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One camp, two camp, red camp, Jew camp

by Jay Firestone

August 23, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Ruach the chicken and fellow campers take a break from intercamp activities.Photo courtesy of Jacob Knobel.

Ruach the chicken and fellow campers take a break from intercamp activities.Photo courtesy of Jacob Knobel.

It had been about 10 years since my last true Jewish summer-camp experience, but I still remember worshipping that empty bottle of Pepsi that had allowed me to kiss three different girls in less than five minutes for the first time in my life, still a personal record (I didn't even have that kind of luck in college). And let me tell you, there's nothing quite like a Jewish summer camp. At a time when Jewish identity struggles to compete with the complexities and distractions of the 21st century, the Jewish summer camp experience has somehow continued to thrive on its simplicity.

It doesn't try fit into the mainstream and it isn't outfitted with the latest technology. Jewish summer camp is simply ... Jewish summer camp. From the mind-numbingly cold lakes to the basic training-like ropes course, summer camp has always been able to maintain a certain consistency.

As I arrived at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu a few weeks ago, nostalgia struck me like a gaga ball to the legs. I could practically smell the bug juice as my stomach yearned for those fish sticks that I so enjoyed years ago at Camp Ramah in Canada.

But this wasn't just any normal day of camp. Ninth graders from JCA Shalom, Camp Alonim, Camp Ramah and Camp Hess Kramer -- four of the major Jewish camps in the Los Angeles area -- were gathering for their first multicamp color war event at the Malibu camp. Covered in woodchips and gravel, JCA Shalom -- or any camp for that matter -- seems the ultimate place to escape reality. On this day, the incredibly fresh air breezed above, and I felt extremely jealous that I could not extend my day trip to a full month's session.

Those lucky campers spent the day competing in basketball, ultimate frisbee, water polo, ping pong, and, of course, the camp favorite ... gaga, Israeli dodgeball. The game is typically played with one ball and the rules are, basically, every man for himself. The object is to get everyone else out by smacking the ball at them, aiming at hitting below the waist. Kids love it.

While technically there was no championship title up for grabs, the campers kept their competitive edge while sharing a strong sense of sportsmanship that surely puts my own weekly pickup soccer game to shame.

But competition and sportsmanship weren't the highest priorities of this "Intercamp," said Alonim Program Director Aaron Saxe. He explained that the message is "to coordinate four camps with four different agendas and promote good Jewish values."

He said that while Jewish summer camp and religious school do share the same goals of educating and promoting a strong Jewish identity, camp is just more "experiential and engaging, which is probably why kids like it more than school."

But one of the main differences between summer camp and school -- aside from the homework, teachers, classrooms, backpacks, lockers and detention -- is the highly anticipated dining experience.

Schools provide a creative mix of the world's most unique ingredients and spices (a hamburger stew once graced my school's menu, driving me to temporary vegetarianism), while JCA Shalom offers the safe, reliable mac-and-cheese ... mmm. Thankful for the amazing quality I was served of this tasty dish, I didn't even need my occasional sip of Pepto-Bismol that I carry for potential emergencies. Easy on the mouth, and easy on the stomach. Camp food always seemed to satisfy and delight, because it doesn't try to impress ... it just tries to feed.

After the giant noshing session wrapped up, I wandered around watching bits and pieces of athletic outings going on around camp. Though each game was beautiful in its own way, I found the Jew vs. Jew basketball to be the most entertaining. There's nothing like watching a 4-foot kid get stuffed by a 5-foot kid.

However, in the midst of all the athleticism was the ever-prominent ruach -- that campy need to scream and cheer about who is the best. Regardless of which sport I watched, pockets of each camp surrounded the game. The only identifying feature was the colors each camp wore: red for Alonim, blue for Ramah, green for Hess Kramer and tie-dye for JCA Shalom. Chants both recently created and generations old were yelled back and forth between colors. The most common, perhaps was "We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how 'bout you?"

For most of the summer, this question plagues each camp as units and individuals compete for the hoarsest voice in camp. But today ... could that question be answered?

The world will never know.

JCA Shalom mascot, Ruach the Chicken -- an authority on the matter -- explained that his specialty lies in "motivating people, and that's really all it takes." But both Ruach and ruach are just the outer layer of the intricate camp experience. Beneath the costume, 11th-grader Steven Bishop explained that summer camp is the only time he can truly explore his Judaism.

"I don't do Shabbat at home, but when I'm here its amazing.... If I could go to a Shabbat like this every week, I would," Bishop saids.

JCA Shalom Camp Director Joel Charnick describes this Judaic haven as "quite possibly the only place where these kids can get in touch with their Judaism. By surrounding themselves with nature, they can create a closer connection to God."

This unique feature may be what brings kids back year after year, he explained.

And it's what brought all the camps together for the day.

"Despite our differences, all four camps have services on Friday night, and the similarities between the four camps greatly outweigh the differences," Charnick said.

As Intercamp Day concluded, campers and counselors gathered together, not for a trophy presentation, but for a mass Israeli dancing session. I watched in awe as these former strangers rejoiced in their religion and culture with such freedom. I tried to just sit back and watch, but their dancing was so inviting that I quickly gulped down some Pepto and joined right in.

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