(photo from teenlife.com/summer-program/urj-camp-kalsman)
Going to camp was a rite of passage when I was growing up. Everybody went to camp. In my day, it was the B’nai B’rith camp that all Jewish kids went to, in Sandy Hook, past Winnipeg Beach.
I don’t recall much detail of my really young days as a camper, but we never missed a summer. As small kids, we went with our mothers. It all had to do with getting away from the oppressive summer heat and time at the beach, wading and swimming, sunning on a blanket, playing the games on the boardwalk. I would have an ice cream cone every day, even though, back then, all you could get were vanilla and strawberry flavours. There may have been chocolate, too.
I enrolled in Young Judaea in my early teens. In the heady days leading up to and after Israel declared its independence, movements of every political stripe in Israel had a youth group and camps in Canada and in the United States.
At camp, we built our Jewish consciousness and reinforced our Jewish identity. We were part of larger society, of course, but the one that was becoming central to our lives was the Jewish one, and the camp experience strengthened all that. Everything around our activities focused on our life as Jews, intellectually and emotionally, in our developing teen years. It was easy to pick out the future leaders – assertive, confident, basing their arguments on material accepted as fact. That was the stuff we brought forward into our adult years, colouring what we would become and the messages we would transmit to our children.
Aliyah to Israel was an enormous focus of the Zionist camps I associated with. This possibility, went the argument, was why we had to study our history, our customs, our holidays. We were building a new kind of Jew, unapologetic for his striving nature, determined to never again be a victim. History’s lessons were clear and we had to take heed and take our future into our own hands. The camps I attended were the educational vehicle.
In those days, we pretended we were chalutzim (pioneers), so we went out into the bush and made like we were going to live off the land. We built lean-tos to sleep under, chopped down trees, built things, learned how to make a campfire even without matches, and engaged in marches, canoeing, the whole megillah.
The years I spent as a camper – learning to be a scout, learning to create things with my hands, to develop myself physically, to compete for excellence – we were modeling the new Jew. We were not content with just being students, we knew we could do that – we were going to be doers. We were building pride in ourselves and in our accomplishments.
In turn, I became one of the leaders trying to transmit the messages I had absorbed to others. The young people I grew up with at camp worked in their own communities in the same way. All across the country and across the United States, we were a network fighting assimilation, building loyalty to Israel and a consciousness of being Jewish and the values it represented.
One of the best experiences I had was when I was invited to be a Camp Shalom program director in Gravenhurst, Ont. I spent six months preparing programs and then threw them all out on my second day on the job. I spent the next two months preparing different programs on the fly, built around Jewish holidays or events in Jewish history. We organized camper teams, choosing names, uniforms and cheers, and had athletic competitions, colour wars, talent competition skits, swimming competitions or just fun at the beach. I don’t know about the campers, but I had a great time exploring my creative capacities. We set up a pattern that was followed for years at that camp.
Some of us became community leaders. A few of us even got to Israel, at least for a time. Many of the associations we made have withstood the test of time. Some of the best friendships I have today are ones I made in those years. A good number of marriages came out of those experiences, including one of my own.
What a wonderful institution camps are, whatever their nature! Bringing kids into a healthful environment with responsible supervision, living lives completely different from what they are accustomed to, meeting people they would not normally meet, exposing them to alternative behavioural norms, has to be good. And getting away from the city into a natural environment, who has to be convinced that that is a good thing? Let’s hear it for camp days. Rah, rah, rah!
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.