A (ridiculously long) Ode to Camp

May 27, 2008


I’m finally figuring out why I might be having some small breakdown about the three month stretch of summer ahead of me: It’s the first time since I came to college that I won’t be working at camp. This may not seem like a big deal to readers who have never been to or worked at camp, especially my camp, but this is an extremely difficult transition for me. Camp has basically been my summer for the past two years. It matured me. It changed the way I see and work with kids. It changed the way I see Judaism. It basically led to me going to Israel. It led to my current debate about my future career. It gave me incredible friends from around the world. It’s weird to think about how the whole kind of started on a whim. (I smell a flashback brewing….)

One day freshman year I was sitting around contemplating my summer. Sitting at home in Ohio working retail didn’t seem to much fun, and I wasn’t going to be able to return to the job I’d had the previous summer working at a children’s theater downtown. I think I was watching (as sad as it seems) MTV’s documentary special “Fat Camp” when I started thinking that working at a camp would be kind of fun. (It’s a shameful source of inspiration, I know.) I’d never gotten to go to “Jew Camp” as a kid, which is slightly bizarre for a young Jewish kid. Going to camp in the Jewish community is a pretty accepted right of passage. It’s so ubiquitous (yeah, I just pulled out some college level vocab) that during my sorority recruitment, the Jewish house on campus had a camp-themed night, assuming anyone serious about joining their sorority had that shared experience. I came close once, but a botched attempt at attending a YMCA camp in 5th grade put me off the idea for a while.

But I digress, after running the idea by my mom, I started to apply to JCC (that’s Jewish Community Center for you gentiles out there) run camps within driving distance of my house. I had a few interviews, but finally landed on the JCC in Cleveland’s camp as my first choice. Not only was it the closest camp to me, but they way the directors described it during my interview gave me chills. When I asked what made each camp special during my interviews, most directors explained about their killer facilities or their complex activities system, but what Meredith and Jodi (my soon to be bosses) described was the energy their camp had. They explained that when all the kids stood up cheering at lunch or sang together in their sprit circle (which sounds waaay more corny that is it, because what it is is just awesome) there was this intense, contagious spirit that everyone possessed, that made even the most difficult of kids want to stand up and cheer, that made you forget about how you looked or the fact that it was raining and made you just want to have the best time possible. They could not have been more right:

(An attempt to show spirit circle in all its glory)

So I excitedly accepted a position as a general counselor for the summer of ’06. When I got to camp for the first time, my excitement deflated a bit. Basically everyone who worked there had been attending slash working at camp for most of their lives. People who were new like me were generally foreign staff. I got asked about 10 times a day “So, why are you here?” It was weird and awkward and a bit like moving. I felt very out of place and grew worried that I had made a terrible decision. How could I fit into a group that had been forming without me for most of my life?

Then the campers arrived and slowly, everything changed. Things became much more about the kids than about the counselors. I suddenly had things to discuss with everyone I couldn’t make conversation with before through the shared experience of shaping these kids’ summer. I was placed in a cabin with two other staff members and 12 13-year-old girls. I could not have asked for a better cabin for my first session. The girls LIVED for camp, and quickly taught me everything I needed to know to get by. They taught me village cheers, they prepared me for Macabia (our 28 hour color war, aka the biggest day of camp), and helped me get through my first spirit circle. As things fell into place with the kids, everyone with the staff got easier. I made friends with the staff in my village and soon, I felt like I’d been there forever, standing on my chair at lunch singing about prunes (loonnnggg weird explanation for that one) and toasted cheese. It slowly became the perfect job. I got to play all day, getting free tennis and rock climbing lessons in the process. I got to spend my Saturdays tanning by the pool with my best friend Sharon, and I got paid to do it! I got paid to act like a kid, while having actual responsibility. I had to take a kid to the hospital and break up fights. That doesn’t sound like fun, but I felt useful and important and helpful. Kids never look more grateful than when you kill a spider for them or give them a snack. By the end of the summer, I knew I had to come back.

I applied to be the drama instructor for the summer of ’07, just to change it up and get a new experience. I was a little nervous about the new job and the fact that some of my best friends weren’t returning to camp, but Sharon would be there, so I figured I’d get by. (Sharon is a bit of a social butterfly, and by a bit, I mean she is literally friends with everyone at camp despite that fact that she started when I did…) I got to camp for staff week and immediately bonded with the lovely Sarah Mac. (who I inspired to blog. Score!) Instantly I knew the summer would not only be as great as the last summer, it may just cross over into legen- wait for it-dary territory.

I could not have been more right. Sarah, Sharon and I formed another instant bond with Lillian, a staffer from England, and I became great friends with Lindsey, a camp lifer who took off summer ’06, so who was new to me:

Sharon attempting to stuff fries up my nose

(Sharon attempting to stuff fries up my nose on a night out. Clearly, we have a bond.)

(Things turn ugly)

(But I clearly gain the upper hand.)

(Lillian, Sarah, Sharon, and I saying our favorite phrase: Hazzah!)

(Lindsey and I in NYC after camp)

Basically, camp was the same (aka fabulously fun), but I had even better friends, taking everything to a whole other level. Plus, I loved my new job. I got to direct two productions (High School Musical first session – you know you are jealous that my extensive knowledge of the HSM dance moves actually helped my job – and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown second), and I recently found out that my drama cabin activities were voted one of the top 10 cabin activities in camp. Everyone loves some improv games.

It is so hard to explain what makes camp so special. Yes, I loved my job teaching drama, but that was only one aspect of what made my summer special. I’ll try to explain with some specific stories:

1) One night after stopping by the pool for a staff swimming event, Sarah, Lillian, and I walked out onto the large rec field in the middle of camp, and after doing some cartwheels and impromptu dancing, we all laid down with our heads together and just stared up at the ridiculously clear sky and talked about how cool it was that three girls from three different countries could be sitting in the middle of nowhere Ohio together forming this amazing friendship. Where else does this happen? I’ll probably remember that forever.

2) First session, I was chosen to be a captain of one of the five Macabia teams. This is a HUGE honor. Really. It shows that the directors of camp and the judges of that particular Macabia (other staff members chosen by the directors) think you can take on the task of being responsible for a fifth of the camp for a day, inspiring them to have tons spirit, to give this day all they have, and to make it the best day of camp for them. After being violently awoken by Sarah in the middle of the night and made to walk to the center of camp blindfolded, I was so excited to learn I had been picked. The next 28 hours were some of the most tiring of my life. I screamed. I ran miles around camp. I jumped and yelled and waved our Shrek flag high (yeah, we were the Green Shrek team of the animated movie themed Macabia). I wasn’t so focused on winning as I was on making sure my kids had a great time. My co-captain was pretty focused on winning. (He had one of the best win records in camp, apparently). Well, the afternoon of Macabia is capped off by a giant relay race called The Great Race. The race ends with the captains building a fire to burn through a rope, and when the rope burns, the entire team runs to the flagpole and freaks out. Well, my co-captain and I completely owned at fire building and built basically the fastest fire in the history of camp.

(Suck it rope. You’re going down.)

When our fire burned through the rope, I took off as fast as I could toward the flag pole where my entire team screamed and cheered for a good 20 minutes. I didn’t think the day could get much better until I stood in front of the stage in front of the entire camp, holding my co-captain’s hand, thinking we couldn’t win since we had won the Great Race – it’s a camp myth you can’t win the Great Race AND win all of Macabia – when the judges turned their pitchers upside down and poured water all over me. (See, the judges each stand behind each pair of captains with two pitchers. One pitcher contains something different then the others, and that is the one of the winning team. In our case, all the pitchers were empty except for the ones above us, which, as I said before, had water in them) At first I thought I was being hit with water from the team beside me, but then it hit me as my entire team flipped the hell out. I then took off running again toward the pool, completely high on excitement. As per camp tradition, the judges and captains always run into the pool fully clothed at the end of Macabia. I broke my not-water-proof watch in the process of pool jumping, but was totally worth it. It was one of the best moments of my summer.

3) Second session, my fellow cabin staffers and I wanted to do something special for our girls, so we bought each of them a charm to make into a special cabin bracelet. The thing was, they each had to give their charm to someone else who had inspired or influenced them in the cabin. We figured the girls would do well with the activity, but even I was surprised by some of the things they said about each other. When a camper who I had in my cabin both sessions got to give away her charm, she gave it to me, saying I had helped her have one of the best summers of her life. How can you not have a good night after that? I still have that charm on a necklace I wear all the time.

I have so many more of these stories, but I fear for anyone who has read this far into the post already. Basically, I’m having a tough time this summer, because I know, even if I was going back, it wouldn’t be the same. My campers are in their last year, and I probably wouldn’t get to be with them again. My best friends aren’t going back, and a lot of the younger staff are taking over the camp. I can’t go back. I know that, but I can’t seem to get over the fact that I won’t get more stories this summer. I won’t get to run outside throwing ketchup all over a crazy group of kids or see an alpaca jump over a bench. (Yeah, this really happened.)

(This woman became our idol. Everything she wore was made out of alpaca hair, and she named this alpaca Intrepid. Plus she rolled up in a minivan with him in the back.)

I won’t get to help someone have the best summer of their life. I’ll get to sit in class, and run errands for adults – adults who will not appreciate what I’m doing nearly as much as those kids. It’s so hard to realize that people may look at my resume some day and think I wasted my summers not getting internships or “real jobs,” not knowing that I gained more real world experience, more leadership training, and more maturity at camp then I EVER could have gotten at an internship – something I learned quickly this past semester.

All that is getting me through the summer is thinking about how I’ll see Lindsey in NYC in a few weeks, and that I’m flying to freakin’ AUSTRALIA in December to see Sharon and Sarah. Camp continues to enhance and enrich my life in amazing ways, and how can I really be sad about that?

I commend anyone who has read this entire thing. Kudos. You have a lot of free time. (But really, I appreciate your interest…) To anyone who has kids, think about sending them to camp. It’s amazing and crazy, and like I said, truly life-changing. And to anyone looking for a summer job, I think I’ve made my case.

So…anyone else got any good camp stories?



  1. Stephanie Klein just came out with a new book, a memoir actually. It’s titled MOOSE: A MEMOIR OF FAT CAMP. I’m already halfway through (and she also mentions going to Jew camp), and I absolutely LOVE IT. Reading it makes me think about traditions and makes me savor and appreciate all those little things we all love about camp. It’s definitely a great read. BTW, I did get through your whole post, and I’m jealous over Australia!

  2. @Ali: I commend you for getting through the post 🙂 I’ll definitely have to check out that book, and I still can’t believe I’m going to Australia. I’m really excited!

  3. i actually cried twice in this post. no lie. i have no words to tell you how grateful i am just to have you in my life.

    that night on the ohalim rec field will be my favourite memory for the rest of my life. we are so so blessed.

    you. me. australia. you’re coming. its going to be ridiculous. love you so much.

  4. oh.. AND..best post ever. i read it twice. fantastic..

  5. @Sarah Only you could read that twice! Or really appreciate it. You have no idea how hard it is going to be to get through the summer without you…or wait, you do, since you have to do it too 😦 Wah wah…

    Anyway, you are amazing, and Australia is going to be amazing! When I get there, can we go have a picnic, stand on benches and sing in hebrew, just for old times sake?

  6. yes yes and HECK YES. i just read your blog to my mum HAHA! and i cried.. and then she cried.. jeez we’re lame. there is a park and a bench near my apartment and i have portable speakers… SALAAAMMMMM… its happening…baruch hashem for you my darling american BF….

  7. hahaha i am a socail butterfly!
    love of pictures of the fry incident part 1 (meaing to be continued)
    and very glad that you came to camp and can NOT wait for december
    brown you suck, but alteast you rock at sucking
    love love you

  8. […] “ridiculously long” tribute to the most classic of summer jobs. [In […]

  9. i LOVED going to the JCC!!! the newton one was a mile away from my house in needham. fun times! lol the one thing I was always jealous of my jewish friends was Teen Tours. I wish my parents sent me to Rodeo Drive with a credit card and called it ‘summer camp’!

    glad you’re coming to the Bloggah Happy Hour!

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