heading up a larger greening of the campus. He is also working on establishing a garden in the orange grove and hopes to find others willing to carry on the work next summer, after he’s moved on. The conversation about food here, too, is carried on largely outside of the dining hall: In addition to the garden project, in which Shoik estimates 100 campers have participated, there is a chug (class) led by counselor Rachel Rosenthal that discusses issues surrounding ethical eating and the rules of kashrut. She is surprised, she tells me, at how many of her campers have never been to a farmer’s market, have never been engaged critically on the issue of what it means to truly eat well.

Gindling Hilltop Camp

All of Hilltop is dancing when I arrive: It is Friday afternoon, and everyone is in the dining room antechamber, shaking it to Israeli music. The building where the dancing takes place is round, a circle divided down its circumference into meeting room and eating room, with exposed wooden beams and floor-to-ceiling windows looking down onto the Pacific Ocean below. The shape of the hall, along with the tables that fill it, are not haphazard — both are meant to foster a sense of communion and community, bringing all members of the camp face-to-face over their meals.

To that end, there is no assigned seating: Counselors precede campers into the hall, and each stakes out a table. When their charges come in, they are free to sit wherever they like so that campers will have a chance to encounter peers outside of their particular age group. This means that the group cheers that characterize most camp lunches are traded for general announcements — an Israeli counselor takes over the microphone mid-meal to express his love for the hummus we are eating and his appreciation that this is the second time this week it has been served.

The meal is, in fact, Israeli in theme: pita, hummus, cucumber salad and meat (the kids at the table behind me spend most of lunch arguing over whether it is goat or lamb — no satisfactory conclusion is ever reached), intended to be combined into a sort of gyro sandwich, accompanied by French fries, orange bug juice and the salad bar that is open for every meal. The camp’s Rabbi David Eshel jokingly refers to the “meat slap bracelets” on offer, but the food is reasonably tasty — as good as any other camp meal I’ve had all week. The French fries are particularly welcome, but I can feel my mother disapproving: I make a big salad with tomatoes and olives and cucumbers and only a little bit of dressing, in order to placate the corner of my head over which her voice holds court.

It’s a busy day, and no one is quite ready when cries of “special,” the signal for campers on toranut to begin clearing dishes, rings out over the hall. There are a series of announcements and a rendition of the Birkat before campers disperse for afternoon activities — there’s no time today for the song session that typically follows meals.

It’s worth noting the differences between the traditions of Hilltop and its cousin down the hill, Hess Kramer, which is much larger and thus requires rather more order: campers seated by cabin, a Birkat with choreographed hand motions instead of the occasional table bang. Both camps serve kosher meals, as the kitchens operate year-round and serve more than just the hundred-some campers attending the first session of camp this summer. This, in turn, necessitates conversation about the meaning of kashrut and ethical eating — though, as elsewhere, this is worked into other programming rather than brought up at the table.

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa

I’ve been warned that the energy at Camp Gilboa might be a little low on the day I come for lunch, as the campers were awakened in the middle of the previous night to simulate an emigrant’s flight from Eastern Europe to the uncreated Israel. When I show up, however, the dining hall is as loud and rowdy as I have yet seen, kids barely even bothering to take a seat between bites and yells and cheers. As a guest, I’m given priority at the salad bar, which is serving up carrot and celery sticks, apples, cottage cheese and Caesar salad; the kids must compete against one another, table by table, to give the most dramatic rendition of Shakespearean phrases in order to be next in line.

Lunch is something involving eggplants and mushrooms, but it’s mostly been devoured by the time I get to the table. The salad, however, is hearty enough to stand, and in the heat of the day, cool, pre-cut vegetables are entirely welcome as a meal. I’m the only one paying any attention to the plate: Much as at JCA Shalom, the camp seems to view its mealtime as an opportunity for a camp-wide cheer session rather than an important culinary experience. Cries of “we’ve got ruach” (spirit) and “we’ve got the rosh” (head — in this case, the slangy title for camp head Kara Segal) never let up for a moment to allow the criers a mouthful. The dining hall seems to be arranged to encourage this: rectangular tables with wooden benches on either side are lined up against the walls, leaving a wide central aisle perfect for gathering and dancing and singing. Midway through the meal someone turns on the stereo and starts blasting American pop hits; when Segal stands up to make after-lunch announcements, she is subjected to a couple of minutes of good-natured teasing (via cheer, obviously) before being allowed to speak her peace.

The best word to describe the energy of Gilboa is definitely youthful, which, given the particular ideology of the camp, is perhaps unsurprising: It is part of the international Habonim Dror movement, a socialist Zionist organization that promotes cultural rather than traditional Judaism. Though Segal is only 22, she and three peers serve as the camp’s directorial staff — the youth leading the youth. Campers are encouraged to consider themselves part of a movement rather than a single camp; the blue work-shirts worn by most members of the staff represent their allegiance to Habonim Dror, not Camp Gilboa.

Because Gilboa rents its space each year from a YMCA camp in the Angeles National Forest, they are limited in their options for changing both the space and the dining program. Meals are served kosher style, which is meant as a welcoming gesture to more observant campers, and though they have a gardening instructor and a program concerning agriculture and the omnipresence of corn in the American diet, there is no permanent garden space. Gilboa focuses on encouraging critical thinking in all aspects of campers’ lives — the hope, Segal says, is to give the kids a framework for looking at the world that encourages questioning it rigorously, rather than focusing their attention too specifically on certain issues.

The Campers Who Eat Together…

Camp food, as it turns out, pretty much is always just camp food. Though the bread is better at Ramah, and I, too, loved the hummus served at Hilltop, no meal stands out as exceptional among the group. What is perhaps more striking is that the dining hall is first and foremost a social gathering place, cementing the unity of the campers’ experience, and to that end, meals more often than not are preceded by dancing and followed by songs. Though from what I saw, a whole camp is never for more than a moment actually seated all at once, mealtimes tend to get at something close to the heart of each place, teaching particular cultural values perhaps just as crucial to the formation of Jewish identity as reciting prayers or observing the strictures of kashrut.

At camp as in life, meals are about much more than food: They are where community is made, and so despite the bug juice and the heat and the noise, I walk away from each of these meals energized, content: happy, and truly full.


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