Up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, getting high on life and Zionism

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, it rains every night. This I learned as I hunkered down in my bunk at Camp Judaea in Hendersonville, N.C., listening to the downpour from the warm, dry depths of my red sleeping bag.

It was 1994, and for a full month I was 500 miles from my family, sleeping in a strange bed, eating at a strange table — yet somehow, it felt like home. Thoughts of my parents and brother were far from my mind as I passed the golden days riding horses, sailing down the zip wire into the lake and gossiping with my friends. It was my first taste of freedom, at the age of 11, and I loved every Southern-fried minute of it.

The memories have been coming back in a rush while reading the recent Camp Swig reunion story in j. and putting together this week’s camp supplement. I spent only one summer at sleepaway camp, and maybe that’s why I can remember it so vividly. There was no decade of summers to run together — just that one brief, brilliant month.

I remember our trip to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; our Color War — I was on the Red Team and, if I may say so, kicked some serious butt in the Israel trivia contest (final answer: Rachel Blaustein); and our rikudiah (dancing), which was memorable mainly for one session during which I learned that the South, in addition to fried Oreos and sweet tea, also has a grocery store chain called Piggly Wiggly.

Although I grew up in Maryland, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I was the biggest Yankee in the place. I made friends with girls from Birmingham and Miami, from Greensboro, New Orleans and Atlanta. CJ was where I first became aware of the word “y’all.”

At CJ, one day I learned how to play jacks. Another day, I debated messianic theory with a girl from Miami named Dani. (Dani: “The problem, as I see it, is that we’d be way overpopulated.”)

We prayed in a wooden chapel tucked under tall pines and overlooking the lake; we had raucous renditions of Birkat HaMazon after dinner. On Tisha B’Av, we sat in a field and reflected.

Camp was great for being Jewish, but it was even better for being a Zionist. Israel was all around us — from the Hebrew we learned from our Israeli tzofim (scouts) at flagpole, to a song we sang that had the chorus of — no joke — “Ben-Gurion, Ben-Gurion, what a man and what a vision.”

There was archery and canoeing, too, all the accoutrements of a “regular” camp. But of course, this wasn’t a regular camp — here was a place where, walking through the gate on the first day, you could look around and know that already, everyone had something in common. Here was a place where we could all let loose and be proudly, unapologetically Jewish.

To be honest, I didn’t really need any of that. As a day school girl, I already lived, breathed and studied Jewish 10 months out of the year.

But CJ was different. At camp, I didn’t have to memorize prayers or do homework. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my school — but at camp, being Jewish and loving Israel was nothing but pure, joyous fun.

On the last night, my friends and I stayed up all night, swapping addresses and promising to write. As the sun rose, we dragged our stuffed duffels out of our cabins for the last time.

I’d love to say that I kept in touch with some of my camp friends. But once the bus went through the gates, we left the magic behind. There were a few random letters exchanged, but by fall, I had lost touch with them all.

A confluence of events the following summer meant that I never did go back to CJ. But I still think about it a lot — the bunk raids, the songs and ghost stories, the way the bright white cabins glistened in the pale early morning sun.

And sometimes, when I’m alone, I find myself humming under my breath. It’s been 14 years since I’ve heard the tune — but I’ll remember it forever. “Ben-Gurion, Ben-Gurion, what a man and what a vision.”

Rachel Freedenberg lives in Burlingame and is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].