Camp connections

I’m sitting on the sidelines of a basketball court crowded with campers. Counselors strumming acoustic guitars weave through the bodies, while the song leader perches onstage at one end of the court.

I survey the scene. The sun has dipped below the horizon so I can’t quite see what I just scribbled in my notebook. Then, an interruption.

“Are you seriously taking notes right now?”

I look up, slightly embarrassed by my overt professionalism in a place where flip-flops are considered fancy.

Jon Fisch, 23, a counselor, meets my gaze. He extends his hand and says, “Come on, dance.”

Minutes later, much to my surprise, I learn that my brain — which often can’t store what I did yesterday — remembers all the steps to popular Israeli dances such as “Od lo ahavti dai” and “Zodiac.”

And just like that, I’m back at camp.

When I arrive at Camp Newman near Santa Rosa with a reporter’s notebook and a camera, people ask me: What, specifically, is your story about?

“I don’t know,” I tell them. I didn’t know when I first arrived how I’d craft a tale of 24 hours at overnight camp.

Then I get it. I get the feeling that Jewish overnight camp is the latest hope in a long line of Jewish communal hopes about how to connect with and cultivate a strong Jewish identity in the next generation.

So I decide to ask: Is it working?

You’d be convinced the answer is “yes” if you saw Newman’s Friday evening singing and dance session — a staple at Jewish sleep-away camps — when kids and counselors flood onto the basketball court and shake their groove thang.

“This is like a Jewish rave, without the drinking and drugs,” said Paul Kipnes, a rabbi in Calabasas, who teaches at Camp Newman in the summer. “They’re high on Shabbat.”

It never occurred to me to write a story about camp, or to visit camp for a story, until my editor wrote me an email with the subject line: “Want to go to camp?”

Since at 26 I’m the only j. staff writer who can easily pass for a 14-year-old, I wasn’t surprised that he asked me. And I liked the idea of spending Shabbat at Camp Newman, which is operated by the Union of Reform Judaism.

When I was a teenager, I spent three summers at two B’nai B’rith camps, first in Wisconsin and then in Pennsylvania. Those summers helped me grow into a confident, outgoing and open-minded person who embraced Judaism and myself with pride.

I wondered: Does camp still have that affect on kids?

Jewish educators told me yes. Ruben Arquilevich, Newman’s director, boasted that 96 percent of parents surveyed reported that their children came home with greater enthusiasm for their faith.

Still, I had to see for myself.

Within minutes of my arrival, the senior staffers pull me into their “peace circle.” It’s how they start Shabbat. Underneath a canopy of grapevines, we sway back and forth to the rhythm of an acoustic guitar.

The campers file into the Beit T’Filah just as the air begins to cool. The sanctuary is built into a gentle slope in the woods. Most of the girls wear white bohemian dresses in honor of welcoming “the Sabbath bride.” They look happy and refreshed. I guess it’s the first time all week that they’re scrubbed clean of camp’s sweat and grime.

Shabbat is easy to love. And yet, in the secular culture where most American Jews live, we seldom observe it in its true form. But at camp, I remember why Shabbat is so special and why we, as Jews, are lucky to have a weekly holiday and all the rituals that go with it.

Shabbat comes alive at camp: On Friday night, all 600 campers and staff pray together, and on Saturday morning, campers daven in more intimate, age-appropriate groups.

Maybe it’s the hot summer air, the scent of pine, the chirping of birds. But being outside transforms Shabbat prayers. They have a velocity, a movement that — for me — is impossible to capture inside a sanctuary.

When I stand for the Sh’ma, my eyes water. I close them to focus on the prayer and blink back the tears.

I decide that when I leave the bubble of camp, I’ll check with camp alumni to find out what experience sticks with them the most.

“Shabbat is a tangible, visceral experience at camp,” says Ron Schneidermann, 29, during a subsequent telephone interview.

Schneidermann grew up in Walnut Creek, at a time when the Jewish community was not as visible or vibrant as it is today. His parents, both Israeli, raised him in a “fairly nonobservant household.” But they did send him to Camp Ramah in Ojai, a place that introduced him to a kind of Judaism he connected with.

“I always hated going to temple when I was a kid, and I kind of still do. But that’s what’s so nice about camp. It’s not the drudgery of sitting down to pray,” he said. “You feel like you’re a part of something that’s bigger than just you, and when you’re a teenager, that’s pretty powerful.”

Camp also connected him with a girl, Jenny Sanderson, whom he married three years ago, more than a decade after they first met at Ramah.

Of course, camp is not a panacea: not everyone grows from a camp experience and embraces Judaism. But it happens.

Camp succeeds in part because, Judaism aside, it builds strong friendships.

I have no scientific evidence to support that claim. Just stories. Throughout my visit to Newman, teens and their adult staff tell me about their best friends from camp. The adolescents explain that no one “gets them” like their camp friends. Rabbis and educational staffers tell me they still keep in touch with their camp friends after 10, 20, 30 years.

I stop writing down those observations. It gets too repetitive. I hear them, I nod in understanding, but the comments begin to sound like clichés. Where have I heard this before? Oh, yeah. From my own head.

“The friends” is exactly what my answer would be if a journalist asked me what I loved most about camp. My camp friends are some of my best, to this day, and also one of the reasons I moved to San Francisco last year.

Those who go to camp share experiences that only their bunkmates can understand. For example, mealtime.

“Do you think these are real chicken fingers or fake chicken fingers?” asks Sandra Kurek, 17, of Stockton. She looks at the boy sitting across from her, then down, dubiously, at the breaded discs on her plate.

The boy wrinkles his nose. They discuss the strange texture of these particular nuggets, which are not as good as the ones they had last summer (and the five before that).

I agree to lend my opinion to their taste test.

“This is definitely chicken,” I say, slightly uncomfortable with the mushiness of said chicken. I’m relieved I opted for vegetarian chili.

Kurek laughs and decides to get peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead. Afterward, the campers say the Birkat Hamazon (after-meal prayer), and I join them, my memory reminding me to bang on the cafeteria-style tables at exactly the right time.

Mystery meat and various other gastrointestinal adventures are a universal camp experience, and, while not explicitly Jewish, bond campers together.

Of course, it’s not always an instant connection. Kurek, who’s a counselor-in-training this summer, remembers hating her first summer at camp. I hated mine, too. Now she can’t imagine her life without the friends she’s made there. Me neither.

“I think, though, that it’s important to have that experience of feeling like an outsider and figuring out your way in,” she tells me. “At this point, it’s harder to go home [than come to camp] because you’ve changed a lot while your other friends haven’t.”

Friendship and Judaism are treated with equal reverence at camp, as they should be, says Rabbi Reuven Taff. He spent more summers than he can count at a Jewish camp near his hometown of Albany, N.Y., then almost a decade at Camp Ramah, where he served as the musical director.

I call Taff at his office in Sacramento’s only Conservative synagogue, Mosaic Law. He tells me about his summers at overnight camp.

“Relationships are just as important as the Jewish learning and living experience,” he says.

So how long does the fairy dust of summer camp stick around after kids return home? That’s hard to measure.

“Kids at camp are immersed in a totally Jewish environment, and they come back from camp with a tremendous enthusiasm,” Taff says. “That influence is felt on the community. If someone’s Jewish identity becomes stronger because of Jewish camping experience, then the Jewish community becomes stronger.”

When we hang up, I check if Google can help me find any statistical evidence. I find a 2004 study of 1,300 Jews in the Los Angeles area. According to that survey, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camping, 66 percent of those who attended Jewish camps considered their Jewish identity “very important,” as opposed to 29 percent among those who never attended Jewish camp.

Given that information, Taff tells me it makes sense that Jewish educators increasingly are incorporating elements of the camp experience into their synagogue programming.

“You can’t duplicate a Jewish camp experience, but we can try to take from the experience and apply it to synagogue programming,” he says.

On Sept. 29, his congregation will celebrate the construction of a new, giant sukkah by having a congregational slumber party. People will bring sleeping bags, pillows and snacks. They’ll gather first for Havdallah, participate in various programs throughout the evening and share breakfast and prayer in the morning.

In San Rafael, Rabbi Noa Kushner of Congregation Rodef Sholom subscribes to the same school of thought as Taff. She attended several Jewish camps as a child, as did her husband, Rabbi Michael Lezak.

I run into Kushner in the camp director’s kitchen at Newman, where she’s feeding her three daughters rapidly melting ice cream sandwiches.

“There’s no place better at building Jewish identity than at camp,” she says. “We know that’s what makes active Jews.”

Like Taff, Kushner and Lezak are also reaching back into their bag of camp memories. This year, they’re launching an as-yet-unnamed program with help from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. The program will enlist families with young children, teenage children and grown children. They’ll be divided accordingly, and throughout the year they’ll gather for weekend retreats that incorporate what Kushner says are the primary elements of a powerful camp experience: ritual, friendship and nature.

She says it’s also important that teachers be skilled at both formal and informal education, just like a camp counselor or song leader.

“We want people to experience Judaism in a deep and meaningful way,” she says. “To do that, we need a time commitment, we need to live Jewishly together. It can’t be in a vacuum.”

Even when people leave camp, it doesn’t always leave them.

“I tried to let it go,” says Ari Vared, 23. He’s at Camp Newman for his 13th summer, this time as a paid employee. Vared is directing the Avodah program, an intensive eight-week program rooted in community service and social justice.

We sit at a shaded picnic table. He sweats in the afternoon sun. The heat makes him look simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated.

He tells me that last summer he felt “it was time to grow up.” The Moraga native secured an internship at a Silicon Valley tech company. He had one year left at Washington University in St. Louis. He felt he needed a summer internship to enter the business world after graduation.

“It was everything I thought I wanted, but I wasn’t happy. Something was missing,” he says. “Camp is where I found my Judaism. This place makes me the best I can be. Why would you not always want to be in a place where you’re always developing as a person? This job is about me having a passion for my work.”

I nod vigorously. I understand what he’s saying because my passion — journalism — is also my work.

Vared is not the only person with such a story. Ryley Share, 25, a Camp Tawonga alum, spent a few years post-college working at a nonprofit. But last fall, she signed up to work for Tawonga full time.

Share grew up in a not-very-Jewish suburb of Phoenix. She didn’t like wearing a Star of David because it separated her from so many of her peers, and she lacked a deep understanding of what “being Jewish” really meant.

She spent her first two weeks at Tawonga, near Yosemite National Park, in 1993. She was only 11, but remembers thinking that if she could have stayed the entire summer, she would have.

“I really truly believe that, while of course my parents were amazing, Tawonga gave me something that the community I grew up in just couldn’t do,” she says during a telephone interview.

“My Jewish life in some ways is intangible,” she adds. “I can’t say I go to temple every week, or give you a list of specific Jewish things I do. Judaism is so intertwined in all that I do, in my beliefs and values and morals, how I live life, choosing a Jewish partner. That may not have happened had I not developed a strong sense of Judaism at camp.”

Back at Newman, on Saturday morning I meet Hannah Reff, a student at U.C. Davis and an 11-year veteran of the camp. She has thick red hair and skin that looks worthy of SPF 100.

She tells me she loves camp. She’s happy to be back, and happy that her decision to return has turned out to be a good one. This year, Reff is in charge of the counselors-in-training, who are entering their senior year of high school.

I spend most of Shabbat with them, and am touched by how they welcome me into their team-building activities and Havdallah circle. Together we sway, right, then left, then right again, wishing for a good week, a week of peace. Shavua Tov.

Shabbat is ending and I will soon be back in the city. Ten summers earlier, I stood in a Havdallah circle at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in the Poconos Mountains. And while I may not practice the kind of Jewish living I learned at camp, I will always carry with me camp’s ruach and vibrancy — throughout my life and in my heart.

Nearby overnight camps

B’nai B’rith Camp, Neotsu, Ore. (541) 994-2218,

Camp Ramah, Ojai. (805) 646-4301,

Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite National Park. (415) 543-2267,

Camp Newman, Santa Rosa. (707) 571-7657,

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.