I was eleven when I first went to sleep away camp. It was an Orthodox Jewish camp In Eastern Pennsylvania, a two hour bus ride from my New Jersey Suburban home. I boarded the bus in my oversized tan boy shorts and big grey t-shirt and the carrot sticks my mom had packed for me as a snack.
When my parents came for visiting day, I pretended I was having a great time. I told them about how I was on the basketball team, and that I shared a bunk bed with Danielle, my next-door-neighbor from home. (I didn’t tell them that I never actually got to play basketball, and that the only interaction I had with Danielle that summer was that all of her dirty underwear would fall from her top-bunk bed onto my head while I was sleeping.)
Needless to say, I didn’t go back the next year.
Something, though, (call it what you will- fate, God’s hand, sheer luck…) got me to agree to go to a different sleep away camp the next summer. It was in those years when the nerds in school slowly fell away from the girls with the Juicy lip-gloss and designer skirts- I, unfortunately (though now, looking back, I know it to be fortunate), belonged to the former. This new camp I was going to was deeper into Pennsylvania, free of New York stereotypes, next-door-neighbors with their dirty underwear, and everything else I knew too well. And so I decided to rid myself of how I was seen in last year’s camp, of my shyness and insecurities, of the groups in school I did or did not belong to. And I went into camp as someone I did not yet know, alone and afraid and excited and enthralled.
The first day at breakfast I spilled milk all over my new blue jeans.
It got better after that, though. Actually, it got better than better.
Something in the Pennsylvania air, in the fields that last forever and the lake that’s full of moss and guck the color of bowel movements, something in the stuffy cafeteria and the creaking of the wooden planks above our bunks at night…something in the smell of the bonfires and the fear of sleeping out beneath the stars next to your five new best friends and three hundred other (though of course pretending not to be) terrified campers… something in the cheering for your bunk, for Shabbat, for the grilled cheeses served at lunch, for the swimming pool, for dirty socks and no showers… something in the bug juice porridge that resembled throw up more than it did food… something in it all creates not only a whole new world, but a whole new world inside every camper.
Something there tells the kids that there’s something beyond, something deeper, than the routine of the rest of the year. Something there creates friendships that are of a different color than your friends at school- maybe from staying up whispering across the bunk til three a.m. after the counselors have all fallen asleep, maybe from sharing the experience of going an entire week without showering, and smelling that delicious smell of each other’s sweat and not being bothered by it.
Something there tells children that there is a utopia out there, that somewhere in this world Shabbat can be something so spiritual, so full of dance and song, that you wonder how anyone can ever live without it. That somewhere in this world, as Shabbat is leaving, hundreds of children and counselors sit together in a stuffy cafeteria in circles of benches all facing one another, singing so loudly, and even the boys who, in front of the girls, pretend to have no feelings, start to cry.
Something in the dreadful hikes, when your shvitzing like there’s no tomorrow and everyone has run out of water, and the peanut butter (or in the later years soynut butter) and jelly sandwiches all melt together to form one big clump of soggy bread, and the incredible feeling of finally returning back to camp (doubtlessly cheering that you have) and realizing that you finally made it, something in it all tells the kids that they can do the hardest things in this world and they can want to fail and they can be certain that if they take one more step they will pass out, but in the end they take that step and a thousand more and they make it, and they learn that they are capable of so much more than they had ever imagined, and that they are so much more than they have ever dreamed.
I came back to school that year and every year since as a different person. I still had my big, tan boy shorts and my carrot sticks for snack, but something in me changed every time I went.
Going back as a counselor, I’ve become more skeptical of it all. I’ve come to realize that it’s not the utopia I’ve always deemed it to be. That all of the idealism is a bit far from realistic, that one day these kids will grow up and see a world that tells them that cheers are empty, that not showering for a week will get them fired from their job, that such a zest and fire for life will inevitably die with the coming of age and the passing of time.
But I know that this is the me who had decided to be skeptical about everything in life talking. Because when I rid myself of that skepticism, and close my eyes for just one moment, I go back to summer camp and to those long Friday hikes and days at the lake, and know that were it not for those months that add up to years, I wouldn’t be who I am, and even if it’s only in those few hundred acres that hold the twenty creaking wooden sheds where that utopia exists, it’s important for every young, idealistic soul, to know that at least somewhere in this world all of that beauty and love and laughter and all of those dreams can be.
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