It's a sweaty summer day in the city, and the sun -- worthy of a heat-advisory at 9:30 a.m. -- mercilessly scorches the sidewalks as I dodge bus-exhaust fumes, doughnut carts and the tourist masses while making my way to my office cubicle.
Mentally, however, I'm 700 miles away, walking down the dirt paths of Camp Tamarack -- which, at 100 years old, shares with Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, N.Y., the distinction of being the oldest Jewish summer camp in the United States. I spent 10 summers at the magical places known collectively as Tamarack Camps -- five at the main camps in Brighton (now closed) and Ortonville, Mich., two at the wilderness camp in Ontario, one teen tour to Alaska and two as staff -- and harvested some of the finest memories of my life.
It's been eight years since I've walked through the gates of camp, but it's a place I escape to regularly. I often think of the jokes we told around the flagpole, the burn of my muscles after swimming across the lake, the time I stepped on a toad in the woods. My friends -- now physicians, lawyers, teachers -- remain the closest to my heart, even if we have scattered across the country and seem to see each other exclusively at weddings. In recent years, I have sung camp songs around my family's dinner table (my mother went to Tamarack, too), screamed them at the top of my lungs on mountaintops in New Hampshire and fumbled through the lyrics while riding in a limousine down the Las Vegas Strip.
The symptoms are obvious: I am one of the many "Former Campers Who Can't Let It Go." There are no support groups for us (yet), but the root causes of our affliction are easy enough to figure out. After weeks, months, years of summers spent living with the same group of peers, changing from muddy swamp-walk clothes into Sabbath whites, singing silly songs, playing sports, hiking up steep slopes and not showering for days on end, summer camp fosters memories and special friendships that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The syndrome, apparently, is widespread. The first summer camps, like Tamarack, were founded first to provide immigrant children with fresh air and resources for integrating into American society. Over the years, camps were used as a tool for building Jewish identity by providing Jewish education in an informal atmosphere. Its effects, proponents say, are lasting. Studies by the Foundation for Jewish Camping show that 66 percent of camp alumni "feel importance of being Jewish," compared to a national average of 44 percent. Of camp alumni, 63 percent are members of a synagogue, nearly double the statistics of Jews nationwide (33 percent).
"I love camp," said Greg Rosenberg, 29, an 11-year veteran of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, interrupting this reporter's first question. "It was just phenomenal. Looking back, I couldn't think of a better way to spend my summers and my youth. If I could go back as a camper, I'd do it in a second. If I could get my summers off, get three or four of my good friends to go, I'd go back as a counselor, definitely."
"I'm a camp lifer," he said. "In the summertime, there are smells that remind me of camp: right before rain, right after it rains. Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and it's quiet, it reminds me of camp. If I'm by a lake, I'll think of camp. When I get together with friends, we'll always talk about camp memories."
"Well, not always," he added. "I've officially moved on."
Maybe not officially. Recently, before his best friend (they met at camp, of course) moved across the country to Los Angeles -- "one of his going-away wishes was that we get together and play good old-fashioned street hockey," he said. "So 12 ex-campers got together on a Sunday afternoon and played street hockey in Cherry Hill, N.J. It was a throwback to our youth."
Some ex-campers, of course, have turned their love of camp into a lifelong career. Ask any rabbi or Jewish educator and, chances are, his or her calling was shaped during the camping years. Of those who grew up to pursue careers outside the Jewish community, many still credit camp with helping to guide their path.
Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics at Penn State, Abington, said he was "influenced by issues of work and labor, equality and group behavior," that he learned during his seven years at Camp Tavor, a Habonim Dror camp in western Michigan.
Golden's wife attended Habonim Camp Moshava in Maryland. "We call ourselves a mixed marriage," he joked. They send their two children -- ages 9 and 11 -- to Habonim's Camp Galil in Pennsylvania.
"A neutral third party," he said.
Today, Golden, 45, serves on Galil's camp committee. He admitted to feeling some pangs when his children recall their recent camp experiences.
"I can't say how much I adored the whole camp experience," he said. "I still play guitar; I still like sports; I still like political discussions. I'm a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, and we have an annual summer retreat. I get one little weekend a year; I get to go to summer camp."
Some people have successfully transferred a special camp spirit into their adult lives, such as those who sing the Kabbalat Shabbat service each week to the tunes they learned at summer camp. Others, like myself, make a point of escaping to the wilderness for at least a few days each summer, where I indulge in camp-like pleasures such as tireless singing, brain-teasers and intimate conversations -- not to mention all the instant oatmeal I can consume.
Alas, times have changed at Tamarack. Encroaching development closed the main camp in Brighton in 1993. Pressures to remain at the forefront of the camping field have ushered in an era of swimming pools, water-skiing, multimedia classes and a brand-new Web site (updated daily!) that brings tidings of new villages, new traditions and some truly bizarre flotation devices in the lake. But I'd wager the lasting effects remain the same.
Camp gave me an ability to approach the world in a new way. It fostered my sense of individuality while teaching a community-minded ethic, it taught me how to feel comfortable in the wilderness and it gave me a wonderful story to recount to my future children about the evening I got busted for skinny-dipping.
But perhaps most importantly, camp gave me a set of peers with whom I have unspoken and lasting bonds. With my camp friends, I never had to explain what Rosh Hashana was or why we call ourselves the "Chosen People." When drinking in parking lots with my high school buddies in Ann Arbor (yes, people live there) had lost its thrill, I had a cabal of friends with whom I could explore the vast network of 7-Elevens in suburban Detroit. Even when I wasn't at camp, it gave me a richer life; it made me free.
And today, when I close my eyes and can see the stars glittering above the lake, I realize that I still am.