In the classic male-bonding film “Stand By Me,” based on a Stephen King novella, there is a line of dialogue at the end that I have never forgotten: “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 … does anyone?”
In my case, however, five of the friendships that remain mainstays in my life and that I continue to cherish “later on” are precisely the ones I had nearly 40 years ago, going back to the time when I was 12.
My relationships with these fellows — along with many of the values that define our respective Jewish identities — were forged during idyllic summers spent as campers, and later counselors, at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu — Hess Kramer and Hilltop. The camps turn 60 this year and, over that time 45,000 others have enjoyed the same experiences as my friends and I, including most of our group’s own children, who have followed us, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), as campers and counselors. I am not so naïve as to think that mine is the only nucleus of life-long friendship to emanate from Hess Kramer and Hilltop. I am personally aware of countless others from our camps, in addition to extended webs of connections and acquaintances, which continue to endure. And likely, these bonds are no different than those forged at other Jewish summer camps.
However, I can only speak to my own childhood and adolescent slice of paradise, and how Hess Kramer and Hilltop became, in countless ways, a tie that binds. Yet, little did any of us realize at the time we were deep in these “Malibu moments” — engaged in hiking, sports, song sessions or arts and crafts — that many of the ethics and beliefs that would subsequently become our compasses subtly were being shaped. For that, the 45,000 alumni — and arguably Jewish campers elsewhere — owe a debt of gratitude to the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf, the longtime spiritual leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
As a young associate rabbi new to Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Wolf envisioned summer camping for Jewish youth based on his own joyful outdoor experiences in pre-Hitler Germany. By 1952, through an indomitable will and spirit, Wolf, more than any other individual, brought this dream to fruition, pioneering a Jewish camping paradigm that influenced what followed on the West Coast, if not the nation as a whole. Two generations later, numerous sociological studies on the beneficial impact of Jewish camping on later religious identification have provided empirical validation for what Wolf seemed to know from instinct and personal passion.
With respect to my five friends and me, I used to think we were connected by nostalgia for place, shared experiences and inside jokes from the years together at camp. And granted, our repressed adolescent humor manages to brim to the surface in each other’s company in ways that make those on the periphery question our political correctness, if not our sanity. However, as the six of us reached adulthood, married wonderful women and began to raise families of our own, it occurred to me that these connections were part of something deeper and far more meaningful. It was not campfire jokes but common tenets and principles. First and foremost, our own parents and upbringings shaped these belief systems and values. But I also appreciate — as do my dear friends — how our Jewish camping experiences factored into that upbringing, as well.
I recall an article a few years ago, recapping a study of professional men that found the ages from mid-30s to mid-50s are the most solitary, as we devote ourselves to building careers and raising families often to the exclusion of our personal support networks and a sacrifice of socialization needs. While probably more pronounced in some than others, I don’t question the accuracy of the inquiry and have heard firsthand from others around my age about the toll extracted.
Thankfully, I have mostly sidestepped these effects owing to a loving immediate and extended family and a career that continues to bring me immense satisfaction. But I also don’t discount the beneficial impact and solace I get from this core circle of five men. I classify them as “3 a.m. friends” — the kind you can call at any hour of the day or night and know they will be there in an instant. We tease each other mercilessly and with abject cruelty that no outsider could possibly comprehend. Once, in fact, after a particularly brutal exchange of e-mail quips, I offered up an apology for my offenses to my worthy adversary. “Are you kidding?” he responded. “Sometimes this abuse is the only thing that gets me through the day.”
And, for the friends that I had when I was 12 — who remain friends to this day — along with countless life lessons, Rabbi Wolf and Camp Hess Kramer will always have my profound gratitude.
Gerald Freisleben is the president of FoleyFreisleben LLC, a Los Angeles-based strategic communications consultancy.